Local Society

New arrivals are keen to showcase their talents

The Community Hall in Ballyhaunis was brimming recently with talent to celebrate International Women’s Day.

On the stage, Ukrainian dance troupe, Romanian classical guitarist playing lead, a Filipino adding rhythm and vocals alongside a German soprano. A Lithuanian singer Aretha Franklin’s “You Make Me Feel Like a Woman”. The acts are introduced by the hostess, Ludmilla Burcovschi, an accomplished classical musician and organist at Ballyhaunis parish church who came to Ireland as a refugee from Moldova over two decades ago.

Down the back of the hall trestle tables are laden with cake sweetened with poppy seed, plated next to Slavic-styled hors d’oeuvres of cold meat and smoked fish.

Such a multinational display of cultural and culinary talent seemed to bring the world for an evening to an East Mayo town. Among those directing the show is Maria Korsakova, a blonde middle-aged Ukrainian who spent the evening guiding others onto the stage, then moving between the seating and the tables laden with food.

She finished the evening dressed like a flamenco dancer for a dance routine with half a dozen other Ukrainian women that drew perhaps the loudest applause of the evening.

Even as it showcased the cultural talent of the locally based migrants and refugees the Ballyhaunis event also showcased the frustrations of many whose professional lives have been sundered and left in limbo.

After two years of living in hotels and rental accommodation some shared frustrations about trying to find meaningful new lives while coping with constant anxiety of loved ones in a war zone.

Some migrants are stuck in a half-way house, having nothing to go back to but struggling to localise their skills and qualifications. Living in the McWilliam Park Hotel in Claremorris, Korsakova is seeking to transfer her experience and know-how in corporate marketing to the Irish workplace.

At an event she organised in Claremorris to mark the second anniversary of the invasion of her country, Korsakova recounted nightmarish weeks in Chernihiv, a city of 300,000 near the Russian border which saw some of the heaviest fighting early in the invasion.

Escaping from a darkened city deprived of power, water and transport, Korsakova got her two children to Ireland but pines for elderly parents left behind.

For now she busies herself organising events and helping fellow Ukrainians with translations. “The main point is to help people settle.”

Qualifications recognition is the first, most obvious stumbling block. It’s hard to imagine that in Ukraine, you were a business owner, a doctor, a psychologist, an actor, and here you’re nobody; here, you have to start from scratch.

A mother of two, Korsakova has started on the process by enrolling as a part-time student at Southeast Technological University (Waterford). 

Ukrainians make up 17% of the population of Claremorris. A community creative group coordinated by Korsakova has participated in five local concerts and festivals.

“In my Ukrainian community Telegram [social media] channel, where I’m an administrator, I explain what opportunities there are in Ireland, what job fairs are happening in Castlebar and Galway. I have a lot of experience with social media, and I know how a message works.”

Korsakova believes the natives, seeing Ukrainians as temporary interlopers rather than part of the community, have not sought to engage the talents of the new arrivals. “Locals assist us materially, provide social services, but it’s not the same as being accepted into society. I’m talking about everything here. That includes work, housing, and just inviting someone over or becoming a friend, mentor or partner.”

Her tireless outreach and organising helps bring Ukrainians in touch with local society. But Korsakova hopes that networking and mutual support among Ukrainians will in time lead to business as well as cultural collaboration. “We are supporting each other in new endeavours, building connections,” she offers.

The frustrations of being forced from a comfortable commercial career and urban lifestyle are also felt by Anastasia Nikitas, a 38-year-old who came to Ireland with her two children from the Russian occupied city of Mariupol where she was head of sales at a construction materials company supplying cement to the region. “I dealt with the customers, I managed the marketing, organised logistics.”

Getting that kind of work in rural Mayo – she lives near Ballyhaunis – hasn’t been possible. Her educational qualifications, from Pryazovsky State Technical University, are “like zero” in Ireland, said Nikitas.

After escaping Mariupol, Nikitas spent a year spent at Esker Monastery, the former Redemptorist property near Athenry currently occupied by 200 Ukrainians. It wasn’t difficult to find casual work locally: In a single day she went from tending horses in a farm near Athenry to working a shift at the Supermacs Plaza (near Athenry) before doing an evening milk of 220 dairy cows.

After two years in Ireland she’s clearly seeking a return of some kind to the career sundered by war. Nikitas again wants to work again in a job that matches her qualifications and feels many other Ukrainians – with engineering, financial and medical skills – feel the same. After two years of moving between temporary accommodation and temporary jobs “I want the feeling like I am at home,” she said.

She has sought out local qualifications. “When we arrived many local volunteers helped us learn and practise our English. Then I met a college lecturer and they said I can try to study level five.” Nikitas took her Post Leaving Cert (PLC) level 5 course in business and IT at Clarin College in Athenry.

She’s currently studying for a level six qualification in business administration and seeking an 80-hour internship in a local business, a requirement of her programme, where she’d practise basic administration. Finding that internship in Ballyhaunis has proven difficult.

“Some people don’t want to work but many people cannot find work. If I finish my level five or six courses and I send my CV theirs is a minimum chance that I can get a normal job, I feel. That is sad for me.”

The way Nikitas sees it, well-qualified Ukrainian people can only find work cooking and cleaning. Two days ago I spoke with a man in the monastery [in Athenry]. I said ‘one year and ten months ago we came to Ireland, who now has a normal job, like they had back home?’ Only two people out of the 200 in the monastery have a normal job matching their qualifications. One woman works in Intreo in Galway and one man is working as a truck driver.”

In between worrying about her family – her husband, an engineer, is in the central Ukrainian city of Zaporizhia – Nikitas spends her time studying. Living in rural Ballyhaunis is quiet for a city person and finding a car locally to take her children to and from school gives her something to prioritise. Life however continues to move on. Like other Ukrainians she’s allowed to drive in Ireland. “But my Ukrainian driving license runs out in August.”

Migrants struggle to localise their skills but many have succeeded and see lots of opportunity in Mayo. Among them Romanian classically trained musician Andrei Cristian Chiujdea who is planning to open a music school for the East Mayo area.

“I used to have a day job during Covid as a plumber, but at the moment I am in the process of opening Ballyhaunis School of Music, so people from Ballyhaunis and the surrounding areas would have access to professionally trained music educators. Considering there is a void in the area for such a thing, I taught this will bring a great contribution to the local community.”

Chiujdea, who speaks with a broad west of Ireland accent, has found support from local and national agencies. “For people in my situation, I would advise to seek help from organisations and programs like Local Enterprise Office, Mayo Arts Office, Back to Work Business Enterprise Benefit and so on. There is a lot of help available around, they just need to seek it.”

Aghamore-based Chiujdea has a degree in guitar performance. “But I can also play piano and bass to a decent standard and, at amateur level, I can play drums, cajon, thin whistle, fiddle, harmonica, pretty much anything that makes a sound!”

His skills are already appreciated in a local group called Le Cairde made up of Irish-born musicians and talented immigrants like him. A regular gig at the Clock bar in the town is a chance to play for a local audience.

Being part of the local community matters to Chiujdea. “The thing I like the most about being part of Le Cairde would be the involvement within the community. Before Covid, I use to gig around the 32 counties with various bands, but I never had the sense of belonging and being part of something, like I do now by playing music with this group of beautiful people.”

Lenka Šmidová Valach is another immigrant bringing cultural life to East Mayo while also enjoying a satisfying career locally. The Slovakian native teaches a salsa and bachata class every Wednesday evening at the Arts Centre in Charlestown.

After moving to Ireland in 2011 Valach started a social care degree in 2014 at GMIT which has since led to a role as job coach for people with disabilities at the employability service in Sligo. “It’s very satisfying.” 

Like many other migrants Valach had to start from scratch in Ireland, first taking English courses to reach level 5 certified under the Quality and Qualifications Ireland (QQI), formerly FETAC, the minimum standard accepted by Irish third level institutions for entry by students who haven’t come through the Leaving Cert system. She then went on to social care studies at Galway Mayo Institute of Technology (GMIT), now the Atlantic Technology University.

A dancer since childhood in her native Slovakia, Valach has embraced salsa since 2015. “I spent four months in Madrid after going there on a study trip with my class at the GMIT (now ATU).

Her husband – who she met at a salsa class in Castlebar – “I never met a salsa dancer in Slovakia!” – works as an accountant for Kilkelly based construction firm KenAidan. The couple own their own home in Charlestown.

Valach sees under-utilised or disengaged talent in immigrant communities all around Mayo, some of the inertia due to language barriers and an inability to transfer qualifications. “It’s a shame. There is so much talent which could be utilized.” She has seen nurses coming from Ukraine who are starting here with level 5 healthcare support.

She encourages migrants to integrate by immersing themselves in English. “We don’t watch Slovak TV at home. But we have friends living here who are only watching Polish TV and radio. And they don’t go to high level jobs.”

In Ballindine meanwhile Andrea Pan and her husband Manuel have transitioned to good jobs – but it took several years. With a degree in law, Andrea left Buenos Aires and her job as a customer manager for a multinational company – she previously lectured at a local university – for Ireland.

“In my case, migrating was a choice; I wanted to experience living in a new country, broaden my perspective, and, of course, learn the language, which I’ve never been entirely comfortable with,” she explained.

Without the level of English required to transfer into her previous profession, Pan worked in Cork as a cleaner. “… I knew it was something I would have to face, so I started with jobs that didn’t require a high level of English. I began working as a cleaner. The biggest challenge I faced in this was the shift in identity; I had to question who I was when some of the things that I thought defined me were no longer there: my profession, my job, the way I expressed myself to connect with people…”

“I spent a year and a half working in cleaning, wondering how I would fare in an interview for a job more related to my qualifications when sometimes even in simple interactions, I struggled to express myself fluently in English.”

Her English teacher’s advice prompted Pan to “take risks” and apply for the kind of jobs she did back in Argentina. “He emphasized that during interviews, I could showcase my problem-solving skills, and that interviewers would look beyond language proficiency to see my potential. He stressed the importance of embracing interviews as opportunities for practice and growth.”

She put a lot of effort to preparation, even anticipating potential interview questions and rehearsing responses in front of the mirror. Eventually she was recruited by GoConqr, an Irish online platform for educational resources, as a customer manager and content creator. “Since it is a remote job, it provided me with the chance to live in the countryside and deeply engage with Irish culture, fulfilling a long-held dream.”

Pan quotes American writer Joseph Campbell to summarize her experience: ‘The cave you fear to enter holds the treasure you seek.’ We may never feel 100 percent confident in a new language, and that’s scary, but it’s worth taking the risk to show everything we have to offer to the place that welcomes us with open arms.”

Pan’s experience may offer courage and inspiration to other skilled migrants struggling to find their way into a meaning professional track in Mayo. Going back to Ukraine isn’t a short-term prospect for Maria Korsakova, thus she seeks to make a life in Ireland even as she worries daily about her soldier brother and other family back home. “In the longer term I would like to stay in Ireland. That doesn’t mean I will never go back. Ukraine is my mother land.”

Returning to Mariupol similarly isn’t an option right now for Anastasia Nikitas. “I can’t return because our city is occupied.” But worse: an apartment purchased by Nikitas and her husband just before the war has been flattened – the nine-storey apartment block – in the fighting. Her 72 year old mother and 91 year old grandmother remain in Mariupol, under Russian occupation. “We don’t know if we go back if it’ll be a Ukrainian city.”

As she seeks her way to a meaningful local job Korsakova busies herself helping others adjust. “I help people adapt; together we build connections with the local world. I teach people how to live here, today and now. Not to complain, not to talk about the past, not to cry every day watching the news or learning about the death of a loved one. There are many challenges, but I believe Ukrainians are strong.”

At the Women’s Day show in Ballyhaunis meanwhile local organisers appreciate the cultural value the immigrants and refugees bring to local life. “There is amazing potential in Ballyhaunis,” explained Breege Keogh, who sings in the multinational Le Cairde group which also organised the Women’s Day event. Holding such events allows new arrivals to showcase their talents but also to integrate: “it’s not easy for them, it takes a while for them to enter the local community but they are getting there,” Keogh explained. 

This article appeared in the Western People on April 30th, 2024.

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