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Craft classes help refugees integrate into Connemara community

An art project in Connemara is helping to break-down barriers and integrate Ukrainian refugees into the community.

Up to 115 Ukrainians and 50 local residents have taken part in some 80 art therapy classes since February organised by FORUM Connemara in Clifden, Letterfrack, Maam, and Cleggan.

Each class of about twelve participants had eight Ukrainians and four locals engaged in a variety of art types including felting, photography, woodwork, landscape painting, and stained-glass painting.

With some €10,385 through the Department of Health’s Healthy Ireland Fund distributed to FORUM Connemara through Galway County Council, the project supports the health and wellbeing of Ukrainians fleeing war.

“The whole idea was to integrate them into the community. Where would you even start because of language barrier? So we decided to set up art therapy classes,” explained Kathleen Aspell Mortimer, project co-ordinator whose position was funded by Galway Rural Development.

Locals and Ukrainian friend displaying their crafting skills at Maam Community Centre (back – from left) Stella Sarman, Svitlana Honcharenko, Tamara Sheremet, Vira Vertai, Nadia Haidysh, Amina Haidysh, with (front) Martina O’Malley, Kathleen Fitzhenry, Lorraine Higgins and tutor Keelin Kennedy.

At the end of each course, the participants’ work was launched and showcased in a community hall in Connemara.

“We also gave them certificates. It was huge for them to get a piece of paper to say they had done something and were part of something.

“I remember the day we launched an exhibition in the National Park, one of the (Ukrainian) ladies came up to me and said ‘It was a year ago today we came to Letterfrack and we were so sad and desolate and confused, we didn’t know what was going to happen to us and look at us today, thank you’. That said it all,” said Kathleen.

The next exhibition will be held in Maam Community Hall on August 24, from 12 noon. And the next course – quilling art therapy – starts in Oughterard on August 31.

Kathleen said the project has contributed to the health and wellbeing of participants, and aided social integration and acceptance within the communities they now live.

“The locals benefit too because they’re linking in with them, whereas before they weren’t quite sure how to link in with them. Now they know them, they’re part of something.

“I live in Letterfrack and I see it in the community, it was something they could both work on together without having the language. They’re now saying hello to each other down the shop and there’s a real camaraderie going on,” said Kathleen.

Through the programme, many Ukrainians, she said, have gained confidence and courage to obtain summer jobs in hospitality businesses locally.

For a modest sum of money, the impact has been big according to Kathleen who highlighted the collaborative effort that has made it a success. And they’re hoping to build on it with more classes planned for winter – possibly with Ukrainians as tutors – if more funding is secured.

“I remember when it started first in February. I was worried about the language barrier. And we were about two weeks in when I came up the stairs one day at FORUM (in Letterfrack) and I could hear them all laughing as a group. I said, ‘yes, now we’re off!’

“The goodwill of local people, provision of excellent community facilities, co-operation of hosts, dedication of tutors and creative contributions from participants ensured integration of the Ukrainians in the community of northwest Connemara has been a huge success.

“The interlinking of all of these components assisted in communication skills and development of friendships which will continue into the future,” said Kathleen.

Main photo: Anna Hodovychenko enjoying a Felting Class in Forum Connemara.

For more, read this week’s Connacht Tribune:

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