One man's bid to teach tolerance to Irish youth

When Eamon Murphy first visited England in the mid-1970s, London's black bus drivers fascinated him and his friends. At that time in Ireland, the only black people they ever saw were university students - not truck drivers hauling double-deckers through traffic. They could not imagine a black person in a working-class role.

Today Sergeant Murphy, of Dublin's Neighborhood Policing Unit, lives in a far more diverse city. Between 1996 and 2002, the number of Ireland's immigrants rose 71 percent.

But this surge of new faces and cultures has sparked racial clashes previously unknown to the homogenous island. In an attempt to curb future conflict, Murphy and his associates designed an intercultural school program to show Irish kids that the new arrivals are not that different from themselves.

Murphy created the One World program three years ago after the police received complaints from foreign students attending the Dublin Business College. Local kids as young as 8 years old were hurling racist taunts like snowballs filled with stones. Murphy reacted creatively. He didn't want simply to tell students that racism was wrong - he wanted to introduce them to their new neighbors.

"Perception is based on experience," Murphy said. "When people don't have a first-hand experience, they ingest it from others - and they're biased from it."

In the 1990s, Ireland's economic boom and its European Union membership shaped the country into an attractive destination for immigrants. And while Ireland's traditional immigrant base from Britain, Western Europe, and the United States has declined between 15 percent and 36 percent since 2000, immigration from the rest of the world has increased 106 percent - the majority from Nigeria, South Africa, Romania, and China.

Education in Ireland has been slow to adapt to these changes, mirroring the rest of Europe. British, French, Belgian, Greek, German, and Portuguese schools are now evaluating programs that teach integration and tolerance.

But a structured program that reaches all children still eludes European public schools. And even though One World has completed six programs in three schools for about 200 kids since 2000, the Irish Department of Education and Science only recently published its antiracism and intercultural curriculum guidelines for schools and teachers.

In the meantime, racism becomes only the occasional topic in a civics or politics class - except in three elementary schools in Dublin's south-central neighborhood. That's One World territory.

The latest program took place over five weeks in October and November in Saint Catherine's Baggot Street Primary School. It involved 30 students ranging from 8 to 12-years-old. One day per week, the teachers dedicated from two hours to the whole day with One World.

On the first day, police and teachers spoke to the class about peer pressure and stereotyping. Then they asked the kids to characterize people from places such as Africa, the Far East, India, and the Middle East. When they had finished, the classroom door opened to reveal African, Malaysian, Indian, and Arab students from Dublin's Royal College of Surgeons.

"There was a phenomenal ratio of role models to children," says St. Catherine's Principal Mary Weekes, referring to the foreign students, teachers, and police officers. "We weren't reading from a book, we had actual people."

Over the next four weeks, the medical students spoke about themselves and their cultures. In small classroom groups; through music, dance and food demonstrations; and on excursions to the zoo and bowling alley, the foreign students attempted to remove the mystery surrounding their backgrounds.

"At first, [the children] thought Africa was a country and Nigeria was its capital," says Bassey Ndoma-Egba, a third-year medical student from Nigeria. After the first week, he says, kids would automatically latch onto a foreign student, excited about Arab nose-rubbing greetings, Malaysian foods, and Indian elephants.

"I learned about antiracism and how skin color doesn't matter," says Luke Reilly, 11. "We have Irish dancing and they have their dancing, too." Luke particularly enjoyed discussions with Arab students, who taught him that white camels are known in the Middle East as the Ferraris of the Desert.

"As soon as they got to know us, it wasn't an issue that we were foreign," says Leila Hebshi, a California-born, Saudi-American medical student. "They looked at us as people - which is exactly what we wanted to happen. It makes you realize how accepting people can be when given an opportunity."

For Murphy, this program resembles a societal research and development department that addresses the potential of racist attacks - verbal or physical.

"We live in a world of throwaway comments," he says. "They do this and they do that,' but the people making these comments don't know the people they're talking about. We want to give a youngster a totally honest experience ... and a sense of balance. Education is the key."

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