We are people of faith, an intercultural group of women and men, single, married and families, called to respond to God’s mission by crossing boundaries of culture, gender, creed and race.
We are sent as disciples of Jesus. With joy, we witness to a new way of being church by finding and celebrating God’s loving presence as we seek to live a simple way of life and journey with the poor and marginalised.
In partnership with one another, with the ordained Columbans, and with local and home communities, and through mutual support and challenge, we strive to be catalysts of transformation in building God’s Reign.
Many people ask me why I am on mission in Ireland, a country not considered to be mission territory. Having come here I feel that Ireland actually has many mission needs. Before I left Korea I had heard about the many asylum-seekers/refugees arriving in Europe. I thought that if I went on mission to Ireland I could work with them there. Now I am meeting Muslim women who have migrated to Ireland as well as some escapees from North Korea.
I am working in the largest asylum seeker/refugee accommodation centre in Ireland, meeting asylum seeker/refugee women as well as helping at a study programme for their children. There are over 700 refugees from around forty different countries living there. The bulk of them have come from Syria, others are from Eastern Europe, Africa, the Middle East and Asia. I can only surmise the circumstances that forced them to come to Ireland. Unless they first talk about their years of pain and suffering, I do not ask them to divulge the details of their long and torturous journeys and the fearful times they experienced.
In order to get to Ireland the refugees endured several interviews and investigations, constantly living in fear of not being accepted as legitimate refugees. Over time this caused them to lose their self-confidence. Who could ignore their plight and discriminate against or judge people who lived in fear of being killed in their own countries and who saw no hope for their children. On hearing about their desperate circumstances I sometimes find myself questioning God’s impartiality. However, I am certain that God wishes us to warmly welcome these little ones that have risked life and limb to reach Ireland.
There are many Irish who accept the refugees and are willing to work with them knowing how their own people suffered in the 19th century when they were forced to emigrate during the Great Famine. Life is even more difficult for those refugees that do not know English as they are forced to rely on others for many things. While there are many Irish volunteers that are willing to teach them English and help them in many ways, some of the refugees are unable to avail of this help because they are suffering from severe depression after all their travails. They tend to spend all their time locked up in their rooms and afraid to venture out.
Having become aware of their plight and realising that there was no one to have a brief chat with them, I decided to ask permission to visit these ‘enclosed’ refugees. In a bid to help them get some peace of mind I try to offer words of encouragement and introduce some moments of laughter rather than dwell on the bad memories of their sad history. I ask their fellow country folk that know English to act as translators. Hearing that the mothers, due to their lack of English, were unable to assist their children with their homework, I sought permission to get a room where I could have an afterschool class for the children, helping them with reading, writing, maths, art etc.
For safeguarding reasons, Ireland does not allow people to teach one to one and so I have to work with a number of children altogether. At the moment twenty-five elementary school children come to the afterschool class every day and I assist this group once a week. Some of the children are capable of holding conversations in English, but they find reading and writing difficult. However, some of them don’t even know the English alphabet. While the children attend the local primary school, they need individual tuition to help them improve their writing and reading skills. But it is not possible for the teachers to devote that kind of time to them. While I am painfully aware of my own limitations in speaking English, I thank God for giving me this opportunity and the ability to work with these children.
The women’s groups are never limited to the mothers only but always include many noisy crying children. During our meetings the mothers who cannot bear to be separated from their children hold them fondly in their arms. Every time I hear how the mothers look forward to these meetings and express their gratitude for helping them forget their present circumstances and past difficulties, I realise that my limitations and incompetence actually turn out to be moments of healing grace in which they can spend a few moments resting, sharing their experiences and laughing together.
The time and effort that I put into these meetings is absolutely nothing when compared to the difficulties the refugees endure. I just cannot compare my challenges with theirs. All I can do is fervently pray that these unfortunate people get to experience some moments of comfort and hope through my efforts. I really urge young people who are interested in foreign mission or feel a calling from God – listen carefully to that voice and have the courage to become missionaries. God has prepared a grand prize – a “life full of grace”.
Kyung-ja Lee was first assigned on mission to the Philippines in 2000 and worked there for eleven years before becoming the Coordinator of Lay Mission in Korea. She was assigned to Ireland in 2017, where she is involved in the refugee apostolate.
1 – Kyung-Ja Lee from South Korea is the Columban Lay Mission Coordinator in Ireland.
2 – Kyung-Ja Lee with a couple who escaped North Korea. (Their faces have been blurred to protect their families who are still in North Korea.) With seeds from Korea they grew lettuce, leeks, cabbage and other vegetables on a patch of ground in Dalgan Park. This farming work helped them on their healing journey by providing periods of respite from the stresses and strains of life as a refugee. Some time ago they were both baptised by a Columban priest.
3 – Interfaith dialogue: Kyung-Ja Lee with two Muslim women who have settled with their families in Ireland.
Columban Lay Missionary Oisín Kenny recalls his meeting with Bolivian Migrant Patricia Rodriguez
Sitting down with Patricia Rodriguez amidst a noisy comedor bustling with activity, boisterous children, cats and dogs, she agrees to tell me about her life and experience since arriving in Chile. I translate her words from Spanish to English.
A migrant from Bolivia she arrived in 2009 with her husband Rolando and baby Abigail. Now they have two children, Abigail aged 11 and Rafael aged 2. Originating from Cochabamba, a city nested in an Andean valley of central Bolivia, she left behind six sisters and a large extended family.
Baby Rafael was born with a severe medical condition known as TRISOMY 3, a rare chromosomal disorder. Just one of the many difficulties Rafael must battle is difficulty in breathing. Often, I hear him struggling to breath lying in his pram as the children scamper around him, oblivious to his trials and big sister Abigail jumps attentively to his aid.
Patricia came to Chile to looking for a better life explaining that “life for women can be very difficult where I come from. They have to work long hours for low wages and frequently encounter discrimination.”
Now she lives in Alto Hospicio, a mining town in the Atacama Desert. I first met Patricia nearly three years ago in ‘El Comedor Solidario, Fe y Esperanza’ in the shantytown beside where I live.
In Chile, a shantytown is known as a toma. Based in the Columban run parish of Sagrada Corazón, the comedor provides practical help in terms of assisting the nutritional needs of the residents, particularly the children, but also in community development, training courses for women and a meeting place for pastoral engagement.
The comedor is very much in the heart of the community based in the reality of the living conditions of the locals. Although we do our best to maintain it in decent condition, it is still rough, dusty and dirty, a cramped space for a sink and gas stove, surrounded by high galvanise and plywood walls. Soon we hope to move to a recently built hall behind the parish church. Nevertheless, the women cook up a wholesome meal with food donations and they can feed up to 60 children and 20 adults.
As a coordinator in the comedor I have watched Patricia become increasingly involved in its activities and take more of a leadership role. Her mother Filipa also helps. Patricia began attending around the same time as myself nearly three years ago and is now a regular cook in the kitchen and participates in short courses for the women. According to Patricia, “the comedor has been very important in helping to feed my family, especially when my husband cannot find work. We also get other help in terms of clothes and necessities. It is a good place to meet people and catch up with friends.”
Patricia’s home in the toma is like the others. It is surrounded by thick, high plywood walls. Inside is a dusty space, a few metres square surrounded by makeshift rooms also built with sheets of timber. There are no windows and the entrance is securely bolted. Security is always an issue here.
Asked about life in the toma she says it has both good and bad aspects. “I have nice neighbours and we help each other out. Also, it is our own place, for my own family, which I did not have in Bolivia. I bought this plot from the previous owner.” Plots may exchange hands with frequency in the toma as people come and go. “On the other hand, it can be difficult and dangerous here,” she continues. “Sometimes they cut off the light or water for up to a month. Without light I am afraid of fires because we have to use candles.”
Fires can spread with devastating speed and effect due to all the timber construction materials and houses squeezed on top of one another. “Crime is a big problem here as well and every night there are drug dealers on the streets. They can be as young as 13 years old. Sometimes there are gunshots and we all must hide in our bedroom. The bullets can come through the walls. Unfortunately, it is illegal to build stronger, permanent houses in the toma.”
“And what are your hopes for the future?” I ask. “What I want is an operation for my baby Rafael,” she states emphatically. “He is on a waiting list, but they say it will be two or three more years. I would also love my own place, a permanent one like a house or apartment.” It seems that Patricia won’t be returning to Bolivia any time soon, especially with Rafael’s condition.
Patricia attends the local parish church and I ask her what her faith means to her. “My faith is everything to me,” she replies. “It is my strength and my fortress. It helps me especially when I am overwhelmed with problems. As it says in the Bible, knock and the door will be opened to you. There are problems everywhere in the world, but life is beautiful. You only get one life and it is important to use it well. Every day I wake up and thank God for my children and the life we have. God has brought me to Chile and I believe has a purpose for me.” Perhaps it is all the help you are giving in the comedor, I suggest. A mischievous smile breaks across Patricias’s face. “Perhaps,” she laughs and goes off to help in the kitchen amidst all the noise and bustle.
Columban Lay Missionaries
St. Columban’s, Dalgan Park
Navan, County Meath, Ireland
Hours of operation:
9:00 – 4:00 (Monday-Friday) Some of our work is based out of the office, so please leave a message if we are not in the office when you telephone.