Mark Duffy has a plan to transform the experience of refugees and asylum seekers who arrive in Ireland. It’s a simple one.

It is a platform that pairs up locals with those who have arrived, to create social engagement and friendships, said Duffy, a graduate student at UCD.

He and his team have called the project Isle of Hope to remind Irish people here of their ancestors’ past as migrants from Ireland to the US via Ellis Island.

“This is our opportunity now, as a first-world country, to open our doors to people who are suffering the same plight,” he says.

Part of the motivation for the idea was seeing that many Irish people want to do their part to help with Europe’s refugee crisis, but don’t know what to do, he said.

“People genuinely want to help and want to get involved, but it’s very hard to know what to do when it’s not on your doorstep,” he said. “There is a lot of goodwill out there and it’s just a matter of harnessing that.”

How Will It Work

The Isle of Hope project will go something like this.

Volunteers will meet with newly arrived refugees and asylum seekers, as well as locals, and create profiles based on their demographics and interests. People who have shared interests will be matched up.

“They would forge friendships and then get involved in activities of shared interest, such as sports, gardening, cooking or whatever they are interested in,” says Duffy.

Isle of Hope will also organise activities or days out for the entire group. “We could do a big mountain walk with everybody, or everyone attend a GAA match, or another activity in the community,” says Duffy.

Duffy and his team grew the idea at the DCU Creative Minds Hackathon this year, and so there is some funding and mentoring behind the project.

Lauren Lehane, another member of the team, says she is confident that the project will work.

“It’s something that the whole community would want to be involved in,” said Lehane, who is from Cork. “You’ll have loads of organisations that will want to help out.”

What’s the Effect?

Right now there are several initiatives across the city focused on fostering friendships between people from different backgrounds.

ChangeX is hosting Failte Isteach, which connects older people and immigrants and refugees through conversational English classes. Welcome Dinners bring people together to share meals.

There are also link-ups run by Dublin Culture Connects, which grew out of the city’s failed bid to become the European Capital of Culture 2020.

There’s plenty of research to show that initiatives that increase contact between different groups are a good idea, says Elizabeth Page-Gould,  an associate professor in the Department of Psychology at University of Toronto.

Contact with people from other ethnic groups is proven to reduce prejudice, says Page-Gould, who has done research into the subject.

“Long story short is that intergroup contact is reliably associated with less prejudice,” she said. “More recent research suggests that contact is most effective for people who are most prejudiced initially.”

There’s a lot of research in the area, and one 2006 meta-analysis that looked at 515 studies with 250,089 participants found some promising results.

“Ninety-four percent of these studies found a negative relationship between contact and prejudice, that is more contact predicted less prejudice,” Page-Gould said.

There is less research on integration programmes that specifically target immigrants, but the most famous was carried out by researchers Alberto Voci and Miles Hewstone in 2003.

“They found that intergroup contact was effective for reducing prejudice toward immigrants, particularly because it decreased anxiety about interacting with immigrants,” she said.

Building Up

Right now, the Isle of Hope team plan to pilot the programme in Clonakilty, Co. Cork, starting in February 2017. They’ve already had requests from families there who want to get involved, said Duffy.

If the pilot works, the next step will be to create a model for the programme that can be handed over to other charities and community groups to replicate, rather than creating a big top-down organisation.

“Our hope is that we can roll this out nationwide, and we believe it is something that has global possibilities in terms of integration,” he says.

Caroline Reid of the Irish Refugee Council says that Isle of Hope is being piloted in the right place. “Clonakilty is well known for its great community spirit and reputation and I have no doubt that the pilot of this project will be a success and hopefully be… replicated in other localities across Ireland,” she says.

Says Duffy: “If we can prove that a social integration model like this works, there should be an outcry from communities themselves, that they want to accept more refugees, because they are our friends.”

Laoise Neylon is a reporter for Dublin Inquirer. You can reach her at

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