Sister Mary McClure, SNDdeN and Mrs. Rosemary Martin, Head Teacher
The media has recorded well the plight of refugees and asylum seekers. For many refugees from Africa and the Middle East, the journey led to Calais, France, the nearest port for entry into England. And for most refugees, their journey ended there. Access was denied. Camps were set up and this area became known as the ‘jungle.’ Who can imagine the plight of a group of unaccompanied young women in their journey from Ethiopia and Eritrea?
When the camps were being flattened, a group of unaccompanied young women remained in Calais. Beginning to draw negative attention from some male Asylum Seekers, they would be easy prey for traffickers. The authorities in France quickly distributed the girls to other parts of the country whilst looking for a more permanent solution. Glasgow City Council agreed to accept a number of Asylum Seekers to the City, as had been the pattern for a number of years. On hearing the plight of these 19 young women, (11 from Eritrea and 8 from Ethiopia). Glasgow became proactive about ensuring a safe place for them in the City. Very quickly, a large number of the City services personnel, including Educators and Social Workers, met to discuss how to accommodate and protect these vulnerable young women. They considered how the girls could be educated together, in such a large number, whilst receiving the support and nurture required for them.
EDUCATION FOR NEW LIFE
Notre Dame High School in Glasgow is a unique school. It is the only all girls’ school in Scotland which is non fee-paying and financed by the local education service. Founded over 100 years ago, by the Sisters of Notre Dame de Namur, our school continues to offer a ‘safe, supportive environment’ for girls and young women. This Catholic School is recognised as a community which is inclusive of other faith traditions while continuing to celebrate our Catholic identity.
In late November 2016, as Head Teacher of Notre Dame High School, Glasgow, I received a phone call from Maureen McKenna, Executive Director of Education in Glasgow. Maureen believed that the Catholic ethos and nurturing environment which Notre Dame High School provides would be the best possible provision and asked how did I feel about welcoming this group to our school. With the agreement of our management team, my response was positive: “with open arms,” continuing the heritage and ethos of our Patroness, St. Julie Billiart.
With two weeks to prepare for their arrival, with no idea of age and stage or the level of English language acquisition or level of schooling received, we began making plans to welcome our new students. Our first meeting with the girls from Ethiopia and Eritrea took place in their newly refurbished accommodation (a former hostel for the homeless). With the Pastoral Care team and Year Group Head, we were able to greet our new students. We had managed to acquire a stock of used uniforms and 19 new school ties. It was an incredibly humbling experience to witness their delight, not only at the uniform, but on the realisation that education would be an integral part of their new life. We were able to show the girls pictures of their new school and began forming relationships that we hoped would ease their obvious anxieties.
PRESENTS IN PRESENCE
The presence of these young women in our school highlights for us that Notre Dame High School is a special school. Heads of Department and classroom teachers go out of their way to provide learning experiences which are accessible to all. Our young people volunteer their time to support the newcomers in classrooms and on excursions around the City. Similarly, our new girls are already beginning to establish themselves, even in contributing to our Christmas Carol concert for parents and friends and in our final Christmas service for the young people. What a moving experience to hear the 8 girls from Ethiopia sing an ancient carol in their own tongue.
St. Vincent de Paul group from our local parish community, St. Simon’s, provided £500 to help with the girls’ transition. We bought Christmas gifts of watches for each of them–why watches? Our students were learning how to tell the time, and no one had a watch!
These young women are a gift to our Notre Dame community. They encourage us to have ‘hearts as wide as the world.’ They remind us of the fragility of life and the sacredness of life. These young women have come to us from the most abandoned places. With courage we continue to welcome, teach and sing: How good is our good God.