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Column: ‘We are the 17 per cent’ – the story of a migrant in Ireland

Dil Wickremasinghe recalls how she arrived in Ireland 12 years ago, then worked her way up to find success. (And true love.)

Dil Wickremasinghe Social justice and mental health podcaster of 'Sparking Change with Dil'

THE LATEST 2011 Census figures reveal that 17 per cent of Ireland’s population was born outside Ireland. That’s nearly 1 in 5 people and shows that diversity has become a permanent fixture of Irish society – but why are migrants still choosing to live here?

As I am a proud member of the 17 per cent I would like to share my story of coming to Ireland in an effort to shed some light on why many migrants are continuing to stay despite the challenging economic climate.

My journey started in Italy as I was born in Rome to Sri Lankan parents. Then I moved to Sri Lanka when my parents separated, which then led me to work as a flight attendant for a Middle Eastern airline based in Bahrain. After five years I was considering emigrating once again to either Australia or Ireland. I had my place booked in a Melbourne university but at the very last minute I changed my mind to Ireland. Partly because I liked the idea of returning to Europe, but mostly because I genuinely liked the Irish.

I finally arrived in Ireland in June 2000. I was just 25 years old, I had 1250 punts in my pocket, I only knew one person and I had no idea what I was going to do with myself. However I knew two things for sure, firstly, I wanted to live in a country which accepted me for who I was – even though at that time I had no clue what that was!

Secondly, I knew I had this relentless fire in my belly that would often keep me up at night which made me believe I had so much to offer to this world but again had no idea what shape that would take! I was ready to work hard and give living in Ireland my best shot!

So like many migrants I started from the very bottom and worked my way up – I started as a kitchen porter, a catering assistant, a bar tender, a waiter, a receptionist, HR administrator, junior recruitment consultant, senior recruitment consultant to then owning my own training company in 2006, which I am happy to say is weathering the recession nicely!

‘I’ve embarked on a life-long dream’

Then that same year I noticed how the face of Irish media was not changing to reflect our new Ireland. Radio was my first love back in Sri Lanka so I started to volunteer in a community radio station in Blanchardstown where I produced and presented a live radio show, which then led me to join the Newstalk team in 2008 to present Global Village, a social justice programme which airs every Saturday at 7pm.

Recently we even broadcast live from Dublin’s Mansion House on the invitation of the Lord Mayor, Andrew Montague as he happens to be a fan of the show. The theme of the show, which was supported by Dublin City Council and the Immigrant Council of Ireland, was “We are the 17 per cent”, and it was a celebration of the contribution migrants are making to Ireland.

Apart from my work in media and also working as a diversity, equality and personal development trainer more recently I have embarked in a life-long dream of mine: to do stand-up comedy. After taking part in a documentary called Journey Of A Joke which featured on DCTV last year, I launched Ireland’s first alcohol-free comedy club in Accents Lounge, a late night opening cosy coffee shop. Yes, you read it right, it’s alcohol-free and it has been running for almost a year which does prove that the Irish can have a good time without a drink!

I came to Ireland just 12 years ago and I can honestly say that Ireland has been good to me. Not only have I reaped many benefits professionally but for the first time I have found happiness in my personal life. I feel comfortable in my own skin as a gay woman which was not easy as my parents were deeply religious and kicked me out of the family home when they found out I was gay at the age of 17.

‘I’m confident that I am giving back tenfold’

Furthermore, I am also a survivor of sexual abuse but thanks to the services of One in Four I have been able make the transition from surviving to living my life. More importantly, I have found true love in a beautiful Irish woman called Anne Marie and for the first time in my life I am even engaged!

But for everything Ireland has given me, in the form of opportunity, acceptance, equality and belonging through citizenship, I am confident that I am giving back tenfold as I am sharing my talent, skills, passion and vision with the view to make a positive contribution to Irelands future.

Mine is just one of the 766,770, migrant stories that initially originated in foreign lands but now have arrived here on Irish shores and are contributing in shaping our new Ireland.

These are challenging times and we are all struggling; but we are not leaving, as the last census has shown. This is our new home and we want to stay and play our part in steering the nation towards better and prosperous times. We are the 17 per cent. Look past our skin colour and our accents and look deep into our eyes and see that we came here with big dreams and hopes for a better life, all we need now is your continued respect, acceptance and true equality, in order for us to shine and share our light with you.

Every person, including the 17 per cent, now living in Ireland has the right to reach their true potential and together we can rebuild this beautiful nation of ours.

Dil Wickremasinghe is a broadcaster with Newstalk 106-108 FM, a social entrepreneur and a stand-up comedian. For more information, visit her website.

About the author:

Dil Wickremasinghe  / Social justice and mental health podcaster of 'Sparking Change with Dil'

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