As an Nua Interviews: Sorcha Pollak

'We are at this tipping point where we have no history of immigration, we only know emigration. That has changed in the last 15 years. We wanted to show that every person has a story and a reason for coming here and they’re all completely different. '

Sorcha is a journalist with The Irish Times. Her column ‘New to the Parish’ tells the stories of those who have come to live in Ireland in recent years.

Siún: I love your column, ‘New to the Parish’, how did it come about?

Sorcha: Thank you, I love working on it.  I started working in The Irish Times in January, 2014. In May, 2015 I did a big data journalism piece on all of the languages being spoken in Ireland from the census data from 2011. Róisín Ingle, my editor suggested we do something more on it. At the beginning, it was to be a short series, maybe 6 or 7 weeks, speaking to a few people who have moved to Ireland recently and seeing how their experience had been. The first one came out in July and I was very lucky I knew exactly who I wanted to interview. A good friend of mine, her partner is from Mali and they’ve a beautiful little girl called Nina. I knew they had an interesting story to tell, so I opened with them and did a few more during the summer. We started seeing interest develop, people were engaging and wanted to get involved. At the end of the summer we pitched it to the editor and it has grown from there.

Siún: I think Ireland needed to hear the perspectives you’re presenting. How has the feedback been?

Sorcha: It’s been mixed, I wrote a column recently on that topic, as it happens. We noticed straight away that the pieces do attract some online abuse. It emerged early on, on Facebook mostly. I’m very uncomfortable with it. We can shut down comments on The Irish Times site if we want, but there’s very little we can do on Facebook. It started last summer, there was a guy badly abused online and it made me question whether to continue with the column. Now, when I sit down to interview someone, I have to tell them I’ll be posting this on Facebook and there will be comments; mostly they’re fine but there is a chance of abuse. I have to give them a chance to back out.

Siún: These people are opening up to you and are putting themselves in a vulnerable position by doing so..

Sorcha: That’s it, they’re opening up and I’m not sure if I’d do it. There’s a really good line in the film The Social Network ‘the internet is in ink’ which is so true, once you write something it’s there forever. Many people don’t seem to think about that.

Siún: How do you find people for the column?

Sorcha: So many different ways. Lots of organisations have been very helpful, The Irish Refugee Council, Nasc in Cork, for example. I use Twitter and Facebook too, and have gotten some great stories through them. I have a few friends in the Discovery Gospel Choir and they’ve put me in touch with two people I’ve interviewed. It’s been a word of mouth thing that has developed, now I barely have to look.

Siún Ní Dhuinn talks to Sorcha Pollak

Siún: Has writing New to the Parish changed your perception of Ireland and its people?

Sorcha: Yes, it has; on the grander scheme, we are a good country for immigration. We are at this tipping point where we have no history of immigration, we only know emigration. That has changed in the last 15 years. We wanted to show that every person has a story and a reason for coming here and they’re all completely different. The whole idea of the series is that it’s not just refugees. We want to show that the migrant experience is not just a refugee crossing the Mediterranean on a boat. Yes, that’s part of it but it’s also a couple from New York who’ve decided to retire to Ireland for a new experience. Around the time we began publishing the column, the refugee crisis exploded in the news, we figured it was important for the readers to see what it means to be a migrant.

Siún: Were you always interested in the subject matter?

Sorcha: I think I came from a slightly different perspective in that my father was a journalist and he did some work on refugees in the early nineties. I was aware of what it meant to be a refugee, maybe more than the typical Irish person did. My grandfather was a political refugee, he came here from what was then Czechoslovakia, in the late 40s.

Siún: How do you see New to the Parish developing? Could you envision a book?

Sorcha: I’d love to see a book, it’s definitely something that’s in my mind. I don’t think it’s been done, or at least in recent times.

Siún: What’s been the best part of working on the column?

Sorcha: I’ve heard some wonderful stories, one I have to mention, which restored my faith in humanity, I think of it when I get down about some of the negative commentary. There was Syrian family last October, in Ballyhaunis, County Mayo. They had gotten refugee status but couldn’t find anywhere to live. For the column, they asked to be kept anonymous, which is unusual, they are only one of two who have asked for anonymity. I got a call a few days later from a woman who said ‘I represent the Stillorgan Kilmacud Parish, we saw your piece and we’d like to sponsor that family and pay for accomodation for 2 years, and pay for the 3 children’s education and find jobs for the parents’. At first, I didn’t believe it. I put down the phone and sat there in shock. I called my Dad and asked his advice. He said, you need to call her back and get all the details and then it’s your call whether you want to put them in touch. I called the family and spoke to the eldest daughter as she had the best English. I still remember the conversation with her, she asked me was I speaking to an angel. It should’ve been smooth sailing but it wasn’t. They couldn’t find a house for them. Landlords would say ‘I know this is dreadful for you, but you don’t have any references or housing papers’. I ended up writing a news piece about it and the family agreed to give their names and get a photo. As soon as that was published we started getting calls, people offering homes. They were in a house within a week. It’s still not easy for them but that story proves there are good people out there.

You can follow Sorcha on Twitter here and her work on New to the Parish here and here.

Mo mhíle buíochas le Sorcha as a cuid ama a roinnt go fial liom.