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‘It helped me in darkest times’ – Ukrainian mum says learning Irish helped her settle in new home

Anastasia Kovalenko, moved from Ukraine to Ireland with her daughter and elderly mother in March 2022, the same month that Russia invaded her country, completely upending her life.

Before the war, she had what she described as a “nice life” with a good job, private healthcare, crèche access and could travel abroad.

Following huge changes, she slipped into a “near depression.”

“All of a sudden we had no home, no family, no friends, no independence and depended on the goodwill of other people. That is when Gaelic lessons appeared,” she told the Irish Independent.

Ms Kovalenko signed up to Conradh na Gaeilge’s Céad Míle Fáilte initiative, which brings people together from various backgrounds to celebrate the Irish Language through lessons ‘as Gaeilge.’

“I wanted to try and learn some of the language to show respect to the country that opened its doors to us at the darkest time in our lives,” she said.

The lessons also helped her “forget” half of her circumstances and also get involved with others in the community and meet other people.

Ms Kovalenko said she loved all six of the lessons.

After the programme, she couldn’t wait to test out her newly acquired phrases, and used ‘conas atá tú?’ and ‘go raibh maith agat’ in as many cafés as she could.

“When I was in the local Post Office I used the phrases and you could see how much they enjoyed it, as well as being completely surprised. They didn’t expect it at all.

“It is just my way of saying thank you to Ireland and trying to understand the culture,” she added.

Pakistani national Muhammad Usman Sarwar, came to Ireland in 2018, with a little English from his school days, as well as his national language Urdu and mother tongue Pubjabi under his belt.

After moving from the capital to Ballyhaunis, knowing nobody, he decided to take up the Céad Míle Fáilte programme’s Irish lessons, after seeing it in a café window.

“It ended up being very similar to my own language of Urdu in some of the pronunciation, especially when saying how are you and my name is,” he told the Irish Independent.

Mr Sarwar loved learning about the culture and food through the Irish language classes and said the classes helped him integrate into his local community and make a number of friends.

“Following the lessons we still kept in touch and even though I am a Muslim and don’t drink, I joined them at an Irish language night at the local pub,” he said.

Despite the lessons being several years ago, the group are celebrating Seachtain na Gaeilge this weekend by watching movies in Irish in the local community hall in Ballyhaunis, as well as listening to some trad.

Mr Sarwar believes every country should take pride in its mother tongue and would like to see more people speak Irish. His Pakistani wife Noreen, speaks a little Irish having been in the country 28 years.

“My son Sinan also speaks Irish, which he is learning in school. I want him to grow up learning Irish as well as Urdu which is from his roots.

“People in the local shop where I work here have been completely shocked, when they seen me, a brown Pakistani speaking in Irish to them.

“Irish has helped me understand so much about the culture here,” Mr Sarwar added.

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