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 DIVERSE CITY

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''I like speaking Polish. I love it. It's me,'' says nine-year-old Oliver Arczynski.

''I was born in Ireland, but all my family is Polish. I am planning on living in Poland when I grow up. So it's important I can speak and read Polish.''

Oliver is a pupil at the Polish Supplementary School in Newry.

Over 100 pupils attend the classes at St Joseph's Boys' High School each Saturday from 10am-4pm.

The children are aged from three to 12 and attend local primary schools from Monday to Friday.

Pupil Ewa Dubas Photograph: Newraypics.com
Pupil Ewa Dubas Photograph: Newraypics.com

At the Saturday morning lessons, they learn how to speak, read and write their native tongue, as well as studying curricular subjects such as math and chemistry.

The classes - divided into six age groups - also learn about journalism and IT.

School prinicpal Katarzyna Weber said the school's main objective is to preserve and promote Polish culture for the many young Poles who have been born in Ireland.

The school initially opened 10 years ago for Polish children that had recently left their homeland and wanted to continue learning their language.

Now, the emphasis has slightly changed.

''The children are no longer new to here - they have been born here - and the Polish language is not very spoken well amongst these children,'' said Katarzyna.

chool Principal -  Katarzyna Weber. Photograph: Newraypics.com
School Principal - Katarzyna Weber. Photograph: Newraypics.com

''They are born here and their first language is mainly English because of their education, their friends and that. ''English is the number one language, so here we mostly focus on Polish language and history and culture as well because we don't want them to forget about their roots, which is very important.

''The children that came to Ireland remembered their history, where they came from, but the ones that are born here, if they don't get that information, if they don't get that education, they will not know it and it's very important for the future to know who they are, where they came from. Their identity.' They need to know this.''

The first Polish school in Northern Ireland opened in Belfast in 2007 as increasing numbers of Polish familes made their home here.

One of its teachers, Newry-based Grzegorz Wawrzynski, realised there was a growing need for a similar facility in Newry for its growing Polish population.

Teacher  Jolanta Czarnocka with her students at the Polish Supplementary School in Newry. Photograph: Newraypics.com
Teacher Jolanta Czarnocka with her students at the Polish Supplementary School in Newry. Photograph: Newraypics.com

He had created a website and Facebook page - 'NewryPL' - to provide information or services and facilities in Newry for the Polish community and allow those to share information with each other.

Grzegorz and a teaching colleague in Belfast then explored the idea of opening a Polish school in Newry.

They helped by Aneta Dabek, the school's first chairperson approached Fr Stan Hajkowski in the Newry Parish and Polish Hononary Counsel, Jerome Mullen.

A questionairre was submitted on the NewryPL site to gauge potential interest in a school in May 2008.

The feedback was positive with almost 60 replies expressing a keen interest.

In November - just five months later - the school opened at the former Abbey Primary School on Courtney Hill with 60 pupils enrolled.

They were mainly children who had emigrated from Poland having started their education in their homeland.

''In 2008, they were teaching the children similar things that they were taught in Poland because this was new immigration and the children knew Polish quite well and they wanted to continue that education here,'' said Katarzyna.

''They had maths, chemistry, Polish language, and Polish history and culture, which we still do but with Polish children born in Ireland.

''We try to celebrate all the holidays that we celebrate in Poland. We have our Christmas play, we have our own Independence Day and we encourage parents to speak Polish at home because they know English anyway because they go to local schools and speak English, so we focus on Polish here.''

Student - Oliver Arczynski. Photograph: Newraypics.com
Student - Oliver Arczynski. Photograph: Newraypics.com

Katarzyna has been living in Newry for 11 years.

The mum-of-two joined the school three years ago as a teaching assistant while studying for her degree in Early Years development.

She enjoys her principal role and said she hopes to see the school develop and expand, and perhaps having their own premises some day.

''We started with 60 children in 2008, now have over 100,'' she said.

''I would love it to grow more because I know there are loads of Polish families here that could send their children to Polska Szkola.

''There are a lot of parents that are maybe not aware of how important retaining your own culture and language is.

''I think some parents regret if they don't teach their children their langauge and when the return to Poland, they can't speak the language to their aunties or undles or grandparents.

''Sometimes they don't want to come, it's Saturday, the children don't want to get up early, but I would love all the parents to be aware of retaining our language and culture as well as embracing the culture here.

''I do enjoy the role, but there is a lot of time involved. We are four hours on Saturday but there's also a lot of preparation.

''We also have to find the funds to make lessons fun and interesting for the children to come here.''

Students - Hubert Swierczynski and Mathew Laskowski. Photograph: Newraypics.com
Students - Hubert Swierczynski and Mathew Laskowski. Photograph: Newraypics.com

The school pays a monthly rent to St Joseph's, whose staff and management they say have always been very welcoming and supportive.

And the pupils clearly enjoy a few hours each week finding out about the language, history and culture of their homeland.

''I like all the work, it's very fun,'' said Ewa Dubas, an eight-year-old pupil at St Ronan's PS in Newry.

''I like to meet my teachers and all my friends. It's a happy place to come to.''

Hubert Swierczynski, nine, added: ''We can play loads of sports. I find the language interesting. I really enjoy it.''

Oliver, who is also learning Irish at St Joseph's National School in Co Monaghan, added: ''We do a lot of work. Sometimes we do special events like Christmas plays and things like that. I really recommend it to other children.''

These sort of responses are why Katarzyna has dedicated her life to working with children.

''The best part of my job is working with the children, knowing that I can help make their lives better,'' she added.

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