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Irish Outreach center holds orientations, already tackling issues

(June 28, 2013) Tips to Americans traveling abroad typically stick to the lines of “keep your wallet in your front pocket” and “don’t eat the street meat.” But when students from the Emerald Isle visit the States – some for more than three months – the advice is often much more dire.

“Get a lease from your landlord” and “make sure your check includes your tips” were just a few of the nuggets of knowledge disseminated during orientation sessions this past week at Irish Outreach, Ocean City’s help and advocacy center for work-travel visa students.

That being said, culinary advice was not completely out of the question. Several students left the center with telltale orange finger stains, indicative of their introduction to America’s different tier of basic food groups, i.e. anti-nutrition snack foods.

“We want this to be your home away from home,” said Pat Fairbend, who heads the center with her husband, Rick. “You’re always welcome here, even if it’s just to relax and talk.”

Despite having a linguistic leg up over student workers from Asia or Eastern Europe, Irish youth often arrive in a resort at somewhat of a disadvantage. Because of its good diplomatic terms with the Republic of Ireland, the U.S. State Department considers it to be a “visa waiver” country, meaning that Irish nationals do not have to have pre-arranged jobs or housing in order to qualify for entry into the U.S.

As such, most Irish students arrive for their summer travel and work experiences without a place to stay or work and, furthermore, with less required oversight from their travel sponsor or the State Department over where they are living or working. This continues to make Irish students easy targets for less scrupulous landlords and employers.

“If you’re having problems or feel like you’re being threatened, come to us and we can help you out,” Rick Fairbend told students at last Thursday’s orientation.

Most of the students simply took whatever housing they could find after arriving in the resort. Many were completely unaware of the annual phenomenon known as Senior Week, which, for Irish students, means they have to compete with well-funded Americans for seasonal housing.

“The place we got was very small, but we liked it because it was there,” said student Cathal Hayes. “It was the only place we found that wasn’t already full.”

But students’ conditions have been improving every year, Fairbend said, although he has dealt with two employers thus far this year who attempted to withhold students’ tips, as well as a house on Dorchester Street that had 50 Irish occupants, far more than allowed by the fire code.

Several students Thursday also reported that their house had been burglarized because of un-lockable windows.

“This just shows how important it is to open a bank account,” Fairbend told the group. “Don’t just cash your checks and put the money under your pillow.”

Although they still retain visa waiver privileges, the State Department has been stepping up oversight of Irish students via the travel sponsors who bring the students to the U.S.

“You absolutely need to contact your sponsor if you change your employer, your housing, or anything like that,” said Irina Capaldi of CIEE, one of Ocean City’s largest visa sponsors who has been working closely this year with Irish Outreach to keep track of the resort’s Hibernian workers.

“If you’re not sure, contact them anyway,” Capaldi told the students. “We’re here to help. Please don’t think that if you come to us with a problem, we’re going to terminate your program or send you home.”

Irish students in the resort are said to number between 600 and 700 annually for the past three seasons, a considerable increase over years previous because of the State Department’s increasing restriction on some of the Eastern European countries that used to supply most of the resort’s labor. Russian students were estimated prior to 2010 at almost 1,500 per year, but have since been cut back by nearly 75 percent.

Irish Outreach has been operating in the resort since 1999, although it was only last year that the organization had a physical location, on 17th Street. The group moved to a larger space on 33rd Street this year.

The center will be open from noon to 8 p.m. every day except Sundays through the summer. Fairbend has roughly 45 volunteers on his roster to staff the location, which offers donated home goods as well as advice and advocacy.

The nonprofit organization is funded in part by the Irish Apostolate in Silver Spring, as well as through private donations. Anyone wishing to volunteer or donate should contact the center at 410-520-0344.

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