Fermanagh is Home to Women of the World

Jenny Cathcart reaches a global audience in Enniskillen

Fermanagh’s Women of the World group were celebrating the birthday of their PR officer, Anita Mukherjee in a function room at the back of one of Enniskillen’s well known restaurants.

As usual the ladies had come with food for the statutory meal including a special birthday cake. A number of small children, coloured like Josephine Baker’s adoptive ‘rainbow children’ were playing in the dance floor area. Their mothers are among the thirty or so women belonging to the group with the 'wow' factor who like to enjoy themselves while making a positive contribution to the life of the community.

The first person I spoke with was Mandy, a Fermanagh teacher and mother and I was curious to know why she had come. ‘I am a member of the Bah'ai faith’, she told me. ‘We are followers of Bahaullah whose message was that faith is unity, all religions are one and all people are one. Women of the World is all about fabulous food and laughter. I enjoy the warmth, the fun and the fellowship of these gatherings.’

A founder member of the group, Maria Ellis filled me in on her own background and told me how she and her friends decided to formalise their meetings.

‘Like many of the women here, I am married to an Irish man. I was born in the Philippines but I met my husband, William, in London when I was attending a broadcasting course at the BBC`s External Service in Bush House.

'When I came to Fermanagh in 1988 I felt so lonely and isolated. It was when my sons began to attend the inter-denominational Integrated Primary School in Enniskillen that I discovered there were other mothers from minority groups like myself. I remember we were invited to participate in a fund raising event at the school so we brought along samples of dishes from our homelands for a multi-cultural feast.

'Soon we were meeting up in each others homes and in 2001 we decided to form ‘Women of the World’ as a registered charity with funding from various bodies including the Community Relations Council, the Churches Commission for Racial Justice, the NI Council for Ethnic Minorities and Awards for All.'

‘So where are the Men of the World?’ I asked.

‘Well perhaps men do not have the same sense of sorority that we have.’ mused Maria. ‘ We can let our hair down and really communicate without barriers when we meet.’

As more guests arrived, Anita, Indian born trained teacher, accomplished public speaker and host, welcomed everyone to her party and made some formal introductions, among them two Filipino girls recently arrived in Enniskillen to join the nursing staff at the Erne hospital.

Anita invited those WOW ladies who are sole representatives of their country to take a bow : Miss Chile, Miss Mexico, Miss Cyprus, Miss Bangladesh, Miss Holland, Miss France, Miss India, Miss Morocco... For the most part of course these Misses are now Mrs Donaldson, or Mrs Evans, or Mrs George.

Throughout the evening I met several Northern Irish women including Emma who lived in Nepal for a time and who had brought her daughter along to play with the other children. Catherine and Canadian-born Barbara from the Fermanagh Churches Forum for Community Relations were mingling in a group of women where religion was no more an issue than the colour of their skin and who professed to be Christian, Muslim, Hindu, Bah'ai....

Maria explained how the WOW membership changes from year to year.

‘We have enjoyed the company of Egyptian and Sudanese ladies married to doctors who were working at the Erne hospital. We had a Brazilian member who took her Irish husband back to Brazil, and a Gambian lady who also returned home. Humaira from Pakistan is now living in England but we are organising a special party for her when she returns to Enniskillen for a week in February.’

It transpired that Humaira will be a witness at a court case concerning the burning of her garden shed by local Enniskillen youths so our conversation turned to the topic of racism.

‘Well we cannot deny there have been problems.’ said Maria. ‘ Some of our ladies have been walking down the street minding their own business only to be rudely told by passing youths to 'F... off'. Our ‘Miss Chile’ was asked if she had come with the circus! One of our Filipino girls was taunted by local boys imitating a Chinese accent wanting to know if she were a 'mail order bride'.

'Luckily we have had training in how to deal with racist remarks and we gain strength from our group. Our whole aim is to support and celebrate the growing ethnic and cultural diversity in Fermanagh. In order to increase awareness of our own diverse traditions, we have organised popular social evenings including a ‘Taste of India’, ‘An African Night’, ‘A Glimpse of Asia’, entertaining audiences with our songs, dances, music, fashion and food.

Some of our volunteers work in the community with disabled and elderly people. At a time when the buzz word in Northern Ireland is 'regeneration' we are delighted to take part in any initiative which breaks down barriers and social prejudice.

We are currently planning an evening to raise funds for victims of the 2005 Tsunami so that Dr Rahman, a surgeon at the Erne Hospital and husband of our founder member, Roshin Rahman, can take hospital equipment and medicines to Sri Lanka where he has helped set up new accident and emergency units in key hospitals. Dr Rahman, who is from Bangladesh, was among the first emergency medical teams on the island when the tsunami hit the region. We are also planning a series of welcome sessions for migrant workers who have recently arrived in Fermanagh from Eastern Europe.’

Soon it was time for the karaoke session, the highlight of the evening, at any rate for the bevy of pretty Filipino ladies, one of whom had supplied a karaoke video, complete with images of the Philippines and song lyrics sub-titled in English.

‘The trouble is you cannot actually hear yourself sing when you take the microphone’, laughed Mirasol, the so-called ‘mail order bride!’ In many cases the girls were decidedly off key but the star of the evening was definitely birthday girl Anita who won hands down with her rendition, not in English or Hindi but in Spanish, of the Macarena and a top score of 98!