'I've had to travel thousands of miles to feel accepted' - Traveller who left school at 15 now working on Capitol Hill
An inspirational woman from the Travelling community has told how she went from leaving school at 15 with no qualifications to working on Capitol Hill in Washington.
Kathleen Lawrence (31) has spoken candidly about being discriminated against from an early age and how she is determined to break down barriers and destroy negative stereotypes about Travellers.
Kathleen, who is from Swords in Dublin, said to Independent.ie: “I only really went to primary school, I did about a year in secondary school between Ireland and when I lived to England.
“When I was in primary school it was expected I’d never do anything with my life, I remember when I was about ten and everyone else was learning Irish and the teacher gave me a colouring book and said I didn’t need to learn Irish.
“Or for an hour a day any kids who were Travellers were sent for basic level English and maths without actually being assessed for whether we needed to be there.
“It was the same in secondary school, teachers just assumed you didn’t want to do anything with education because you’re a Traveller.”
Kathleen decided she wanted to return to her studies when she was 17 and did courses in subjects like literacy and maths.
In March 2012 she did an internship through JobBridge and after that she did another night course.
The turning point in Kathleen’s life was in January 2013 when she started volunteering with the Fingal Traveller Organisation.
She said: “I just wanted to be doing something with my time but I ended up really enjoying it so later that year I started working in Pavee Point’s primary Health Care programme, which improves healthcare for women and also families, it increases their life expectancy by providing information and linking them up with services.”
As she flourished in her role, Pavee Point encouraged her to apply for third-level education.
Kathleen said: “It had never been on my radar but they kept saying I’d be well able for it.
“As far as I’m aware I’m the first one of my extended family to go to college, which was a bit of an adjustment for my parents at first.
“I got into Maynooth University, I studied Law and Sociology and I found out a few weeks ago I’ve graduated with a 2:1 degree, I couldn’t believe it because I never even finished secondary school.”
She continued to say there should be more supports available for people from the Travelling community who are interested in going to third-level education.
She explained: “I don’t think everyone should go to college because it might not be right for them but I think there should be options there for Travellers who want to do it.
“I got there because I work with an organisation who wanted me to progress and were able to help and support me with the application but so much funding supports for Travellers have been cut.”
She is now spending eight weeks working in Capitol Hill under Congressman Brendan Boyle as part of the prestigious Washington Ireland Programme.
Kathleen said: “It’s absolutely amazing being here, I keep having to pinch myself.
“It’s opened my life to new experiences that I probably never would have had otherwise.
“I’m so proud to be Irish but it’s a shame that I’ve had to travel thousands of miles to feel accepted for the first time - among Travellers I feel accepted but in wider society Travellers are treated like pariahs.”
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She continued to say: “I’ve been followed around shops, refused service in pubs and restaurants, it’s incredibly frustrating in this day and age.
“Discriminating against Travellers seems to be the last acceptable form of persecution in Ireland.
“I remember even after the Carrickmines fire in 2015 when ten people died and I saw someone on Facebook write, ‘Good, that’s ten less kn**kers in the world.’”
Kathleen is determined to use her academic knowledge and experience in Capitol Hill and with Pavee Point to help tackle discrimination against minority groups.
She said: “My main goal is human right rights for Travellers and Roma, it’s more important than ever, not just because of discrimination but also in the areas of education, health and accommodation.