'If we accept new refugees and be kind, society will flourish' - Anna
From direct provision to the Royal College of Surgeons, Anna Kern is a beacon of hope for new migrants
Anna Kern, the young woman who scored 575 points in her Leaving Cert while living in direct provision, has called on the Irish people to open its heart to "terrified migrants".
The inspirational 18-year-old, who fled conflict between Russia and her native Ukraine in 2013, stresses that better education and employment opportunities for refugees will ease integration.
And our economy and culture will reap rich rewards from the new arrivals, she says. Anna escaped Ukraine with her mother Lyndmyla, a trained nurse, brother Andriy (14) and sister Olga (10).
"My mother decided. I was only 16, a teenager. We left our home, school and friends for safety and so we could have a future," said Anna, who was in fifth year at the time and harboured dreams of becoming a doctor.
"I identify with the migrants from the Middle East. We were afraid so we escaped. It's worrying for them and for the people who will be in their new communities. Some people don't like it, some do, it's personal, but we should accept it and be kind to them," she said.
Last week, after a celebratory tea party at her old school, Anna packed her bags at the direct provision centre in Knockalisheen, on the outskirts of Limerick City, and headed to Dublin to start her degree in physiotherapy at the Royal College of Surgeons in Ireland (RCSI).
Despite being in the Irish school system for less than five years, Anna became an exception to current rules and was offered a place at the prestigious college because of her remarkable exam results.
Alternatively, Anna, who spent five hours a day studying in her one-roomed home, would have had to pay €25,000 a year as a non-EU international student.
Walking through the corridors of RCSI, Anna says she is "very thankful and excited" to spend her first week in college.
She's enjoying living with other international students and she has signed up for the music society.
However, Anna, who was barred from taking the HPAT test to study medicine because she is an asylum seeker, can't help but wonder about other Leaving Cert students living in direct provision who were denied the same exceptional treatment.
"Lots of Leaving Cert students in direct provision did their exams but because they didn't get as many points as me they're not getting the same recognition. They did their best but can't access third level education if they are not five years in the country," she said.
After arriving in Ireland, Anna started school in Coláiste Nano Nagle in Limerick City, where she quickly excelled.
Every morning Anna got a bus to Thomond Park on the edge of the city and then walked 20 minutes to school.
Her principle Marion Cummins said she knew straight away that Anna was an "extraordinary girl".
"I'm thankful to my teachers and everyone who helped me through my exams. It was very stressful at times," said Anna, who achieved As in Russian, German and Mathematics.
She had no means of paying for third-level education as her mother is not allowed to work in Ireland. Anna thought she would have to abandon her dreams.
Last month, her school principal Cummins said: "There will be many like Anna. The most disappointing aspect is the State is prepared to educate her to this level and then there's no support after that. It is very unfair. It's almost misleading the person letting them believe there's going to be a future education."
After extensive media coverage and the intervention of Minister for Education Jan O'Sullivan, RCSI offered Anna a place on its physiotherapy course free of charge.
"I'm very grateful to Minister O'Sullivan but it is still a really big problem for others," said Anna.
Last month the Department of Education announced that from September, students in the protection system, who have spent five years in the Irish school system, can access student supports. But Anna believes this is still too restrictive. "Education was my way out and it will be the way out for my brother and sister too," she said. "The Government needs to find a way to allow people to work within a year of arriving in Ireland."
As for the 4,000 refugees Ireland will take as part of the country's response to the current crisis, Anna says children will be eager to learn the language and become part of society.
"Like me, they will want to study hard for their careers so they can contribute, pay tax and do everything for this country because it opened the door and helped," she said.