Cork centre is helping immigrants deal with gambling addictions

A COUNSELLING service is being set up in Cork to help Polish and Romanian immigrants who have gambling addictions. Ann Murphy hears why.
Cork centre is helping immigrants deal with gambling addictions

Voyteck Bialek, chairman of Together-Razem, a Polish centre in Cork which has been helping eastern Europeans in Cork with gambling addiction problems. Picture: Denis Scannell

GAMBLING among eastern European immigrants living in Cork has led to the establishment of an online counselling service for Polish and Romanian addicts.

The service is being provided by the Together-Razem Polish Centre in Cork. Chief executive of the centre, Voyteck Bialek, is a trained addiction counsellor.

He said the centre has run a counselling service since 2013, initially focusing on alcohol addiction.

He explained: “We started setting up self-help groups. After that, we realised the needs were more than that. People were unable to access services because of the language barrier and we decided to organise an addiction programme.”

There are currently six counsellors supplying services to Together-Razem on a contract basis.

Mr Bialek said that alcohol is the major issue among eastern Europeans, particularly high percentage products such as spirits.

But he said gambling has emerged as a serious issue, typically in the 40 to 50 year age group.

Now, Together-Razem has launched a new counselling initiative that aims to support Polish and Romanian communities in Ireland called “You are not alone”.

The project, funded by the Gambling Awareness Trust, will provide counselling services to Polish and Romanian migrants living in Ireland who struggle with gambling issues and to their families who can’t avail of the mainstream counselling services because of linguistic barriers and cultural differences.

According to the most recent Census, 122,000 Polish and 29,000 Romanian migrants live in Ireland. While Together-Razem says some of them have integrated into the Irish community, the organisation believes others have faced exclusion due to the language barrier. This vulnerable group of migrants is at risk of quickly finding themselves on the fringes of society, in homelessness or facing mental health difficulties, according to Mr Bialek.

He said: “Alcohol addiction is certainly one of the main problems among Eastern Europeans in Ireland, but the pandemic has really highlighted the issue of gambling. And we are delighted that we can now support migrants with problematic gambling.

“We have noticed a hike in online casinos and betting online during pandemic. Life had moved to the virtual world and every single person was carrying a casino in their pockets and at home. We have come together — our Together-Razem Centre and Romanian Community in Cork — and have the same findings. Evidence shows that immigrants and ethnocultural populations experience disparities in their access to addiction and mental health services, quality of care and health outcomes.”

Mr Bialek said the service at Together-Razem had been HSE-funded for two years up to recently and he believes that such funding would be a great help to the eastern European community.

He explained: “Many Poles are in low skilled, low paid jobs and cannot afford private counselling. €50 per session is our fee, and not everyone can afford it.”

And he said funding of an addiction counsellor especially for the Polish and eastern European community is “less expensive than providing interpreters” for people attending counselling sessions. And he pointed out that having an interpreter present means that a session is less private for a client.

He said: “In Canada, health service pays for each addiction counselling session to NGO providing professional counselling and it makes more sense than spending a fortune on hiring interpreters.”

The coordinator of Drug and Alcohol Services for the Health Service Executive in Cork and Kerry, David Lane, said that moves are now underway to hire a full-time counsellor to work in the Cork and Kerry region with the eastern European community.

He said that funding for a part time addiction counsellor had been given to Together-Razem from 2017 to 2019 and that the funded worker then worked part-time with members of the eastern European community before returning to Poland.

He said that a re-configuration of services is now underway, adding:

“We would have had 14 different employers of drug and alcohol workers across the Cork and Kerry region.”

He said the re-consolidation will result in a more streamlined approach to the employment of drug and alcohol workers.

And he said: “One of the important posts for us has to be support for the eastern European community. We are going to replace the part-time worker with a full time post.”

It is expected that the post will be advertised within the next month.

Mr Lane described the move as a “good development”, adding that there is a strong Polish and eastern European community in Cork.

Together-Razem was set up in 2006 to provide support for Polish people and other eastern Europeans who had moved to Cork. The aim of the centre was to help them integrate into Irish society while being able to respect their own roots and traditions.

“You are not alone” is currently run online, on the evenings and on Saturdays to accommodate working people. Appointments to free counselling sessions can be booked via the website www.together-razem.org or over the phone 021 439 5588.

CASE STUDIES

A POLISH man who came to Cork to escape a gambling addiction disappeared some time after moving to Ireland because his addiction continued to haunt him.

Before coming to Cork, he had been addicted to roulette and slot machines, and had to turn to crime to feed his habit.

When he came to Ireland, he began a new relationship and had a young child. However, his addiction was too strong to overcome and he began to visit bookmakers, eventually losing all his money. After his partner left him with their child, he ended up homeless, sleeping in squats in Cork city. He then disappeared and has never been found. He is believed to have died by suicide.

In another case, a Polish man had a booming construction business in his home country but lost his business, his €300,000 home and shares worth more than €1m, because of his gambling habit.

His gambling was done online through virtual casinos and stock market operations. He decided to move to Ireland to get work as a builder here, to make money for his family, who remained at home.

However, he continued to gamble in Ireland and came to Together-Razem for help from the organisation’s addiction counselling service.

However, his case was deemed very serious and Together-Razem secured him a place in a specialised residential treatment centre in Poland.

He completed the programme but remained in debt as a result of his habit. He later died by suicide.

A third case study supplied by Together-Razem was a Latvian man in his early 30s who was addicted to playing Black Jack. His wife was concerned about his habit and contacted Together-Razem.

He had previously worked in London in high end restaurants, as a chef, before moving to Ireland to continue working in the restaurant sector.

However, as a result of the pandemic, he was laid off, giving him more time at home, from where he could gamble online. While in eastern Europe, During the pandemic, he turned to virtual casinos and online poker, spending up to eight hours a day playing. During his treatment, he said he turned to gambling out of boredom after he was laid off from his job.

In the past six months, he lost more than €10,000 — all his family’s savings. His wife only became aware of the extent of his habit when she discovered that the family’s savings were gone.

His self-esteem had also suffered, as he stopped taking care of himself. After attending a GP, he was put on medication for depression.

After discussions with his wife, he agreed to give her all the family’s credit cards, and he imposed a ban on himself from accessing online gambling.

With the help of addiction counselling and Gamblers Anonymous meetings, he managed to bring his addiction under control.

He regularly attends online GA meetings — in Russian, through UK-based sites. He also has his motivation back and has returned to exercise, and is seeking a job in Ireland.

Although he misses the buzz that he got from playing poker, he believes that turning his back on the habit has helped to strengthen his relationship with his wife.

The couple are now planning to undertake couple therapy to help him move forward from his addiction.

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