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Safe Home Ireland is delighted to announce a new feature “ Home thoughts from Abroad”, our first ever BLOG!

To mark International Women’s Day, we chat with Sarah Whelan,  Founder of Irish Women Abroad, a Sydney-based Dubliner who has been living in Australia for 15 years. Sarah shares her journey, experiences and all she has learned along the way.

Tell us a bit about yourself, your journey and how you ended up in Sydney?

My name is Sarah Whelan, and I am the Founder of Irish Women Abroad. I am a Sydney-based Dubliner and have been living in Australia for 15 years with my Irish husband (who I met in Sydney 7 years ago). Before I left Ireland, and when I first moved to Sydney I worked as a Fund Accountant in an American Investment Bank. Not long after emigrating I decided to change careers, realising that supporting vulnerable people was calling me, so I qualified as a Social Worker in Sydney in 2010.

Five years later, I got married and in 2016 and my beautiful daughter was born in Sydney. At the time it really hit home that we were raising a family away from our own family and friends who live back in Ireland. It was such an overwhelming time looking back and it prompted us to return to Ireland when my daughter was 4 months old. After nearly two years of living in Ireland as a family of three, we made the difficult decision to return to Sydney, as we missed the lifestyle and wanted to take advantage of all the opportunities that came our way.  

Tell us a bit about Irish Women Abroad, how, why and when it was set up?

When we touched down in Sydney, I began to share my experiences of leaving and returning online and many Irish women reached out sharing that I was putting their feelings into words and that they loved the message I was sharing.  It surprised me that many others identified with how I was feeling and with the guilt of bringing up a family away from extended family. 

 I realised quickly I was not alone in the isolation and I did not want other Irish women to feel the way I did, so I created Irish Women Abroad, an online support network. The group quickly grew to over 3,000 network members, the majority of whom are in Australia, and it provides everything from a shoulder to lean on to suggestions regarding every challenging aspect of emigration, from leaving relatives to transporting pets.

In August 2019, the online community moved into the real world and the first social event in Sydney was opened by Vice Consul Rory Conaty, Consulate General of Ireland (Sydney).  Since then, we have organised a variety of face-to-face events to connect with each other and share our lived experiences. 

What does International Women’s Day mean to you?

International Women’s day is a day to celebrate women’s contributions to society and acknowledge the changes that have come about thus far.  The importance of role models cannot be underestimated. If we look around and do not see examples of women achieving amazing things, how can we believe that we as women, our daughters and all other girls and women in the world can do great things too? Celebrating women’s achievements can inspire us and help see what is possible and maybe even give us the courage to pursue our dreams too.

On that note, I encourage you all to reach out and remind the women in your life how important they are to you, not just today but throughout the whole year. 

Have you/your organization any plans to acknowledge this day?

In 2020, we were incredibly lucky to celebrate International Women’s Day just before COVID 19 and lockdowns were upon us on March 8th. We enjoyed a High Tea at the infamous QVB Tea Rooms in Sydney, and it was such a magical day being surrounded by women who took the leap of faith to celebrate with other Irish women they may not have met before.

This year we are marking the occasion by celebrating Irish women’s achievements via our “Women of IWA” features on social media. Whether it is to do with setting up a business, their contribution to community organisation or overcoming personal challenges.  The aim is that the Irish Community get behind celebrating these special women by commenting, sharing and liking the posts, every bit of encouragement goes a long way! 

Who are the female figures who have influenced you in life and work?

I am inspired by women who share their gifts with the world and hold space for others.  Mary Robinson is a huge inspiration for me as Ireland’s first female president and a passionate advocate for gender equality. The work of Brene Brown is refreshing for me, she is so open and honest and is a wonderful role model of what she talks about – vulnerability, courage, authenticity and shame. Another inspiring Irish figure is my grandmother with the same name as me. Sadly, she was widowed at the age of 32 and raised her 4 children by herself and ran a family business. She had an entrepreneurial spirit, and a keen interest in networking, adventure and travel. The night before she died, she returned from a solo cruise around Italy at the age of 75, which was completely out of the ordinary in the 1980s and a true inspiration to me. 

Do you think it is important for women to lift each other up and what does that mean to you? 

Lifting other women up is one of my highest values. You can even empower a woman just by complimenting her and showing kindness. You never know that day might be the day where she is ready to give up. We have all had that unexpected encouragement that is allowed us to push through the hard times. Imagine, you are the one that kept another woman from giving up. We are a team. One woman’s accomplishment is an accomplishment for all women. And we should all celebrate that!

You left your native Dublin at 24 what advice would you now give to your 24-year-old self?

It’s ok not to have it all figured out”.  You will never have it figured out! The only thing that matters is who you are and what you are doing right now! Do your best, be real, be vulnerable and keep putting one foot forward. 

Anything else you would like to share?

No matter what you are facing right now in your life and how challenging it might be… you are not alone, and you will survive it. We often think that we are alone in our troubles or that they seem too great but by sharing with others or reaching out we will see that other women can be there to support us.

Regardless of what you achieve in life, remember that you are enough, and you are worthy of great things and worthy of love. One of my favourite quotes is ” Ten years from now make sure you can say you chose your life. You didn’t settle for it. “

Sarah Whelan