‘What’s the Story; Lives in Direct Provision’ Speaker Series
In September 2017, we launched a new speaker series entitled ‘What’s the Story; Lives in Direct Provision’. This eye-opening series of lectures looked at what it means to live in the direct provision system, focusing on themes of home, time & family.
Our Dean’s Vicar, the Revd Abigail Sines, tells us the fascinating, and often heart-breaking, story:
What’s the Story? Lives in Direct Provision
In recent years the ongoing civil conflict in Syria has brought images of refugees attempting, through desperate circumstances, to find safe haven in Europe. This crisis moment brought a steep learning curve of awareness as these images were available to us via television, newspapers and online. Perhaps the most current and visible group, these heartbreaking images prompted me to inquire more about the situation of refugees in Ireland, to find out how Ireland was receiving refugees and if there were ways to be involved in this. It was in the midst of all this, about a year ago that I began to learn about the Direct Provision System, and the situation for those who are already seeking asylum here. With just over 5,100 accommodation spaces available in facilities around the country, those awaiting a decision on their legal status are housed in hostel-type living quarters. This ‘temporary’ living situation can extend for years waiting for one’s case to be processed, during which time asylum seekers are prohibited from work and have no access to third-level education beyond a few exceptional schemes. During this extended and indefinite waiting period, people face the practical challenge of becoming de-skilled, as well and dealing with the mental health impacts of isolation and marginalisation on top of whatever past trauma was involved in their having to leave their home countries.
Seeking to engage around these issues, the cathedral invited individuals from City of Sanctuary Dublin to conduct two awareness-raising sessions and also to help us think of how the cathedral might take practical steps to welcome newcomers in our city, especially those who are seeking sanctuary. We had a good turn out for these and developed a core of willing volunteers who could be called upon to receive groups and provide a welcome. From this starting point, the cathedral was able to host several different small group visits from various direct provision centres in and around Dublin, to offer them a guided tour of the cathedral and a chance to chat over a cup of tea in the crypt. We wanted to explore other ways to be involved in the conversation and so took the decision—or rather step of faith!—to host a speaker series. We envisaged this as an opportunity for those in the system to share their experiences in their own words. Given that social isolation is a major factor of life in direct provision, we wanted to offer a space for meaningful conversations and connection with people in the wider community. It seemed natural to title this series “What’s the Story?”, the common greeting often overheard on Dublin streets. At a deeper level we hoped that the opportunity to have their personal stories heard would be an empowering and confidence-building experience for the speakers.
The reflections, which took place over the first three Mondays in September, focused around three themes: home, family and time. We wanted to make the ‘launch’ the series special, and we were delighted to welcome the amazing Ellie Kisyombe, herself an asylum seeker, and others from Our Table to cater for the event.
The ‘What’s the Story?’ series featured nine speakers from around the world: Bangladesh, Botswana, Iran, Cameroon, Malawi, Nigeria, South Africa, Somalia, Syria. Through prose and poetry they shared their struggles but also their strengths. It was a privilege to hear their stories. One of the poems contained this gripping line: ‘I promise I will not be a foreigner in my next life. I promise to be born Irish’. In these stories, we heard repeatedly the voice of people with something to give, people who want very much to be accepted and to make a contribution to the place they now call home.
Below are two reflections by those who attended and who were willing to share how they had been impacted by the stories they heard. The first reflection comes from Celia Dunne, the Dean’s wife:
Telling the Story
By Celia Dunne
This series of presentations by residents in direct provision was for me humbling, inspiring and at times deeply moving. The speakers, four women and two men, whom I heard on the first two evenings were heart-wrenchingly honest, courageous, eloquent and talented. They are people we need to embrace, encourage and appreciate that they chose to live in Ireland.
“What does ‘home’ mean for you?” This was the question posed to four women living in direct provision in Ireland. A private space, somewhere to relax, be yourself, a place to sleep comfortably, cook the food of your choice, watch television, enjoy access to the internet. For most of us present, as well as the general population, these are givens. But for these four women and all those living in direct provision in Ireland and elsewhere, their story is very different. They can take none of these ‘givens’ for granted. A Nigerian mother of four young children had lived for three years without a private space for her husband, herself and the children, and no kitchen of her own. Only in the last 6 months had the family been moved to accommodation where, at least, the family has a private unit where they can close the door. She told me that although she was very grateful for this move they were finding it very difficult to integrate into Irish life given the distance from the local town, lack of money and regular transport. I asked her was she still pleased to be in Ireland. “Oh yes, definitely. Here, I am not afraid of being shot at when I go outside.” I wonder if I am not alone in feeling that we can be smug in our comfortable surroundings. I think we can delude ourselves by believing that because these fellow humans have chosen to flee war-torn countries to live in the relative safety of Ireland, it is enough that they are here, albeit in unsatisfactory surroundings. “We all share the one bread.” We are all one. I am acutely aware of my own shortcomings in being more pro-active in welcoming “the stranger” into our midst. How is it for you?
A young woman from Somalia spoke eloquently and movingly of how aware she was of “time.” Of time passing so quickly and how she could so easily feel stuck. However, she was fortunate to recognise how easy it would be for her to sink into negativity and depression over her situation and how important it is for her to keep positive and be as pro-active as she can. She has had the strength of character to turn her thinking around, to view this time of unemployment as a blessing. She has time to read, to learn better English, to acquaint herself with her new culture through books. In this time of so-called ‘poverty’ she is finding great wealth.
A middle-aged businessman from Iran has taken a similar positive attitude to his “free” time by motivating others in his community to organise activities in different Irish locations, working in a voluntary capacity, offering skills helping with improvements. In this way the sense of “oneness” is encouraged with people of many nationalities coming together, creating a community of their own as well as helping to integrate into their chosen land.
Thank you to Abigail and the team for raising awareness of those in direct provision. May we be moved to continue the process.
The second reflection comes from Mary Oyediran. Ms. Oyediran had never been to the cathedral before, but attended at the invitation of a friend who had heard about the series:
Hearing the Voices of Asylum Seekers
By Mary Oyediran
My friend’s invitation provoked me: come and listen to voices of asylum seekers! I was intrigued. It was important to listen with my inner ear to their stories. I wanted to be involved and help. This was a way in to learn and gain practical wisdom about the people who were seeking asylum in Ireland.
The first Monday filled my heart with despair initially, a little disturbed about the situation of real life. Hope and opportunity followed as the strength and character of each voice were brought to light. They were resilient! My heart was cheered. Each speaker poured out their heart and gave a charge to their audience. Each voice was determined to survive despite the difficult regulations and restrictions in direct provision centres. They found hope in their new adopted country.
I was touched that first night by reference to the children and the impact on their childhood. That gripped me! Going to school from these centres created more challenges for parents and their children: obstacles of low self-esteem and difficulty forming long-lasting friendships with peers due to frequent movement from one place to another added to the strain. Some found that their children hated to disclose their address to other children. There was a stigma attached to receiving “free food.”
One of the voices was so poetic as she used vivid imagery to capture our attention, with descriptive colourful verses on the truth about living in a direct provision centre so far from home. She was ready to her take her place if given the chance! She wanted to fit in and play her part. Immediately after these speeches, we were escorted to the crypt. Instead of a cold, dark and dingy place as I expected we were greeted with the delicate aroma of ethnic savouries. A banquet table fit for a king was presented to us. I sampled as much as possible the mouth-watering dishes on offer. We were not disappointed. The cooks were themselves asylum seekers.
Networking was easy and straightforward. As we all agreed the food was so delicious it made it easy to make new friends and strengthened relationship with the old. It was an amazing end to a thought-provoking night.
The second week was interesting because we had only male voices. Both men had to face battles and shared thoughts that left me speechless. The dignity of a man to provide for his family was taken away. That was a denial of a human right! One of the speakers spoke on “time.” As a society time is taken for granted. I am guilty of this! But this young man had come to value time. He saw opportunities in every hour, every minute, every second. He was determined not to waste any of it regardless of his situation. He concluded in a nutshell, saying, “time is gold”, a precious commodity that must be valued. It was a major lesson to learn from that voice. We were humbled by his perspective! He never complained.
The final Monday we were privileged to listen to the voices of three beautiful women, all mothers seeking asylum: running, leaving behind a painful past and reaching for a new future. Not being able to cook for their children and juggling life the best they can, their situations are not easy. Each female voice called me to get up and make a difference.
We all have a part to play in assisting asylum seekers to make Ireland a sanctuary. We could do it as an organisation with resources, or individually as volunteers. We must take action and not be hearers or spectators but take a definite, decisive decision in our hearts to get involved and become part of the solution. I have established contact with some of the speakers since the series. We have joined together to meet a local TD to discuss practical issues asylum seekers face, such as opening bank accounts, getting identification cards, registering to vote and finding accommodation. This process is just the beginning for me. I am ready and willing to learn!