Marjorie Brennan meets Ellie Kisyombe from pop up cafe, Our Table, as she embarks on a three-month internship with Darina Allen – and begins a new column in Weekend.
It has been a whirlwind of a week for Ellie Kisyombe; she is tired and emotionally drained, not that you would ever guess from listening to her.
She radiates positive energy, raucous bursts of laughter regularly punctuating our chat. Kisyombe is at the start of a three-month internship at Ballymaloe Cookery School in Co Cork – she will write a column about her experiences, beginning next week in Weekend – and still can’t quite believe she is actually there.
“I am walking around Ballymaloe asking myself ‘Is this real?’ For the first week, I couldn’t sleep for three or four nights,” she says.
A native of Malawi, Kisyombe is seeking asylum in Ireland and has been in the direct provision system for almost seven years.
“I have been asked many times why I left. East, west, north, south — home is the best but when that home has become the mouth of a shark, then you are forced to leave without even thinking of your next destination,” she says.
“I had to leave because of my activism, I’m afraid I can’t explain much as my case is still ongoing. I wanted to live in a place where I could be safe and happy watching my kids grow without fear of what would happen next.”
While Kisyombe was grateful to find safety in Ireland, the uncertainty of life in direct provision and lack of control took its toll.
“Don’t get me wrong, I was glad to have a place to sleep and food to eat. But for five-and-a-half years, I lived in different hostels, in one room with three other people, not allowed to work or even further my education. It was like living in an open prison, I went into a total depression. As a way of coping, I started campaigning for an end to direct provision.”
Kisyombe began volunteering with the Irish Refugee Council, seeking changes such as allowing those in direct provision to prepare and cook their own food. Through this activism, she came to the attention of chef and food writer Darina Allen, who offered her an internship at Ballymaloe Cookery School.
Kisyombe started at the same time as the intake of students undertaking the prestigious certificate course at Ballymaloe, and while the long hours and heavy workload are an adjustment for all, it is fair to say that for Kisyombe, the culture shock is even more intense.
“It is hard to express it. I have shifted from my world, surrounded by people from social justice who know me very well… I am coming out from that shell into another world. Darina is very supportive and just wants to make sure I am fitting in. I cannot put into words how well I have been treated. It makes me feel like I am a normal human being and that makes me emotional.”
Kisyombe’s journey to Ballymaloe began with her involvement in the Our Table project, initiated by café owner and Irish Examiner food columnist Michelle Darmody.
“Food is so much part of my life and I find it really upsetting that people in direct provision are not allowed to cook. People can be in direct provision for up to ten years. That is someone’s childhood gone without ever having a parent cook a meal for them,” says Darmody.
She met Kisyombe after approaching the Irish Refugee Council to offer her help. “They introduced me to a group of people, one of whom was Ellie; we really clicked. I just bought a big pile of ingredients, organised a kitchen and we all cooked and chatted. We did that about seven or eight times, then we decided to do a two-day pop-up event in the Project Arts Centre in Temple Bar. We had about 300 people each day coming through, people from direct provision themselves and members of the public who wanted to show solidarity. It was a really nice, heartwarming few days.”
The Our Table project is ongoing and an extended three-month pop-up finished just before Christmas.
“It will definitely continue in some form,” says Darmody. “We are regrouping and thinking about a permanent premises. We would like to look at diversifying a little bit.”
Like Darmody, Darina Allen has also spoken out about the lack of cooking facilities for asylum seekers in direct provision and was delighted to offer Ellie an internship at Ballymaloe when contacted about doing something to help.
“I so admire what Michelle and everyone else is doing with Our Table and I was absolutely delighted to be able to make a small contribution. While Ellie is learning, we will also learn a lot from her as well, and from her attitude. I want her to talk to the students and tell them about direct provision and we will also do a food event with her to raise awareness of the situation.
“I cannot understand why people in direct provision are not allowed to cook, or for that matter, to grow. There is land around many of these centres and it would be such a comfort to those living there to be able to sow seeds and grow produce.”
Allen acknowledges the situation is far from straightforward but believes people who want to help are being stymied by bureaucracy.
“All I know is the deep frustration around the country of people who are desperate to help and can’t seem to be able to. I was at a meeting before Christmas and people were quite vocal about how frustrated they were having offered help and there being no proper follow-up. Obviously there are security issues but it would be lovely if we could work together so that the asylum seekers could feel the goodwill of the people. There are lots of little ways to make it easier for them.
"We can’t speed up the process, that is for the Government, but just to make life more bearable. In the meantime, the goodwill out there is being squandered because it doesn’t seem like the dots are being connected adequately.”
Darmody says the Our Table project has been successful in starting a conversation around food preparation in direct provision but that those involved would like to see the entire system come to an end.
“While initially one of its biggest remits was to raise awareness of the system around direct provision, calling for an end to the system is definitely our priority,” she says. There are signs that things may be changing. Darmody says residents of the direct provision centre in Mosney, Co Meath, recently received letters saying there will be cooking facilities and food on site from the end of January.
“We are waiting to see how that pans out,” she says. “I can’t claim that is directly to do with us but a few of the residents I have been talking to were thanking us for the pressure we have been putting on and felt it has definitely pushed things along.” Kisyombe now lives in a direct provision centre in Dublin with her son and daughter, who are being cared for by her cousin and sister while she is in Ballymaloe. As an asylum seeker, she is unable to work and had to get special permission to take up the intern opportunity in Ballymaloe.
“It’s such a simple thing, to be able to work,” says Darmody. “Ellie is such a capable person and to be unable to work for seven years is crazy. She has had to make an effort to keep herself busy, volunteering with the Irish Refugee Council and different NGOs.” Darmody is awestruck by her friend’s determination.
“Ellie’s energy astounds me. She is exceptional in how she has dealt with her situation. She has always been very vocal and has become a beacon to others in direct provision who may be afraid to speak out. It is very nerve-wracking for people to do that when their cases are still in the courts system. To stand up and say ‘I am grateful to be in this country and I really want to be here but I just don’t think this is right’ is a very brave thing to do.”
For Kisyombe, the friendship of people like Darmody has made an immeasurable difference to her situation.
“We just clicked, she is like a sister from another mother,” she says. “When you have a good heart, God always sends you good people into your life.”
Meanwhile, Kisyombe still waits for her case to be decided. Yet her optimism remains undimmed. “You cannot tell, it could be tomorrow. There is nothing you can do except keep hoping. I am lucky to meet the right people and get these opportunities. I am getting a second chance in life, despite my situation.”
As for the future, Kisyombe hopes to continue her work in community development.
“My hope is to get my papers and to carry on what I’m doing, helping others. I want to give other people hope.”
Ellie’s column begins next week.
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