Stephen Rea is one of the people behind a book that pairs artists and writers with people in the controversial refugee system, writes Colette Sheridan
“People will say, there’s those arty bastards again but what can you do?” says actor Stephen Rae.
Rae and poet Jessica Traynor are trying to improve the lot of refugees and asylum seekers stuck in what they describe as the “inhumane” system of Direct Provision.
The duo recently launched Correspondences: an anthology to call for an end to direct provision. The book, which was sparked by the Field Day Right to have Rights lecture series in 2017 at NUI Galway, contains essays, poetry, memoir and photography by a diverse range of voices on a system that is now entering its twentieth year.
A fifteen-year old girl from Afghanistan recounts the moment her neighbourhood was obliterated by bombs; a Zimbabwean mother writes about the reality of raising children in direct provision, etc
For the book, people living in Direct Provision were paired with Irish writers and artists, helping them to write their stories. Some of the refugees were already writers. What they have in common is a desire to shine a light on the experiences of refugees in Ireland today. Some extracts of the anthology will be published in the winter 2019 edition of The Stinging Fly literary journal.
Rae speaks of “the cruelty and unnecessary harshness of direct provision, excluding people who have often lived here for quite some time and who in my experience, are extremely pleasant decent people who deserve a better shake.”
There is also the issue of lengthy waiting periods for applications to be processed.
In Ireland, there is, says Rae, a tradition of institutionalisation.
The recent protests against direct provision centres being opened in parts of Ireland are, says Rae, mostly motivated by concern about the system rather than racism.
“In Achill, the people there said they would like to see a proper system [for refugees]. I don’t think they were being disingenuous. Maybe there is a growing sense of the injustice of Direct Provision. My main fear about it all is that the bad treatment of people who are here is to prevent others coming. And there are lots of people making money out of Direct Provision, such as hotels and caterers. They bring in food that is culturally obnoxious to these people.”
Does Rae distinguish between economic migrants and asylum seekers? “I don’t understand the distinction. Everybody is an economic migrant because they’ve come here to get a decent job and a decent education for their kids. Is that not a legitimate form of migration? I think it’s absolutely legitimate. We all know people who went to England and sent money home to their families. It’s about having a better life. I don’t know what’s wrong with that.”
Rae is concerned about “the ease with which racism happens and the glibness of it. I hear racism a lot towards the Travellers. It’s completely wrong. We are living in a multi-cultural world now and we’re better for it. London has got better because of all the races living there. There’s a broader view of things and more skills. We are going to have to welcome multiculturalism.”
It is, says Rae, “time to get on with it. I suppose I’m not allowed to say this but Leo Varadkar’s father was an immigrant. What’s wrong with that?”
Twenty-one-year-old Rehan Ali, born in Pakistan, came to Ireland at the age of six with his mother, older brother and sister. He says writing saved his life. Ali, currently in his third year studying neuroscience at UCC, spent ten frustrating years in the limbo of Direct Provision in Carrick on Suir.
Ali says that his mother wanted her children to have a better life and to have the chances that she did not have.
But what transpired was a huge disappointment. Ali reflects that he didn’t have the childhood that most children around him had. “Rules and regulations dictated everything from who was allowed into my room [the family of four shared one room until the eldest became a teenager and they were then given two rooms] to deciding what I could do during the day. I didn’t have self determination and it had an impact on me. I’m still dealing with the scars of it.”
Ali says that for the first couple of years in Direct Provision, he was allowed to bring friends home. “The one joy I had was hanging out with a boy from my school. I’d go to his house and he’d come to my place. Then, all of a sudden, one day my mother told me that I couldn’t have him home anymore. It was a new rule [imposed on the residents in the direct provision centre]. So I lost a friend. I was around nine or ten.”
Ali says he spent most of his free time roaming around the hostel, looking for things to do. “I love to write and that’s what I spent most of my time doing. It was mostly fiction. It was an escape. When you’re writing, you’re in a different world. It was so needed. Otherwise, I don’t know what I would have done.”
After ten years in Carrick on Suir, the family finally got papers allowing them to stay and work in Ireland. They moved to Fermoy as Ali’s sister decided to do her doctorate with Teagasc in the Co Cork town. Ali’s brother is doing his masters in physics at NUI Galway. All three children work part-time. Their mother does voluntary work and the family home is a council house. Life has improved immeasurably. But there is a lot of sadness. While in direct provision, Ali’s mother wasn’t allowed to go to Pakistan for her father’s funeral. “That left her broken.”
But despite the harsh conditions that Ali and his family lived in for ten years, he doesn’t think Ireland is a racist country.
All proceeds from Correspondences go to MASI (Movement of Asylum Seekers in Ireland). The anthology is available from the Gutter Bookshop and Books Upstairs in Dublin, at €15. Online sales from stingingfly.org