A taste of home, wherever that may be

Michelle Darmody, founder of Our Table, meets the people in direct provision at Christmas

Mabel Chah, Sligo Global Kitchen, at Christmas flavours from El Salvador event at The Model. Picture: James Connolly

For most people Christmas is about spending time with family, enjoying being at home, sharing gifts, and cooking together. For the more than 4,000 people living in direct provision, who have had to leave their homes, Christmas is very different. There are many sad and complicated situations that lead to people seeking shelter in Ireland.

In a more perfect world, we could all thrive in the place where we were born but throughout history there have been many people who have had to pack what they could and leave the place they call home. Under the UN Universal Declaration of Human Rights, drawn up after the Second World War, people are entitled to protection. Asylum is a term for the type of protection people are due, a refuge from the horrors and persecution that the world can unleash.

In Ireland our way of housing people, while their application for asylum is being processed, is to place them in direct provision centres.

Life in direct provision can be difficult at any time of year but for many, Christmas is particularly hard. There are the obvious things: Not being able to cook and share a meal with your children, not being able to get gifts for those you love. But there is the added pain of missing home.

Mabel Chah has been resident in Sligo for five years, two of which she spent in direct provision. She is a vibrant and energetic young woman, having organised and hosted many events supporting communities in Sligo, including Global Kitchen in the Model Arts Centre.

The goal of Global Kitchen, which is volunteer run, is ultimately to provide employment for people when they leave direct provision. “We are hoping this can become a social enterprise which would pay people to stay in Sligo,” she says. It’s a town she loves. Chah is involved in the local choir and has built strong ties in the area.

When chatting to Mabel the thought of Christmas in Ireland, without her family, brings her down. She

Chah says being in Ireland, without her family, was particularly hard the first year. She had no loved ones near and was in such unfamiliar surroundings, even the Irish Christmas dinner was unknown to her. “There was not a soul out on the streets. Not a single door was open, it was freezing I had to cover my nose to breathe easy.”

She is still shaken by how quiet Christmas Day is in Ireland. “Back in Cameroon, when the situation was not as bad as now, Christmas Day is the day every home opens its doors and lays out a variety of meals at the table and all your friends and neighbours can walk in, serve themselves, eat and chat, then move off to the next home. Children go around from home to home entertaining for treats and tips. The beaches are packed in the afternoon and every community organises balls or dances later in different halls for different age groups.”

This year Chah is organising a number of events to help recreate that sense of community and connection. “After that first Christmas Day, everything went back to normal, and I realised I was not the only one who was alone on that day and no one should spend this day on their own if they can choose. I got into activities to create a community around me and since then I have not had to spend Christmas alone in a small bed peering out a window at nothing.”

On December 15, Chah brought together a large number of people for a celebration dinner, with Syrian musicians Akidwa, which is Swahili for sisterhood. There was a talk aimed at migrant women living in Ireland; local poet Ann Onnamus did a reading and DJ Magictunez, from Cameroon, played tunes. Chah says, “the Sligo Gospel Choir sang and dinner was served and then we partied, partied, partied”.

On Christmas Day itself she will have dinner with the Cameroonian community in Sligo, with members both in and out of direct provision. They will host a dinner at a community centre so that no one will have to spend the day alone.

Mabel Chah, Sligo Global Kitchen, at the Christmas flavours from El Salvador event at The Model, Sligo. Picture: James Connolly

Ellie Kisyombe has been in Ireland for nine years and has spent those being moved between seven different direct provision centres. Ellie also finds Christmas especially lonely and the memories of home surface.

She recounts “travelling to mum’s village to visit my Gogo or Anganga (grandparents) as they waited anxiously for us to arrive with gifts. We were welcomed with traditional dances and home-brewed drinks, Mowa wa Masese for the adults and Thobwa for the children. Those are the days I wish I could return back too. Now I can only live with those memories and there are times I still get lost in them. At Christmas it gets more lonely.”

Ellie’s parents and grandparents are no longer alive and she is making a new life for herself in Ireland

but like anyone she misses home, particularly at Christmas.

Ellie and I worked together setting up Our Table, a non-profit food enterprise. The aim of Our Table is to shine a light on the terrible eating conditions in direct provision as well as creating a social network, a space to cook and enjoy food together. It facilitates change through conversations over food.

Food unites us all; even if we do not speak the same language we can communicate through food. When the right to cook is taken away from you, as it is in direct provision, it can have huge implications on health and wellbeing. It becomes difficult to pass on skills and knowledge to a new generation and families feel that great loss. Our Table hosts events where the food is prepared by people from a variety of countries who come together to share recipes and meals together.

Malawian Ellie Kisyombe is the founder of the Our Table initiative, which saw asylum seekers cooking and sharing food with the general public. Picture: Eddie O’Hare

Ellie now runs Our Table and the long-term plan is to create a kitchen that will become a training space where food from various communities is celebrated and enjoyed and to use this as a template for further projects.

The group is organising a Christmas party for children who are based in direct provision centres around Dublin. This will be the third party and each year it gets busier and Santa gets more inundated by excited children.

Lucky Kambula runs MASI, the Movement of Asylum Seekers Ireland. He is a trusted figure who explains that Christmas is particularity difficult for families who have children in the centres. Every parent wants what is best for their children and these are not the best places to wake up on Christmas morning. Events like those run by Mabel and Ellie help people enjoy the day a little more.

Together as a country we should work towards creating a more compassionate welcome for people who become displaced from their homes. Differences can sometimes cloud the greater similarities that we all share. When people from different countries come to our shores asking for help sometimes these similarities are completely forgotten, and with that so too are compassion and empathy. Christmas is a time for kindness, a time for inclusion, and for remembering those who are far from home.

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