Living in Direct Provision: ‘It’s is a stain on Irish society. I’ll never forget those still incarcerated’

Mustafa Bakhit, a qualified medical doctor, fled his war-torn country of Sudan to seek safety and asylum here. ‘I’m in Ireland eight months and for me it’s a very good place. For the first time since I left home I feel secure and safe. Irish people listen to you. They deal with you as a human being.’ Picture: Larry Cummins

Joyce Fegan talks to some of those in Direct Provision, who want an end to a ‘devilish’ and ‘evil’ system that leaves them fully dependant on the State.

Mustafa Bakhit, from Sudan, is eight months in Direct Provision (Cork)

A qualified medical doctor, Mustafa Bakhit, fled his war-torn country of Sudan to seek safety and asylum here.

“I’m in Ireland eight months and for me it’s a very good place. For the first time since I left home I feel secure and safe. Irish people listen to you. They deal with you as a human being and that’s what I really need — to be listened to.

“I’m from Darfur, a terrible place in Sudan. For the last 10 years it has been terrible with the government. The government is trying to commit genocide against certain tribes.

“I am an educated person. I graduated from medicine and surgery in 2015, and I worked in a hospital as a general physician for one year. As an educated person I used my voice to try and give the world a reality of what was happening.

“Our government considers every person who is not with them, as against them, even if you’re silent. I was trying to give a voice, to try and stop the killing.

“I lost a lot of my friends, my father, brothers and roommates. Death is a normal thing in Darfur. The human can adapt itself to any situation.

“I was arrested and I escaped last November, in 2017. It was very serious. I was supported by friends and family, to leave Darfur. It is impossible to leave my country from an airport with my surname. So I had to leave from Chad, our neighbouring country. I walked for hours at night to get to Chad. A doctor friend helped me and I met someone at the border and they guided me and gave me a passport.

“I landed in Dublin, without anything. I was alone in Europe. I was asking for protection, nothing more. I stayed in the airport for four hours. I just sat in a chair. A security guard observed me as I was sitting in the chair for so long and asked was I OK. That policeman was very kind. He took me down to an office and I was asked questions about why I came here and how did I come here. I gave my finger print and it was the first step in the process of protection. I was an asylum seeker.

“Balseskin [reception centre] in Dublin took me first. It took me three months to realise where I was. It was the first time in my life I was away from home. I am not married but my mother is still alive and I took care of her. I feel selfish thinking of my family, missing my family, when there are hundreds of people suffering.

“I am a doctor, all my life I have spent in the book, or in hospital, I hope I can help people again. I love to help people. I want to help people in Ireland. They have been kind to me. And I hope my family are safe.

“I am now in a Direct Provision centre on the Kinsale Road. In Ireland, it (the processing of an application for protection) takes time. Every country has its own system. For me, it saved my life.

“I spend my days by being very busy. I try to do something. I can’t just wait in the home for the papers (to be processed). I get up early. I go to English classes. I spend a lot of time in the library. I do a volunteer job. I am self-educating almost all of the time.

“When I came here I didn’t know anyone, now I do, I have friends. I used to have Facebook to stay in touch with people back home, but I deleted it because it always brings me bad news (deaths).

“Irish people are very generous and open. They are very, very good people. They come from the heart.

“I am coming from a very hot place, but I love the rain here, it’s very rare in my country. Adaption takes time.”

Lesley Mkoko, from Swaziland, is two and a half years in Direct Provision (Waterford)

Lesley Mkoko, from Swaziland, is living in a Direct Provision centre in Waterford. Lesley, 50, spends six hours commuting to and from UCD every day, having won a place at the university for asylum seekers. Picture: Moya Nolan

Lesley Mkoko is a 50-year-old student who spends six hours commuting to and from UCD every day, having won a place at the university for asylum seekers.

“I started studying with UCD in the last academic year and I was living in Monaghan at that stage and I would be travelling from Monaghan to UCD and from UCD to Monaghan every day. I would spend four hours travelling. I would have to leave the centre at 5am in the morning and I would get back to the centre after 8pm.

“During that time, it literally meant I wouldn’t have my breakfast, l wouldn’t have lunch and I wouldn’t have dinner, because when I leave it’s before meal times and when I came back I wouldn’t get anything. Even my roommates weren’t allowed to pick something for me and keep it for me. So life was so difficult.

“This I am saying because there are a lot of students in Direct Provision, who go through this predicament.

“When I requested a transfer I was told that it is not a prerogative for them to give me a transfer just because I’m a student so I never got a transfer because of that.

“And then instead I got a transfer that took me to Tramore, which was even further away. I was never notified. I was just told over night, within 12 hours I was told and transferred to Tramore. I just had to move to Tramore and when I was in Tramore there was no transport to take me to school in the morning.

“I applied five times to get to a place where I’ll be able to be travelling to and from school. Eventually, after five applications I got moved to the city centre [of Waterford], to Viking House.

“I am still going through the predicament as we talk, of three hours on the road from Waterford to UCD every morning and three hours every evening from UCD to Waterford.

“I have nothing. My €21 can’t cover that. Just by the grace of god I manage to be paying somehow. Organisations such as the Movement of Asylum Seekers (MASI) have assisted and United Against Racism.

“I am doing sociology and social policy. I’m in my first year now. I did my access year last year.

“I actually managed to get into UCD because UCD gave the opportunity to take asylum seekers as a pilot project, where they want to see if they can be taking more. I happen to be one of the first that managed to get into the pilot project and I have also got a bursary from UCD to go through the four years and all I have to do is provide my own transport. UCD does provide me my lunches and pay my fees and I am very grateful.

“I got here to Ireland in 2016 and I’ve literally been here two and a half years. I’ve been through my interviews and I’m waiting. There is no final decision as of yet. Going into my third year I have no decision on my status. I am hopeful something is going to be done sooner rather than later.

“I left my whole family behind. I had no funds to take them with me. I have two children and a wife, who I haven’t been with for the last two-and-a-half years. It makes life very difficult. I come from Swaziland.

“There is nothing you can change about Direct Provision. It just has to be abolished. It just has to be done away with. It is devilish. It is evil. It is good for no purpose. Since the McMahon Report, changes have been tried, but that can’t work because it is not the right way to make human beings live.

“The best thing that can be done is to go back prior to Direct Provision, go back to that arrangement. Let people be independent. Let people have their autonomy. People need to live like human beings. They need to work for their livelihoods.

“What is the fuss? Why can’t the Department of Justice let people go and live an independent life while they’re waiting for their result (on their asylum application)?”

Evgeny Shtorn, from Russia, is nine months in Direct Provision (Galway)

Evgeny Shtorn, a sociologist originally from Kazakstan, fled from Russia last January. He has had to apply for international protection and enter the direct provision system in Ireland. Picture: Moya Nolan

A prominent LGBT activist in Russia, Evgeny Shtorn, 35, is seeking asylum in Ireland. The sociologist arrived here in January 2018 and he has been living in a Direct Provision centre in Galway, as he waits for his case to be heard. He had to flee Russia after refusing to become a state informant on his colleagues in the activist and LGBT worlds.

“I’m a stateless person. This means that no single state could protect me. Seventy years ago, people decided that they would try to build a better world, after the Second World War.

“I was born in a country which doesn’t exist any longer, which means that I don’t even have a nationality. When I was 17, I moved to Saint Petersburg. My personality, my sexuality, my values everything I consider to be me, were developed there.

“In 2018 I had to cross the Russian border without being able to go back.

“The federal secret services had wanted me to provide them with information about my partners, colleagues and friends in the LGBT community and activist world.

“It wasn’t a question for me, I knew the answer from the very beginning — I wouldn’t become an informant. I think these people, the secret service, are the biggest problem in Russia. They have destroyed not only our generation, but they are a chronic disease of the Russian state. They target human rights NGOs, organisations that should be protected and have comprehensive support from the state and society. On the contrary, they pointed at us as a “threat” to security.

“I worked for multiple years with people in the Russian human rights sector, and I promise you these are fantastic people, unselfish and generous.

“Being openly gay also exposed me to another set of problems. LGBT activists are a particularly targeted group because we face the state’s attacks and attacks of haters, and homophobic groups. We live in a very dark time in Russia.

“In Ireland, I did my best to avoid claiming international protection. I knew it wasn’t good, and I had never wanted to go through this. It was the only way I found to proceed, through the lawyers. Even though I knew about Direct Provision I couldn’t imagine how disregarding it is, of actual human needs.

“The whole system is designed to remove one of the core human needs — imagination, the ability to dream. But I have a strong feeling that Irish people will realise soon that Direct Provision is not just about us, it’s also about them. It’s about what kind of Irish Republic they want to see.”

Vukasin Nedeljkovic, from Belgrade, spent three years in Direct Provision (Mayo)

Vukasin Nedeljkovic is a former asylum seeker who spent three years in Direct Provision. He now lives in Dublin and is studying for a PhD.

“I am a former asylum seeker myself. As a coping mechanism I decided to take photos of my room in Ballyhaunis, Co Mayo and its surrounds — the canteen, the playground or, the no playground. I took them from 2008, from when I arrived in Direct Provision. I took them on the camera I took with me. These are pivotal photos which started the Asylum Archive.

“Every single Direct Provision centre is documented and I created a book of photos during my MA in IADT.

“Direct Provision is the continuation of coercive confinement in Ireland. The last Magdalene laundry closed in November 1996 and the first Direct Provision centre opened in 1999. We had Mother and Baby Homes, Industrial Schools and lunatic asylums and we have very little visual information about those situations.

“There are 6,000 photos in the Asylum Archive that show the architecture of confinement. It shows former hotels, B&Bs, holiday homes and former army barracks. People are incarcerated for indefinite periods of time.

“A day in Direct Provision is full of boredom, and stress and anxiety about whether you’re allowed to stay in the country or not. It’s life in limbo. I had €19.10 a week to live on. I was in the middle of nowhere in a one-street town. I was allowed to go to Galway and Castlebar, but I didn’t have the money to travel so I was forced to remain in the town, that’s why people call it an open prison. You’re forced to live in those incarcerated sites.

“I was sharing a room with five men, they were strangers who became friends. We coped. People were really suffering. Mental health is an omnipresent issue in Direct Provision. You don’t know how to fill your day. People survive with the coping mechanisms they brought with them from home.

“I woke up in the morning at 7am or 7.30am. You would have a restless night’s sleep because you would be worrying. You would have cereal or porridge for breakfast. You had to go to the canteen for every meal. It was three years of no cooking. It was chicken nuggets, chips and sausages. Between breakfast and lunch you would go for a walk. We built a table tennis table from two MDF panels.

“People were really bored, they would stay in bed late for hours, then get up for lunch.

“We got seven pieces of fruit per person per week. You had to queue every Tuesday. The queuing was very humiliating.

“Your money went on phone calls. You bought phone credit to talk to your families.

“Direct Provision is a stain on Irish society. I will never forget the brothers and sisters who are still incarcerated.”

Ellie Kisyombe, from Malawi, is more than nine years in Direct Provision (Dublin)

Ellie Kisyombe is nearly a decade in Direct Provision and is running in May’s local elections for the Social Democrats. Picture: Moya Nolan

Ellie Kisyombe is nearly a decade in Direct Provision. She is from Malawi and is running in the local elections in May for the Social Democrats. Ellie is also the co-founder of Our Table, a non-profit project that runs pop-up cafes to highlight the need to end Direct Provision in Ireland.

“I am nearly a decade in Direct Provision. I have twins, a 17-year-old boy and a girl. My boy is doing his Leaving Cert and my daughter is studying law in DIT.

“My case is just a matter of waiting. My application for asylum was rejected. They said they couldn’t believe me. I went to court and the court ruled in my favour and now my case has gone back the Office of the Refugee Applications Commissioner. My application is for international protection.

“I am coming from a political background in Malawi. I am involved in politics there. My father was very political and my uncle, on mother’s side, was the vice-president of the opposition party. My family have been caught up in all of this. We were challenging political corruption in Malawi and we were made pay for it, so I sought asylum here.

“I have been moved quite a lot in Ireland to different centres in different counties. It is not the life you would want your child to lead. My daughter needs her own space, where she can invite friends. We live in a two-bed unit. I share a bedroom with my daughter and my son has his room. The food is canteen food. It’s 200 or 300 people sitting there eating, three times a day, every day. It is not a lifestyle you would want.

“When I arrived here first I was without my children. At first I did nothing. I was clinically diagnosed with depression. The first year was very hard and not having the kids with me. I was badly depressed. The second year was tough. Then I said: ‘OK, I have to get out of this.’ I started showing signs of being an activist. I am a fighter. I can speak up on things, I thought. If I didn’t I would never see my kids again.

“My daughter came here four or five years ago and my son two or three years ago. I didn’t see him for nearly seven years. He’s been through a very tough time.

“In 2011, I started volunteering with the Irish Refugee Council (IRC). This was a turning point for me, where I could try and help out and do something. In 2013 and 2014, I started volunteering fully with the IRC on an internship. That is when my real day-to-day life started. I’d get up and go to the office. I created my own space and I came up with loads of campaigns.

“At the end of 2014, Michelle Darmody (food writer), approached my boss saying she wanted to do something and was looking for the right person to team up with. Me and Michelle met up in early 2015, and we sat down over a cup of tea and a slice of chocolate cake.

“I came from a culinary background. My family ran a big successful catering company and were the first bakers in Malawi. So we started Our Table. I still don’t have the right to work but I am still volunteering.

“I believe what needs to change is that Direct Provision just needs to be abolished completely, to give dignity to asylum seekers and to allow them to live as a normal human being.

“Assess people’s cases fairly. People want to move on with their lives. At the moment Direct Provision prepares people to become dependant on the State.”

Zwelibanzi Ndebele, from Zimbabwe, is four years in Direct Provision (Monaghan)

Zwelibanzi Ndebele, from Zimbabwe, is living in Direct Provision in Monaghan having sought asylum here because she is gay and homosexuals are persecuted in her home country. Picture: Moya Nolan

Zwelibanzi Ndebele, 31, is from Zimbabwe and she is living in Direct Provision in Monaghan having sought asylum here because she is gay and homosexuals are persecuted in her home country.

“I can say life in Direct Provision is so hectic. It’s traumatising. I have been in the system nearly four years. It’s been hectic because they refused me because they don’t believe me. I have already appealed. Now my case is in court.

“If you have family back home it’s so hard.

“Firstly they say they don’t believe my status. I am a gay woman. I am a member of the LGBT community. Are you really gay? Are you really a lesbian? It’s becoming so difficult how I am going to prove that.

“I applied for protection as a gay person because I am running away from my country. I’m from Zimbabwe. It’s hectic because the Government doesn’t allow gay people and lesbian people or bisexual people. They are persecuted. If you are sick and you mention you are gay, you cannot get treatment. Anything that happens to you, if you are raped as a gay person or a lesbian, your case just doesn’t exist. Once you report it to the police your case gets nowhere.

“I knew I was gay since I was 18 years old. It wasn’t a hard realisation for me at that time because I didn’t notice at that time how much it was persecuted. But as time went by it was so difficult because I couldn’t be free, I couldn’t show who I am [on the] outside. It became so hectic to hide who you are or your feelings. Even when you are going out you are scared.

“I heard Ireland was a good place and as a Christian I liked Ireland.

“I am in Monaghan now. I have always been there. Life is hectic I don’t want to lie. Most of the time I am so traumatised I prefer to lock myself in my room and just look at the walls, that’s it.

“I’m sharing my room. My roommate is from Pakistan. My living (situation) has been hectic because she doesn’t understand me. I am a gay person.

“We can cook for ourselves. Now I am doing some small courses, computer courses, English conversation courses, all those sorts of courses that can make me stay busy.

“Direct Provision needs to end.”

Nqobizitha Vella, from Zimbabwe, is three years in Direct Provision (Cork)

Nqobizitha Vella has been living with her son in Direct Provision in Cork for three years. She spent all of 2018 writing a book and uploading chapters to Facebook as a way to cope. Picture: Denis Minihane

Nqobizitha Vella and her son Ethan have been living in Direct Provision in Cork for three years. She spent all of 2018 writing a book and uploading chapters to Facebook for her readers, as a way to cope. She has finally received a decision on her status but she can’t find accommodation in the private housing market.

“Direct Provision is living life in limbo — not knowing what tomorrow has in store for you.

“I have been here three years. In October, I was granted ‘leave to remain’. This means I can stay in the country and renew my ‘leave to remain’ every three years.

“I can leave Direct Provision now but there is no accommodation. When you’re looking for a place to rent and you have no reference and then they’ll tell you they don’t accept rent allowance, it’s hard to find a place. And when they hear your accent they’ll say the place is full.

“My first two years were hard and in 2018, I started a book.

“My day-to-day is I wake up and I get my son ready for school. I go jogging. You go to collect your food, you come back, you go to collect food you come back. In Ashbourne House in Cork there is a canteen. They’re doing their best but it’s the lack of independence.

“The routine just kills you. As a human being you’re meant to be doing something, working or studying. Most adults, if they have children just bring their kids to school and then come back.

“The mind gets rusty. By the time you get out of Direct Provision you don’t know what to do.

“I started my own blog on Facebook (which has nearly 6,000 followers), where I have published my book. It’s about African women within marriage. I’m on book seven and I upload all the chapters. It’s all a continuation.

“Marriage in an African home is very different to marriage in a European home. So much is expected of you. You marry a whole family. You have a duty as a wife. You leave yourself. You don’t get to have a voice. You just do as you are told.

“I am sharing feminism through my fiction. I am saying be you in the marriage, stop losing yourself. People in Zimbabwe and Zimbabweans in different countries are reading it.

“I started writing it in February 2018, I write for five hours a day and I write about 1,500 words a day and then post a chapter. You can read all the reviews on my Facebook page: INgwalo Zika MaVella.

“Direct Provision is so hard. Where I am I can only get a bus on Fridays. I spoke about uniformity with food, it’s the same with buses. Whereas some centres have buses three times a day.

“There are some volunteers from the Irish community, a group called ‘Brij’, and they help with a lot of stuff, like lifts and clothes.

“In the future I would love to go to school so I can do something to give back to Ireland. I want to study nursing and psychiatry in Cork. I love Cork. I would never leave Cork. I just want to say ‘thank you.’ Whatever about the problems of Direct Provision, I am grateful for everything.

“My own country is in dire straits so to have a roof over my head and food and a shower I am grateful.

“Now that I have the ‘leave to remain’ I need to find my own accommodation for me and my son, Ethan. He’s 10. I am looking for a two-bed place, maybe somewhere I can grow some tomatoes and spinach. I love gardening.

“I am a member of a bookclub. It was started by me and an Irish lady and we go to different people’s houses to read and talk. They’ve made my life easier. They make life better. You forget you are not alone.”

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