Universities have started to open their gates with sanctuary scholarships, reports Stephen Barry
When you talk to people in direct provision, the word that resounds is hope.
Hope for self-improvement confined by an austere system, hope for asylum shattered in silence by a letter in the post, hope for the future locked in limbo.
Then, on good days, there is hope in humanity restored by the kindness of people, the helping hand of community groups, or the welcome of a chat about the weather, about anything.
It’s the joys and pains of life in a waiting room.
One of the sanctuaries providing hope for asylum seekers and refugees is education.
With cultural and financial barriers blocking the way of people in direct provision, universities are starting to open their gates through sanctuary scholarships.
DCU, UL, UCC, UCD, and Athlone IT have already received awards from Places of Sanctuary Ireland, with many more following their lead.
Education doesn’t just transform the fortunes of those in direct provision, it can also challenge societal stigmas.
Two students who jumped at the opportunity to become UCC’s first sanctuary scholars were Lindita Jaupaj and David Yewande.
Lindita emerged from the fear of a repressive regime in her native Albania and now volunteers for everything she can in her new community in Glounthaune.
David is a whistleblower who fled persecution in South Africa and finds himself building a new life in Ireland from the Kinsale Road Reception and Accommodation Centre.
These are their stories of hope lost and found.
Lindita Jaupaj didn’t tell her classmates where she was living for the first few months of her Diploma in Management Practice at UCC.
It’s not that they weren’t friendly or interested. They’d ask her how her move from Albania to Cork came about and what she’s doing for a living here, but she wouldn’t give the full answer.
They were managers and high achievers. How would she explain her circumstances to them?
She did in the end: “Sorry but look, I’m living in an asylum centre.” The apology wasn’t needed and since then she’s been inundated with offers of lifts home to Glounthaune.
“They were very friendly with me. Always, they asked to give me a lift after my class because I come in by train.”
Those in direct provision can be lost in their bunker. Imprisoned by the cost of transport, their meagre weekly allowance, language barriers, cultural barriers, not knowing the laws or locality.
Lindita had to overcome all of those hurdles since her move here in November 2016. Back then, she and her husband didn’t speak a word of English so they brought their teenage daughter everywhere to act as a translator.
The first thing Lindita learned was to kick-start conversations with the weather. “Oh, lovely weather today”, she said that day as the passers-by smiled back. “Okay, I know now how to start a conversation with people,” she thought.
She knew she had to get out of her cramped room, to learn, to make connections, to get involved in the community in this little village. For every helping hand she got, she wanted to return the favour with interest.
She joined the tidy towns group, cleaned the church every week, assisted various projects, both working with people in the community and those in direct provision.
She trains with the Sanctuary Runners club every week and took part in the recent Cork City Marathon Relay for the second year running.
She wrote two stories, one from Albania and one from Ireland, for a local book project, Our Stories. The common message was: “It’s not important how much you can do for people, it’s important to do what you can. Small things can make a big difference.”
She signed up for courses, and not just English-language ones. There was a computer course, a childcare course, a cultural integration course, management and mental health ones too.
So last year, when she saw a poster publicising UCC scholarships for those in direct provision, she was among the first to apply.
“They told me you don’t have to pay and I said, ‘Oh my God, I have to do that for myself’.
“When I saw this huge area [she beckons towards the Quad and President’s Garden], I thought, ‘I must come back. I’m young again!’
“I’d like to make use of this opportunity because I don’t want them to say one day, ‘we gave to her and she couldn’t’.
“I’d like to make them very happy to say, ‘yeah, we did this to the right person’. I work hard for myself and for them.
“If you live in this situation, you have to do things. You can’t stay there and wait on miracles.
“You have to take hold of every single opportunity, small or big, because you’re lost in a bunker if you don’t.
“It’s hope. You need hope.”
That contrasts with the fear Lindita and her family emerged from with their move out of Albania.
For that book, Our Stories, her daughter Arsela, then 16, also contributed a heartbreaking story, ‘Leaving Home’. Part of it read:
“Our trip was long, tiring. My mother was crying, I was very sad.
“Sometimes I wake up in the morning and I think I’m not in my house but far away. I do not have friends to laugh with, tell our secrets to, go to our favourite pastry shop and walk in the street with. How much I miss my home. Its colours, the feeling your home gives that you can’t feel anywhere else…
“There is a gap inside my stomach. There is an empty space that cannot be filled. I feel so sad and lost. I would like the world to be good for people, to live in their homes and never have a reason to stay away from loved ones. I would do anything to make it happen. But the world is very big and I’m too small to change things,” she wrote.
Lindita was born into a repressive communist system in 1974. They couldn’t complain, couldn’t pray, couldn’t live free from pressure. When democracy arrived, she says, the leaders and mentalities remained the same. She studied international relations, worked for a water supply company, but they ultimately had to leave.
“I worked hard but something happened there and we had to leave my country with my family. It’s such a pity to see people leaving their country, separating with parents, sisters, brothers, leaving everything, and going where?
“The first months when I came here, I just cried every day. It was so hard for me and my daughter. We had a nice life in my country. If some people come here for a better life, my life came from here down”, Lindita says, gesturing to show a drop in living standards. “I have to go back up again.”
Some of her friends in direct provision have been living in limbo for close to a decade now. Waiting for that letter in the post after another interview is the most agonising and stressful time.
There are other daily difficulties too.
“The most difficult thing for us, for all asylum seekers here, is to make connections with people. But I like it here because people in Cork are very friendly.
“Irish people have to know more about asylum people. We are 100 people living in the middle of a beautiful village and some people don’t know about how we’re living there, what we do, nothing.
“If we grow old … I don’t like to wait for someone knocking on my door. We have to go and meet these people and share it with them while we’re here so they don’t look at us as coming from a different planet. We are the same.”
The course will help too. She’s finished her first year, and cautiously optimistic for good results. The year’s not even over and she can’t wait for her second year.
“This course has changed my life. I’m not going to stop doing things here.
“It makes me feel so good. It’s the best way of killing stress and not think of negatives. Say to yourself, ‘yes, you can. Yes, you can. Do it. Do it.’
“I can give an example for my daughter in this way. I can give an example to people living in asylum centres. Before, they couldn’t study, so something is moving. If you invest in students in this way, you’re going to profit in the future. I’m so happy. I hope I did deserve it.”
David came to Ireland with five degrees but wasn’t allowed use any of them.
A maths and science teacher, he has qualifications in chemistry, financial management, and various educational leadership degrees.
He’s also a whistleblower, who reported fraud and corruption in the South African education system. He suffered persecution, his life was at risk, and he fled, not for the first time.
He had been forced to escape his native Nigeria two decades ago, having fought similar injustices and faced the same threats.
He shares videos of people being stoned to death in public, suffering the most brutal and painful deaths imaginable. There are others of people lying with arms and legs at 90-degree angles, broken and bleeding out. They haunt him. They could have been him.
Thus, in September 2017, David sought refuge in Ireland; the country he visited as an investor in 2007, where his brother has built a life in Clonmel, Co Tipperary, where he has many Irish relatives, and near his two kids in London.
He came to learn, carrying with him an admission letter and proof of partial payment of fees for a Level 9 Mathematics course in Dublin.
His documents were in order and his South African citizenship allowed him to be here, he says, but upon arrival at Dublin Airport, he was incarcerated for nine hours before being taken into direct provision.
He fought the system in Nigeria, he fought the system in South Africa, and now he’s fighting the system in Ireland.
It was a system which didn’t allow him the right to work, a system which capped his weekly allowance at €21.60, a system which frustrated his efforts to take up his course, a system which rendered his five degrees useless.
“At the airport, rather than treating me with dignity and with respect that human beings deserve to have, I was maltreated, manhandled, and taken as a criminal. I was treated like a terrorist. They decided to bring me to Cork to interfere with my education. They kept on frustrating my life deliberately. I was paralysed. My hope was shattered.”
He said as much in a letter to Minister for Justice Charlie Flanagan. However, what he repeats most of all is that he never wanted to become a cost to the State. He wanted to learn, to contribute, to be a productive member of society.
“I’ve never lied in everything I’ve said, but they have been denying my rights.
“They’ve been denying me my today. They’ve been denying me my future. I’ve never been treated like a human being by the Department of Justice.”
There have been some improvements. The ban on asylum seekers working was lifted by the Supreme Court for those who meet a number of criteria, and the weekly allowance almost doubled to €38.80 in Budget 2019.
However, the first change for David came with the news that UCC had created a scholarship for asylum- seekers and refugees, having been designated University of Sanctuary status.
“UCC champion the cause for students in asylum to be educated rather than sleeping every day of their lives and having their hopes and dreams shattered.
“It will always touch me that this is a university who is aspiring for liberation.
“They advocate for sanctuary. Every student who wants to study as an asylum- seeker, they make sure they receive education.
“If not for UCC, do you know what becomes of this society? There will be people who will go and commit crime but they will not look at what the system provided.
David was among the first to benefit from all these changes. UCC could hardly believe his qualifications when he applied for its Certificate in Process and Chemical Engineering.
He also signed up to a course with Cork ETB, meaning he was studying from 8am to 10pm every Monday and Tuesday during term.
At first, he walked from the direct provision centre on Kinsale Road every day without breakfast, as his centre wouldn’t open the canteen until 8am. It was only after he pleaded with management that they brought this forward to 7.30am to accommodate his studies. Even then, he holds onto his breakfast to get him through the day.
“When others are eating at lunchtime, I don’t go out. I will stay in the classroom the entire day.
“I take my breakfast along and that’s what I eat in the afternoon. When I go to UCC, UCC will provide us with snacks at 8pm.
“I’m having the same food, bread with something in between it, butter or jam or whatever. What I eat in the morning is what I eat at night for the entire year. That’s how I’ve been surviving.”
Now, he has access to a car, although he can only afford the €17 he needs for fuel each week thanks to the generosity of those in UCC and Cork ETB.
“Nobody knew how I survive. They would just see me driving. They would not know the secret behind the driving, that I’m actually a beggar in disguise. They could not see my weakness but I knew I was relying on people to feed me and that’s why I’m grateful to god.”
His quest for personal improvement continues. He applied for job after job following last year’s Supreme Court ruling until he finally got work as a security officer with G4S. He’ll be based at Cork Port, while also progressing to the advanced Process and Chemical Engineering programme at UCC next term.
“I believe my situation has changed. You can see mentally I’ve changed, physically I’ve changed. Even my appearance, I’ve totally transformed. You can see the effect of being a productive member of the society. Employment is very important. My life has changed. I’m really relieved.”
Indeed, while he may be approaching his 50th birthday, David could pass for 30, and certainly looks years younger than photos of him from early 2018.
“I ended up becoming a security officer. But it’s better because I can protect society, I can protect lives, I can protect State government resources for Ireland, who have provided me shelter. So, I love it. It can be painful, but from this pain there emerges great fortune for me.”
Some things improve, others stay the same. A day after this interview, David’s appeal against his application for asylum being rejected was postponed indefinitely. His solicitor was told it was due to an outbreak of chickenpox in his centre, although he has not heard anything of the sort.
“You will never know the pain people are going through when they are in asylum unless you experience it. Why do you think people kill themselves when they are in the system? They’ve no hope. They are today, tomorrow, and every other day seeing the same.
“It’s limbo because they don’t know what tomorrow holds for them. They cage their tomorrow.
“Every day people are languishing in pain. People are crying but nobody sees any of their crying because they are crying in silence.”
He compares the oppression of asylum seekers to Ireland’s 800-year oppression under foreign rule. History will not judge the system kindly but he believes Irish people can play their part in another liberation.
“I happened to be a whistleblower, with my life in danger. I have to show that truly I suffered that persecution. In South Africa, they’re still killing people. They’re still burning people alive.
“Come back and review my case. With all the qualifications I have, professional mathematician, scientist, they did not do the right thing, just because I have dual nationality, Nigeria and South Africa.
“Irish people know what it means to be free. They’ve gone through it. When they fought for you, they fought for just cause. They can fight for people to be released from that type of incarceration.
“You are a country of refuge so I must not think of the pain I’ve gone through from the hands of those who are born cruel, those who are born to manhandle people. But when we came inside, we see true Irish people who are lamenting to set people free. Those are true Irish people.
“Maybe tomorrow I will find myself going home but, trust me, the joy that you have put in my mind can never be erased. History will thank you on my behalf.”