WHAT do you eat when you wake up in the morning? For most of us, our chosen breakfast is likely to include some of the following: a bowl of cereal with milk, buttered toast, eggs, sausages, rashers and a cup of tea or coffee.
Now imagine you were no longer allowed such a breakfast. You have had to move to another country and you are not allowed to cook for yourself. Instead, you have to eat rice, fermented cabbage and tripe stew for breakfast and more unfamiliar food for lunch and dinner. Most Irish people would be culturally and physically disorientated by such a change. No more potatoes? How would we cope without our most comforting foods? Yet this is what we ask of many of the 4,278 asylum seekers living in 34 direct provision centres run by the Reception and Integration Agency (RIA). Often fleeing conflict, violence and trauma, they are housed in these centres until their application for asylum is either granted or refused.
“Direct provision is the means by which the State provides for the basic requirements of protection applicants and is for the most part a cashless system with suitable accommodation being provided on a full board basis,” says Andrew Kelly, press officer with the Department of Justice and Equality. “The cost of all the residents’ meals, heat, light, laundry, television, household maintenance, water rates, etc, is paid directly by the State.”
It seems a fair process but look closer and you’ll see cracks in the system. By the end of December 2013 the average length of time asylum seekers spent in centres was four years and 13.6% of them had been living there for more than seven years.
Six of these centres offer facilities for self catering but in the others asylum seekers are served food three times daily but are not allowed to cook for themselves. Instead of the staple foods they have grown up with — such as beans, rice and chillies for Nigerians — they have to eat what they are given.
A report written by Keelin Barry, Masters in Public Health, in partnership with Nasc, the Irish Immigrant Support Centre, explores the implications of this. ‘What’s Food Got to Do with It? Food Experiences in Direct Provision’ was launched by food writer John McKenna in the Nasc offices in Cork this month.
Keelin Barry had no idea what she was getting into before she started her research. “I had no idea of the gravity of the challenges and the levels of distress people are living with in these direct provision centres,” she says. “To say I was shocked would be an understatement.”
What she discovered was a group of isolated and disempowered people who were eating in a way that had a hugely negative impact on their quality of life.
“I hadn’t fully appreciated how food affects people’s lives every day,” says Keelin. “It’s a daily stressor that brings in so many issues. I was blown away by how multifaceted it all is.”
However, finding people willing to speak openly was a major challenge. Keelin eventually spoke to 12 asylum seekers living in direct provision centres in Cork.
“You could feel the fear,” she says. “So many of them were worried about getting found out and this having a negative impact on their asylum claim. Eventually, I spoke to 12 people in depth and there were lots of recurrent themes.”
Although the RIA contractually obliges all direct provision centres to provide varied menus that reflect different ethnic tastes and requirements, some asylum seekers told of monotonous, bland food.
Although the RIA has introduced healthy infant feeding guidelines, some parents felt the food was unsuitable for babies and children, particularly those being weaned onto solid foods.
And many spoke of their sadness at not being able to play a traditional role in caring for their children.
“It’s particularly difficult for families,” says Keelin. “Parents I spoke to felt guilty their children weren’t growing properly and worried they wouldn’t have a proper future because they weren’t getting the right food in their formative years. Then there’s the aspect that they are losing the wealth of their cultural connection to food.”
Edith Ajbonhese, 34, now living in Wilton but originally from Nigeria, sought asylum in 2002 and in the nine years it took for her application to be processed she lived in direct provision centres in Limerick, Dublin and Cork.
“It was terrible,” she says. “I was always worrying about what was going to happen next.
“Coming from Africa, I’d never seen or tasted anything like it (the food) before, but I had to force myself to eat it because it was all we were given every day.”
She had never even seen potatoes before. “Fried potatoes, roast potatoes, mashed potatoes, chips; it was potatoes, potatoes, potatoes — the same food over and over.”
Edith has three children and did everything she could to ensure they ate healthy food. Asylum seekers are given €19.10 per week to spend on essentials plus €9.70 per child.
“I’d use tissues and rags instead of sanitary towels so I could save money to buy food for them,” she says.
Asylum seekers are not allowed to store or cook their own food. “We would all save up money and hide food in our rooms so we could cook something together maybe once a month,” recalls Edith. “But if it was found, it was taken off us.
“Somehow I kept my hope going but most of those I knew were depressed.”
Keelin Barry and Nasc hope that their report will result in changes to the system for those still waiting for their applications to be processed.
“At the very least we recommend that self-catering options should be expanded as a matter of urgency and communal cooking areas made available in all direct provision centres in Ireland,” says Keelin.
As for Edith, she now enjoys cooking for herself and her family. “Oh my goodness,” she exclaims. “I cook everything: vegetables, rice, beans and all sorts of African food. I’m beginning to get used to life as a human being. Sometimes I feel I have to slap myself to remind myself I’m free.”
* See the full report at www.nascireland.org.