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'I left feeling like s**t': AIB criticised for 'presuming' Irish woman was international student

Sarah* (20) was born in Ireland to Chinese parents. She now attends the National College of Ireland (NCI).

Image: Leah Farrell via RollingNews.ie

ALLIED IRISH BANKS (AIB) has been criticised after a student claimed staff made an assumption about her race in a Dublin city centre branch when she tried to set up a student account. 

The 20-year-old student, Sarah*, was born in Ireland to Chinese parents. She now attends the National College of Ireland (NCI), where she is in her first year of studies.

The student told TheJournal.ie that staff members in AIB in the IFSC assumed she was an international student when she attempted to open a student account recently. 

She claims that when she went to the branch to open her student account, she was told by a bank worker that she would need to return with a letter from her college. Once she did this, the bank worker then informed her that she would also need to get the document signed by her college’s international office. This is not required from Irish students – only international ones. 

In a statement to TheJournal.ie, a spokesperson for AIB said a staff member “unintentionally presumed they were an international student”.

“The vast majority of student accounts opened in our IFSC branch are opened by international students due to the branch’s proximity to the National College of Ireland campus. 

In this instance, a staff member, with the best intention of helping a customer open an account, unintentionally presumed they were an international student and tried to help them by advising what documentation they’d require. 

“Our branch manager met the customer in question and apologised to them.”

Reacting to AIB’s statement, Sarah said that “even if there may be more international students opening accounts in the IFSC branch, that should not be used as an excuse to assume that an individual’s nationality is not Irish simply because of their skin colour”. 

Ireland, particularly Dublin, is so culturally diverse nowadays and to make that automatic assumption would be inappropriate and insensitive.

“I’m hoping AIB will address this so that others do not have to experience this treatment,” she said. 

The director of the European Network Against Racism Ireland, Shane O’Curry, told TheJournal.ie that incidents like this happen on a daily basis to people from minority backgrounds. 

“It’s the drip, drip, drip effect of these that can be really corrosive to people. It really makes people experience a world in which they are not able to exercise their rights equally with other people,” O’Curry said. 

“It’s important to highlight even relatively minor incidents like these because when these things are normalised they create the context in which more serious incidents can happen. It’s something we shouldn’t allow in society,” he said.

The incident

Two weeks ago, Sarah went into the branch to enquire about opening the account. Here, she claims a bank worker told her that she needed a letter from her college and her passport to open an account at the branch. 

“It made sense to me that they wanted a student letter because I was opening a student account. It didn’t occur to me that anything was strange,” Sarah told TheJournal.ie. 

According to AIB’s website, third-level students need the following with them when opening a Student Plus Account: 

  • Proof of their current address
  • Correspondence from a government department/body
  • A letter from the CAO

Sarah returned to the branch last Thursday, 11 April, with her college letter and passport.  

The same bank worker sat down with her at this point to discuss opening the account. Sarah claims she was then told she had to get her student letter signed by the international office. She said she asked for confirmation that only international students need to get this signature, to which the bank worker said yes. 

Sarah said that her passport has a cover on it, so it’s not clear from looking at the cover that it is an Irish passport.

“I told her I’m not an international student and she kind of just shuffled and was like ‘Oh, alright, ok’,” Sarah said. 

The bank worker then asked Sarah to get her letter signed by student services in the college instead. 

I didn’t want to make a scene out of it or give out to her because I’m so used to getting racism towards me that I just thought that was something minor.

Second incident

Sarah again returned to the bank after getting the letter signed by student services. 

Another bank worker came over to assist her. 

“He came up to me and was like ‘How can I help you?’. I was like ‘I just want to open a student account’. He also implied that I was an international student,” she claimed.

Sarah told TheJournal.ie that she believes he looked at her student letter and then made the assumption that she was an international student. 

“I let it go the first time and [this time] I was like what is it with these people thinking I’m an international student?” Sarah said. 

“I couldn’t let that one go at that point because it happened again in the same place,” she said. 

I didn’t expect that in a bank. I expected more in a professional setting, in workplace, I suppose.

Sarah said that the man was “very apologetic” when she explained that she is not an international student. However, she still requested to speak to a branch manager. 

The situation was explained by both Sarah and the worker to a more senior staff member. 

“I don’t think he was very empathetic. There was no real resolution, just ‘I’m sorry’,” Sarah said. 

Sarah claimed she was asked her if there was anything the bank could do to help the situation. However, she said she wasn’t sure what to say. 

“I just didn’t want to deal with it anymore so I just left it there, we shook hands and I left,” she said. 

Sarah has since opened a student account at another AIB branch closer to her home. 

Facing discrimination

Sarah told TheJournal.ie that when she was a teenager she used to go for a walk after dinner every night. She claimed that “more often than not” she would have people yell at her because of her race. 

No one likes to be called out like that. It’s humiliating, it’s dehumanising, absolutely degrading.

“I’ve tried to avoid walking on my own as much as possible,” Sarah said.

Reflecting on the incident in the AIB branch in the IFSC, Sarah said: “The bank worker literally looked at the colour of my skin and made her assumptions. 

I don’t think I could ever be made feel like an outsider in my own country. 

“I left [the IFSC branch] feeling like absolute shit, obviously.” 

Sarah confirmed that she hasn’t filed a formal complaint to the bank. 

Syrian dentist

This incident comes after it was reported earlier this month that the Workplace Relations Commission (WRC) ordered to pay a Syrian dentist €4,000 over its refusal to open a bank account for him because of his nationality. 

The WRC found that AIB discriminated against the man on the grounds of race under the Equal Status Act.

In the case, the Syrian man was granted refugee status here in July 2017 after he came to Ireland as part of the country’s Refugee Protection Programme.

In his evidence, the Syrian stated that a female bank official told him “we don’t open bank accounts for Syrians at the moment” and she pointed to the word “Syria” which is recorded on the Travel Document as his place of birth.

In relation to this case, a spokesperson for AIB stated: “While AIB does not comment on individual cases, we do welcome and support customer applications from people with refugee status, and have trained our staff to help applicants through the account opening process.”

*Names have been changed to protect the identity of those involved.

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