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File photo: A protest against DP in 2013 at the Department of Justice. Niall Carson

'I live in Direct Provision and our kids are not immune to racial discrimination'

Owodunni Ola Mustapha tells her own story and that of the children in DP who have suffered racist abuse.

Owodunni Ola Mustapha is a Nigerian mother of three. She is an asylum seeker and lives in a Direct Provision Centre in County Mayo. She has been in the Direct Provision (DP) system for six years.

In light of recent Black Lives Matter protests across the US and globally, the issue of racism in Ireland has come to the fore. Central to that debate here is the issue of DP.

I CAME TO Ireland six years ago in search of safety and stability from a life in Nigeria which still haunts me to this day. My first port of call was the proverbial “Big House”.

Next, I was sent to Balseskin Reception Centre in Dublin. We were expected to live here for a short period of time after which we would be transferred to a more “appropriate” Direct Provision centre.

I spent thirty days holed up in a room with my three kids and wondering what next? How do people survive here? The food was terrible, I can count the number of times I ate in the canteen. My two older kids survived on bread and tea.

Relief finally came when I got my transfer letter to Ballyhaunis. I did not know whether to celebrate or be saddened by the move. I packed up my clothes that I had amassed from the donations of the kindhearted people who bring in goods to the centre.

An uncertain move

We arrived at this gated premises and I saw houses and they seemed to me to be perfect structures, very different from the structural setup at Balseskin. I was allocated two rooms and told it was lunchtime and I had to go and queue in the canteen for food. My then neighbour, who coincidentally was a Nigerian, offered me a traditional meal of Eba and Efo riro, a kind of spinach stew, which I devoured amidst tears.

That would mark the beginning of my seemingly endless journey in Direct Provision.

Over the years, I have had to live a redundant lifestyle as I am not qualified for access to the labour market, as decided by the Irish government. Because of this, the asylum-seeking community can be likened to a village where residents rely on each other for virtually everything.

Some are either too scared to speak out about the difficulties of life in DP, for fear of being transferred to a centre that is worse than their current one, or they worry that speaking out is tantamount to your case being jeopardised.

You then wonder how people survive years behind these walls without going crazy. My daily routine has not changed in years, except on the days I go to school. I prepare the kids for school and then curl up in bed and blame my ‘calamities’ on myself.

Should we reminisce on the months or even years in some cases that it takes to get a hearing or the years it takes to get a first instance decision on your case? I have heard people say ‘’they should be deported as soon as their refugee status is denied’’ when referring to asylum seekers. How these vulnerable people are supposed to be responsible for the inaction of the Department of Justice though, baffles me.

Racism, and silence

Permit me to begin on the topic of racism by saying that segregating people from mainstream society and abdicating the affairs of their lives to DP centre managers for profit is at its core a form of institutional racism and a recipe for disaster.

The last of the Magdalene Laundries closed its doors in 1996 as it was declared to be inhumane. Three years later someone decided the same form of accommodation would be suitable for people who have come to this country to seek safety. How can this be?

I have spent the past few weeks since the death of George Floyd in the US and the start of the Black Lives Matter protests here advocating against racism in Ireland. As part of this work, I spoke to young children in an attempt to find out if they could corroborate the stories of the young adults who have recently posted videos online narrating their experiences of racism.

To my amazement, these children were not immune to racial discrimination. In their own words, they told me:

We never get invited to any party in the area because people feel we are poor, and we have no good clothes.
Aunty, do you believe that someone opened a group on Snapchat, added the black kids from school and started sending hateful words to us, I got a picture of black people being hung.
I got messages telling me to go back to where I came from I was called the N-word, Black Monkey, Gorilla, Slave, ‘Immigrant’.
I was accused of stealing something in the store, but they never found anything on me.
I was told my hair is ugly, only Irish people have nice hair.
I was called dirty because of my skin and told that my nose is ugly.

Interestingly, I asked the parents of these kids if they ever reported these incidents, while some of them said they did not think anything would be done, others feared that reporting this abuse to the Gardai could endanger their own asylum cases.

Impacts on children

Either way, they have all coached their children to develop thick skin to any abuse hurled at them. In addition, as parents, we all want to send our children to school and hope that they will be fine. But imagine having to deal with the long waiting times for your asylum case to be answered while also discussing issues like this with your young children.

It makes me sick to my stomach. We have children who have been through traumatic events from their country of origins.
The Syrian, Iraqi, Zimbabwean, Malawian, Nigerian, South African, Albanian, Georgian, Iranian, Yemeni, Afghani kids who came into Ireland in search of safety.

If you have read “Correspondences: An Anthology to Call for an End to Direct Provision” by Jessica Traynor and Steven Rea, you will be familiar with the story of Marwa Zamir. She detailed the gruesome scenes she witnessed on the streets of Afghanistan and how her mum covered her eyes to prevent her from seeing dead people on the streets. She spent years in Direct Provision with her mum and siblings.

I believe that yes, people should educate themselves on the plight of others stuck in these DP systems. But more must happen now. The Irish government has to be committed to phasing out this system that has stripped people of their dignity and self-worth.

They should ensure that a quality first-instance decision on asylum is issued to applicants to forestall an endless stay in the system. They should also extend the right to work to all asylum seekers. Our families matter, our lives matter.

Owodunni is a writer and an aspiring poet and is founder of the Ballyhaunis Inclusion Project, a support group for asylum seekers across the country. Last year, she was honoured with the Christine Buckley Volunteer of the year award, courtesy of Volunteer Ireland. Some of Owodunni’s work includes “Up the hill in Mayo”, published in Correspondences and “The Unknown”, in MASI journal in 2019.

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Owodunni Ola Mustapha
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