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Interviews: ‘I love the food’ – first-hand stories from asylum seekers in Ireland

What’s it really like being an asylum seeker? People living in State-funded accommodation describe their experiences.

Michael Freeman

MORE THAN 5,000 people are currently living in Ireland as asylum seekers, waiting for a decision on whether they will be awarded refugee status.

While their applications are being processed, these asylum seekers – men, women and children – live in so-called direct provision centres either provided or funded by the Government.

Families often live together in one room, while single people share with others. They are not allowed to work – though children can go to school – and adults receive €19.10 a week from the State. Many are left in limbo while the State decides on their future.

To mark World Refugee Day, the Irish Refugee Council has collected first-hand stories from several people in the asylum process. Here are their experiences. (Names have been changed.)

1. John

John arrived in Ireland alone from Somalia aged 16. He was granted refugee status in 2010 and is now applying for family reunification.

In 1995, my father was shopping with my sister and they were both shot and killed by the militia. My brother was also shot by the militia when he was 20.

In 2005, we had problems with al-Shabaab. They told me that I had to join them and if I didn’t, they would shoot me. I was 15 years old and very afraid. Soon after, I was injured. I managed to escape and went back home to my mother. She told me: “You can’t stay. If you stay, you’ll be killed.”

My aunt in Canada sent money to help me escape. I travelled to Ethiopia. Some friends of my family there introduced me to someone they said would help to get me to safety. I was given a passport and left Ethiopia.

I arrived in Dublin late at night. I didn’t know anything. I didn’t know what to do. I was on the street and saw a man who I thought might be Ethiopian so I asked him for help. It turned out that he was Somali. He took me to the garda station. I was 16 and a half. This is how I came to Ireland.

First I lived in a hostel and then they sent me to live with a foster family. It was difficult staying with a foster family. They thought I didn’t want to talk but it was because I was so worried. I couldn’t sleep. I thought maybe my family was dead. So I went to school every day and tried to work but my mind was my memory. There was no room for anything else.

Finally, with help from an international Somali radio station, I was able to get in touch with them. They found my mother, brother and sister. Now, at last, I can contact them. I call, I call, I call. I call every two days to my family.

My favourite things about Ireland are the food, the people and the love of sports. It is very good here. People are lovely. People in Ireland have very good lives. They are lucky. In Somalia we can’t watch TV. Here, if you want to watch the hurling, you don’t have to pay – you can just turn on the TV. My teachers are lovely, I have lots of friends. My school is the best. When I came here, I just learned everything. I’m watching all the time RTE2, watching people cooking. I cook every day my own food. In Somalia, we only got two things to eat: rice and pasta, pasta and rice. We don’t have pizza, I just learned about it here and we don’t have takeaway, I learned about that here as well.

Asylum seekers hold up an Irish flag during a protests at Mosney accommodation centre (Mark Stedman/Photocall Ireland)

My dream for the future is to work in business or engineering. I only have one more year in school then I have to go to college. I learned to read and write after coming to Ireland because I couldn’t go to school in Somalia. We don’t have free school there so if you can’t pay you can’t go.

Now I am still waiting for the answer for family reunification with my mum and brother. I started the application in 2011 and they tell me it will take two years. They say to me I need DNA tests for them. They are waiting to come to Ireland, then we will be able to enjoy life together. I will be happy then and finally get some rest, then I can study. My hope and my dream is that actually we will be together: me, my brother and my mum.

2. Peter

Peter and his family have been living in a direct provision centre for nine years.

My daughters were quite young when they arrived in Ireland. My oldest daughter who is 21 was 12 when she arrived in Ireland; she has completed primary and secondary school here and is now looking for a way to go to college to study nursing. My second eldest daughter who is 19, was 10 when she arrived here, she is now doing her Leaving Certificate and is hoping to study law next year. My youngest daughter who is 15 arrived in Ireland when she was six years old; she is sitting her Junior Certificate examination this year. My son was born in Ireland in 2006; he’s five and is in senior infants.

It worries me to watch my children growing up so fast, and the stress they have had to grow up in breaks my heart. My son doesn’t understand why we have to live in the hostel and he’s always saying he wants to go to his own big house like all his friends. This is really heartbreaking to watch as a parent because it shows how this situation affects kids. Having a deportation order as well is very hard because my daughters miss out on a lot of school work whenever we go to sign on in Dublin 1. It isn’t fair to do this to children, but I suppose my two eldest daughters are no longer children as their whole childhoods have been taken away from them.

In the accommodation, there are a lot of things that we have to deal with. For instance you are not allowed to invite anyone to come visit you in your room. Why? I don’t know. There’s no crime in having friends over seeing as this can be seen as my house because this is where I live. Children cannot invite their friends to their birthday, communion or confirmation celebrations.

(Mark Stedman/Photocall Ireland)

Most of the rooms are damp and they are not insulated well. It usually gets really cold at night especially in the winter and when we ask the manager to turn on the heating they tell us that they are on or they are not working. If you buy heaters yourself, they take them from you. To me it feels like we are being treated like prisoners. Some of the staff do not communicate well with people in the accommodation, if you stand up for yourself, the manager rings RIA and says that you are bringing problems or you are being aggressive.

After a while you get a transfer letter from RIA sending you to live in another area. As a result no one is able to complain because they fear what will happen to them.

It is a bad situation to be in and I’m hoping that its people like you who will hear our cry for help and try do something about it. I would like to thank you for this opportunity to tell my story and for taking the time to read it.

3. Samantha and Michaela

Samantha is 18 and Michaela is 13.

I’m an asylum seeker and I’d like to tell you about my life. I live in a hostel. The rooms are small. If you’re living on the first, second or third floor you’ll be able to hear the people living on top of you. You have to be careful in case someone takes your stuff. You’re not even allowed electric appliances that you need. If you have one and they find it in your room they’ll take it.

In the room there’re cockroaches. The rooms floors are dirty, very dirty. When you want to sleep the people who live on top of you are making lots of noise and you tell them to stop, they say it wasn’t them. But they just lie. If you tell the manager they don’t do anything and don’t solve the issue, which makes it hard for the people to sleep and live in the room.

In the hostel there are two bathrooms on each floor. On my floor there is only one bathroom working. We have three showers, two toilets and four sinks and two men’s toilets. We have to share with 24 families. We share with women and men. It’s for all the people on the first floor.

The toilets are very dirty. So are the showers. Only four taps work out of the eight. The showers are very cold in the afternoon, hot in the morning and warm in the night. The toilets are sometimes blocked.

4. Adam

Adam arrived in the country aged 17 but his age was disputed by authorities and he was treated as an adult. Nevertheless he enrolled in school, where he has been described as a role model for other students. He has been denied refugee status and his future is now uncertain.

My name is Adam. I am sitting my Leaving Certificate at the moment (Biology, Design Communication Graphics, Construction and Art) and I hope to study either nursing or biological engineering after I finish.

Although living in the accommodation centre has its challenges – we don’t have much privacy and it can be noisy and difficult to study so I go to the library – I really enjoy living in Ireland. Before, I didn’t have hope that I would be able to go to school again but now after studying and having the chance to do my Leaving Certificate, it is hard not knowing if I will be able to continue with what I want to do.

It is difficult being so far away from my family, especially my sisters, but I am able to stay in touch with family and friends at home on the internet sometimes. I have good teachers – school is like a family to me because that is the place I spend all my time.

Not knowing what will happen, that is difficult.

Read: State spent €70m on private and state accommodation for asylum seekers>

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About the author:

Michael Freeman

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