After the Leaving Cert: another tough battle for an asylum-seeker
Opinion: Their parents are not permitted to work, and neither are they
‘The young women’s father spoke eloquently to me about how difficult it is to demand high standards of work and commitment, all the while knowing that under current circumstances, it is impossible for them to go to third level.’ Photograph: Getty Images
A very nervous teenager opens her Leaving Cert results, aware of her parents’ high expectations and that her older sister achieved high points two years previously.
Then there is the explosion of relief and joy as she realises her 510 points mean she will be eligible to study psychology.
Thus far it’s a common scene. Education is a priority for the majority of Irish parents, even though those who expect their child to go to college usually also expect to make significant financial sacrifices. For some, particularly during a recession, it will be out of the question immediately after Leaving Cert.
However, disappointing as not being able head off to college with their peers might be, for Irish young people there is at least the option of going as a mature student at 23, or perhaps of finding work that would allow them to study part-time or at night. Those options are much more difficult in a recession, but not impossible.
The family I described in the opening paragraphs is not fictitious. Its members live in an Irish town in the southwest. Like all other parents who value education, the parents in this family want their bright and hard-working children to get the chance to develop their talents and to give something back to society.
But none of the options I mentioned is open to the children in this family. They are asylum seekers.
Both the young woman who achieved that fantastic Leaving Cert result and her older sister felt it would be better if I used pseudonyms for them. They have nothing to hide but in their precarious situation the girls have learned to be very cautious.
Stuck in limboLila, the older sister, has already had to cope with seeing her peers from secondary school forge ahead, leaving her behind, stuck in limbo.
The family members have been in the asylum-seeking system for six years and six months and have no idea when their case will be resolved.
The young women’s father spoke eloquently to me about how difficult it is to demand high standards of schoolwork, all the while knowing that under current circumstances it is impossible for the children to go to third level.
Lila and her younger sister, whom I will call Monna, would have to pay the same astronomically high fees as international students who have opted to come here to study. Their parents are not permitted to work, and neither are they.
So not only can Lila not pursue the course in commerce and international Chinese that she hoped for, she also has a completely empty CV.
Her parents are tenacious. When they discovered that the local St Vincent de Paul would be happy to give a modest grant, they found Lila a higher diploma evening course. But they often cannot afford the transport to lectures and so she is almost despairing.
When she was in school she only ever brought one person back to the accommodation centre, a close friend whom she trusts completely.
“Basically, we live in a bedroom. There is nowhere to bring a friend. The communal living room is always packed. The teachers were lovely and never made me feel different but I was afraid that it would be really awkward if other students saw where I live.”
Hidden in plain sightIt’s understandable that she would feel embarrassment but it is we, not she, who should feel ashamed. The conditions asylum seekers live in, the overcrowding, the inability to cook for themselves, the constant fear and tension, are all overseen by the State, somehow hidden in plain sight.
Sometimes we are forced to see, either by exemplary reporting such as that of Carl O’Brien, or by personal encounters.
Mercy Enyanga Usim Ikolo, who is originally from Cameroon, is one of the lucky few to be granted refugee status. While working as a voluntary chaplain in a Catholic parish, St John the Evangelist in Ballinteer, Dublin, she shared her experience as an asylum seeker with parishioners.
The parishioners were particularly struck by the loneliness and isolation experienced by the children. An impromptu coalition wanting to help sprang up.
They settled on the asylum accommodation in Mosney, because the manager was very open to them. They began to involve others, including young adults from neighbouring parishes and youth workers from different Christian denominations.
My husband and three of my teenagers took part in the first trip to Mosney to play music and games with the younger children. They described to me how they were almost mobbed when they got off the bus, because visitors are so rare.
Later on, the same group organised a trip to Glendalough as a way for the Irish and asylum-seeking teenagers to just have fun together.
It’s only a drop in the ocean, a temporary respite from the difficult conditions children and adults can face for years because our asylum-seeking process is so desperately slow and antiquated.
Lila and Monna’s younger siblings are learning Irish. All the siblings see their future in Ireland. How could they not? They scarcely remember the country they were forced to flee.
All we have to offer them is limbo. But they deserve so much more.