Direct provision: creating a cultural disconnect
Quality of life in direct provision is made worse for many residents by lack of access to cooking facilities and appropriate food
Redressing the balance: organisers of Our Table pop-up restaurant Fiona Corbett (left) and Michelle Darmody (second right) with Annet Mphahlele (second left) and Ellie Kisyombe: “This is another way of bringing in people, making friendships.” Photograph: Eric Luke
This month marks 16 years since a temporary measure for housing asylum seekers became the long-term limbo thousands of people have been channelled through in Ireland. What is known as direct provision houses asylum seekers indefinitely in this country. Initially intended as a stopgap before people’s asylum application cases were heard, it has become embedded in towns and cities across Ireland where, largely behind closed doors, adults live on a weekly allowance of €19.10 and children get €9.60.
Government figures from September 27th, 2015 show that 4,811 people were living in direct provision on that date, with some 55,091 having been accommodated since April 2000.
There are many issues with direct provision, but one frustrating struggle is food. People are banned from cooking and centres are catered by contracted companies, paid millions by the State.
With an extremely diverse population, coming from all sorts of cultural, religious and geographical backgrounds, access to appropriate and quality food, and not being able to pass on cooking skills to children, are daily stresses.
In a report for Nasc (the Irish Immigrant Support Centre) called What’s Food Got To Do With It? Food Experiences of Asylum Seekers in Direct Provision, launched in 2014, its author Keelin Barry detailed research about food in direct provision in Cork.
One-to-one interviews with asylum seekers were used to compile the report whose main finding was that food provided in direct provision was not satisfactory, that it did not address cultural and multi-faith needs of asylum seekers, that the food system had a negative impact on families and children, and that food management in direct provision centres in Cork was negative for the health of asylum seekers.
Barry learned that food caused tension and stress every day. She reels off some of the experiences related to her, “Quite a lot of people said their food was inedible or not palatable on any level. The waste, a lot of people were saying, was disgraceful, the level of it. [There was] not enough fruit and veg, high sugar content, high fat content, monotonous food.
“Food was culturally inappropriate, bland, inedible, too salty, and there were unusual ingredients that weren’t easily identifiable. People with requirements having no access to those [special] ingredients. The dining room environments and how un-family-friendly they were. The lack of storage facilities. People hiding food. Some awful stories about people being really hungry in the middle of the night and nothing being available. People banging on each other’s doors looking for food.
“These people are fleeing some horrific human rights’ abuses and probably are expecting to have a reprieve from that, but then [they] have this situation.”
Two Irish women are trying to raise awareness. Michelle Darmody, who runs Cake Cafe on Camden Street in Dublin and Slice in Stoneybatter, says, “I’m someone who cooks a lot and food is an important part of my life. It resonated with me hugely, that people have no control over their diet, which also leads to your health and your children’s health.”
Darmody contacted the Irish Refugee Council and, over the past while, has been cooking with people from direct provision at a kitchen in Dublin.
“It’s been really uplifting, amazingly,” Darmody says. “Just hearing human stories, and talking about memories for people, the same as any group of people would, talking about food that they miss or they’re nostalgic for. Then there’s the sadness of course, as the conversation gets deeper, that this gets taken away from people for indefinite amounts of time.”
Getting together and cooking led Darmody and her friend Fiona Corbett, a director of Sheridan’s Cheesemongers, to establish an event called Our Table.
Members of the public can drop in between noon and 3pm, and have a meal and a chat with people living in the direct provision system. Volunteers from direct provision centres have signed up and trialled recipes.
The project is an experiment, and a rare chance for the public to share a meal with people who are denied the opportunity to cook in centres.
Direct provision is operated as a profit-making enterprise by private companies and individuals. Barlow Properties in Cork has received €40 million from the State for running five direct provision centres. East Coast Catering has received €90 million since 2000. Bridgestock, based in Roscommon, has received at least €68 million for its role in running direct provision centres.
One of the providers of food is Aramark, a catering group paid €16 million up to 2010 by the State. Last year, Aramark bought Avoca for over €60 million. Aramark was approached for interview for this article, but channelled queries through the Department of Justice.
A spokesman for the Department of Justice said: “It is important to note that there are 37 centres contracted by the Reception and Integration Agency (RIA) and Aramark only operates three of these. All accommodation centres are subject to unannounced regular inspections by internal and external bodies.
“Food prepared daily in each centre is managed by the service provider in line with the contract specification. The Department has no issue with the service provision provided by Aramark. Aramark is a leading global company and ISO 22000 certified; one of the few companies in the industry to have this certification which defines food safety management for all organisations in the supply chain from farming to processing, transportation, packaging and retail.”
The Department of Justice referred to “three separate quality-control, unannounced inspections each year” carried out by RIA and a “specialised firm contracted by RIA for that purpose”.
Examining the latest available inspection – the Ocean View Accommodation Centre in Waterford – which happened on December 8th, 2015, the food safety inspection section says the date of the previous visit was September 24th, 2013. Another centre, Clonakilty Lodge, was inspected on November 25th, 2015. The previous inspection listed was April 1st, 2014.
Lucky Khambule is South African, and in his fourth year living in direct provision in Cork. “As you know, food is cultural. The length of time people spend in these centres will mean that, for so long, you can’t enjoy your own indigenous food. You’re confined to eat what is provided to you. And the quality of that food is really not up to standard.”
People living in direct provision talk about ways they try to circumnavigate the system, by cooking in secret or hiding food. But even that is scuppered when they are caught.
“It’s very difficult,” Khambule says. “People have tried to have their own small cookery things, and try and cook, but once that is picked up by the management, your pots, or whatever you use, are taken away from you.
“We have tried to also address it with senior officials, to [ask for] facilities within the centres where there could be a common kitchen where people could cook on a particular day. That is not going anywhere. The answer we get is that the facilities are ‘not conducive’ to that.
“Imagine you have a daughter and you are a mother,” Khambule says, pointing out that children imitate and learn from their parents. “They cannot do that because they never see their mother cooking. When they grow up, where do you start? Officials don’t look at those small things, but it upsets the future of kids who live in direct provision centres.”
On the weekend of the general election count, Ellie Kisyombe, a direct provision activist from Malawi living in the system, and her friend Annet Mphahlele from Uganda, were trialling recipes in a kitchen with Darmody and Corbett.
The outcome of the election was the main topic of conversation as they prepared a vegetable stew, chopping vegetables and chatting, discussing making stock and flatbreads, and what would work for the Our Table menu.
Kisyombe wondered about the fate of Aodhán Ó Riordáin’s seat, one of the most vocal politicians on direct provision. Although Mphahlele was born in Uganda she has lived in South Africa and elsewhere.
“The red onion is not my friend,” she says, wiping an allium-induced tear away. Her son and daughter live in direct provision too, and the latter, a graphic designer, is going to design some of the signage for Our Table. Kisyombe’s daughter is 15 and also lives in direct provision, “she doesn’t know how to cook”, Kisyombe says. “She’s never seen it.”
As Corbett chops vegetables, she speaks about the mindlessness of banning people from cooking, “It’s not rocket science that we could do it another way and allow people to cook with each other. Why is it like this? A policy decision?”
As the conversation flows, Kisyombe discusses her favourite meals: “Fish stew and matoke, which is a dish you can make with beans, beef and bananas. And pap – it’s like polenta.”
Mphahlele’s favourite food is “fresh fish, Tilapia, from southern Africa – you can eat it with everything. Anyone who comes from southern Africa likes that dish. You can put it in the oven with onion and tomato, but I like things cooked very natural. You can steam it with salt. You can have it in a soup as well.”
The chat about the election continues. Kisyombe had been brushing up on how the Irish political system works, what the make up of a new government might mean, and asks whether anyone had seen the recent BBC Spotlight programme on Nama.
Back to food in the centres, Mphahlele says, “We just eat it to survive. The food is dipped in oil, and I don’t think the oil is fresh. There are sausages and they put them in oil, deep fried, all deep fried. The oil runs down your plate, sometimes you have to pour it off. We are many people from different areas, this is not the food people eat.”
She says her son gets sliced bread for lunch. Kisyombe started to laugh awkwardly, the type of giggle you’d nervously emit at a funeral, “I’m laughing because I’m overwhelmed! I’m angry! People are scared, the fear is there.”
Mphahlele nods, “the fear is in me”. She says she has been on anti-depressants since she arrived in Ireland, and is worried about the mental health of her children.
After talking about Peter Sutherland’s positive attitude towards refugees, Kisyombe says, “The government says ‘we’re going to end DP’. How? What about housing? The government doesn’t even have housing for two people evicted from Mountjoy Square. They’re not looking at the big picture.
“Outside Dublin, if you bring people into a dead village, they will set up businesses, their kids will go to school, they will make communities.”
Mphahlele has issues with her stomach, and removes a packet of medication out of her bag, including Fybogel, a fibre supplement.
Caroline Reid, of the Irish Refugee Council, says because there are so many different direct provision centres, experiences can vary hugely, “You’ve got different centres, different owners, different contractors, different attitudes.
“Some people have a really good relationship with management and they try to do the best they can. Or you have the complete opposite where the relationship is quite tense with management and the management style affects the whole running of the centre. RIA [Reception and Integration Agency] have their guidelines and ‘this is the practice you should be doing’, but that’s not really translating in every centre in practice. There is a policy on paper, but policy isn’t being replicated throughout the centres.”
Reid also spoke to a woman who used to live in direct provision in Ireland, but “found it so terrible she took a chance” and managed to get to Northern Ireland where asylum seekers live in different accommodation and have communal kitchens.
Asking her to compare the systems, Reid says the woman replied, “I can enter into my front door and make a cup of tea or coffee. Direct provision takes away even those little things: sitting down and making a cup of tea when you want, having control over your life, going to a supermarket and buying deals.”
A month on from the general election, Kisyombe had been speaking with other people living in direct provision about food. “We were talking about the issues today and they were saying ‘day after day just give us something different, don’t give us the same thing every week’.”
Kisyombe mentions hotels in England where they have units people can cook in. As as short-term solution, allowing people to cook would provide some reprieve, Kisyombe thinks. “You eat anything because you are tired and you are hungry, but then you realise you are lacking something. And good food is what you know best and what you cook best, to go to the supermarket and get the ingredients you love, sit down, make a beautiful meal, see people smiling. These are the things we don’t have. Just small, small things.”
For now, the Our Table initiative is a welcome experiment, in Kisyombe’s opinion, “I feel like this project is another way of bringing in people, making friendships, talking about different issues. My experience with it is really good. For someone like me from DP, it is a kind of therapy for me. When I go there I’m looking forward to it. I think ‘on Tuesday I’m cooking with Michelle!’ Cooking is my passion, I like to think about what I’m going to cook. We are good friends now.”
Kisyombe speaks about the culture of hiding food in centres and people afraid of being caught cooking, “People cook in the toilets in these hostels,” Kisyombe says, “Can you imagine?”