'I felt like a prisoner in direct provision but I’m free now'

New to the Parish: Aissa Sow arrived from Guinea in 2011

Aissa Sow: ‘I have more friends here now than I did in my country’. Photograph: Dara Mac Dónaill

Aissa Sow: ‘I have more friends here now than I did in my country’. Photograph: Dara Mac Dónaill

 

The day Aissa Sow moved into the direct provision centre in Newbridge, Co Kildare, she had just begun fasting for Ramadan. Exhausted by the move from her foster home, she hoped to break her fast with a proper meal. However, the only food available in the centre that night was a plate of salad.

“I cried so much because I had been fasting all day and needed a good meal in the evening. It was the first food all day from 4am to 10pm and you need to eat well.”

The transition from a family home in Naas to a direct provision centre was a real struggle for the teenager from Guinea. “Living in my foster home felt like a real family. I didn’t share a room and my foster mum was very nice. She was the mum I was looking for here in Ireland, she was wonderful.”

Sow hasn’t seen her biological mother since she fled her home in Guinea’s capital of Conakry in January 2011. She says her family chose to send her abroad to protect her safety but prefers not to publicly discuss the religious traditions and unrest following Guinea’s 2011 elections which put her life in real danger.

A friend of her father arranged for a smuggler to travel with Sow to Ireland via France. She had never left Guinea before and did not speak a word of English. She tried hard not to focus on thoughts of her mother and siblings, who she had to leave without saying goodbye.

On arrival in Dublin airport, the man who had accompanied her put Sow in a taxi and paid the driver. “The guy travelling with me didn’t give me information and I was too scared to ask what was going on. I trusted my dad’s friend and he had told me to follow him and do as he said. He told me ‘I’m putting you in this taxi and he will drop you somewhere where they can help you’. I never saw him again after that.”

The taxi driver brought Sow to the Office of the Refugees Applications Commissioner in Dublin. The staff immediately began firing questions at the petrified 16-year-old who desperately attempted to grasp the meaning of this foreign language. Once they realised Sow spoke French, they arranged for a translator to help her explain why she was in Ireland. She was then brought to a hostel for underage asylum seekers in Ballsbridge.

“I didn’t tell them I’d come as an asylum seeker because I didn’t know what asylum meant. I just told them where I came from and what happened to me in my country. When I first arrived in the hostel I was terrified. But then my social worker explained there were two other girls, one from Congo and another from Cameroon, who spoke French. “

Sow spent more than six months in the Dublin hostel, taking English classes at a school in Parnell Square before she was transferred to a foster home in Naas. There she lived with her foster mother and a Congolese teenager who quickly became like a sister. She was enrolled in a local secondary school, joining a fifth-year class with her foster sister.

“We were the only black people in the school, everyone else was white. They would look at us, I think they were not used to seeing someone like me. At the beginning they teased us but in the end we got along well.”

When the girls – who were nearly the same age – turned 18 they were told they would have to move into direct provision. Their foster mother contacted the Department of Justice to request that the girls stay with her.

“My mum wanted to keep us but they told her she would have to be fully responsible for us and couldn’t give her any money for support. There were two of us so she couldn’t afford it.” When their foster mother discovered they would be moved to Sligo she contacted the department again, asking that the young women be relocated to the direct provision centre in Newbridge so that she could visit regularly.

When she completed her Leaving Cert, Sow began investigating third-level courses and applied to study travel and tourism at Sallynoggin College of Further Education. Initially she struggled to find the funds to take the course but eventually, through support from the Dún Laoghaire Refugee project and her foster mother, she began travelling to and from Dublin each day. The manager at the direct provision centre in Newbridge also agreed for Sow to spend a couple of nights a week with a friend in Dublin to save on the cost of the journey.

Shortly before she completed her studies in Sallynoggin, Sow found out her application for asylum had been accepted. She was walking out of an exam when she got the call from her social worker and remembers letting out a cry of joy in the middle of the Sallynoggin campus before slumping to the floor. “I was crying and people were coming over asking if I was alright. I told them I was crying because I was happy. They were tears of joy.”

Sow now lives in Dublin 7 and is studying tourism management at Dublin’s Institute of Technology. She recently began working as a waitress at Our Table, a pop-up cafe in Project Arts Centre in Temple which aims to create awareness of the living conditions in direct provision centres.

“In direct provision I couldn’t cook if I wanted to. If you missed dinner you couldn’t eat. Sometimes when I was coming from school in Dublin I would call for them to keep food for me. Other times I just had to drink some tea and go to bed.”

Sow has applied for her mother to join her in Ireland and is saving the money from her internship at Our Table to pay for the costs of the journey. She wants her mother and siblings to see the country she now calls home.

“Even though I’ve gone through a lot and felt like a prisoner (in direct provision), I’m free now. I have more friends here now than I did in my country and I can call Ireland my home.”