‘I live in Cork. It’s the first time I’ve had white friends’

New to the Parish: Sibusisiwe (Busie) Mhlophe arrived from Zimbabwe in 2017

 Sibusisiwe (Busie) Mhlophe at the marina  in Cork city centre near where she runs with her club Togher AC. Photograph:  Clare Keogh

Sibusisiwe (Busie) Mhlophe at the marina in Cork city centre near where she runs with her club Togher AC. Photograph: Clare Keogh

 

Each morning Sibusisiwe Mhlophe checks the notice board in the Kinsale Road direct provision centre where she’s living. She tries her best to hide her disappointment when once again her name does not appear on the list of postal deliveries for residents.

Just over a year has passed since Mhlophe, who goes by the name Busie, arrived in Dublin airport alone seeking asylum from her home country. Every day she wakes up hoping to find a letter from the Department of Justice inviting her to an interview to discuss her asylum application.

“It’s a challenge. I keep wondering when they’re going to call me and I don’t know when the interview will happen. My roommate got her interview after one year and eight months which is way too long. I felt so discouraged when I heard that; how can I spend that much time waiting?”

At first I was scared. I wondered what kind of people lived in Ireland and whether they would be friendly. Would they hate people from direct provision?

One morning last April, as Mhlophe carried out her regular routine of checking the board for post, a bright blue poster caught her eye calling for residents at the centre to join a running group. “Join us” wrote the poster, “show solidarity with those living in direct provision”.

Mhlophe had played netball at school in her hometown of Gwanda in southwestern Zimbabwe but had little experience as a runner. However, eager for an excuse to get out of the centre and away from her cramped bedroom, which she shares with two other women, Mhlophe immediately signed up to the group.

A few weeks later she found herself standing in the University College Cork Mardyke arena and being handed a pair of new running shoes. She was joined by residents from direct provision centres across Cork who had gathered to take part in the newly formed Sanctuary Runners club to train for the Cork city marathon.

“There were loads of Irish people there as well as people from direct provision. It was my first time meeting people from Burundi and Sierra Leone. They’re African countries but I’d never met anyone from those places before.

“At first I was scared. I wondered what kind of people lived in Ireland and whether they would be friendly. Would they hate people from direct provision? But they were so lovely.”

A good sleep

Despite some muscle aches after the first training session, Mhlophe was immediately hooked and began training twice a week with the group. In June 2018 she ran in the final leg of the Cork marathon as part of a four-person relay team. “I ran 7.5 km and it was the most exciting leg of the race. There were people on the finishing line cheering us on and it felt so great. It was the longest distance I had run in my life.”

Mhlophe also noticed the physical benefits of becoming so active. She had struggled with high blood pressure for years but found it quickly fell to a normal level once she got into a regular running routine. She also discovered she could finally sleep at night.

“When I first arrived it was very difficult to sleep. I’d lived my whole life with my grandmother and I’d think a lot about her. I was the one who used to take care of her and I was worried about her. When I started running, especially after training, I would sleep peacefully. It just felt like someone had lifted the burden I was carrying off my shoulders. It was really helpful.”

I would prefer if people asked more questions so that they could learn that people in direct provision are not just asylum seekers; there are qualified doctors, nurses

After taking part in the Cork city marathon, Mhlophe was invited to join the running group at the Togher Athletics Club in Cork city. She now describes her friends at the club as her Irish family.

“They’ve been so good to me and take me for coffee, lunch and dinner. It’s also my first time to ever have white friends. Togher AC has funding that pays for my running gear and they bought me a running watch as well. It’s so expensive, I never would have been able to buy it for myself.”

Mhlophe says she’s not the only person benefitting from running with Togher AC which is predominantly made up of Irish members. “Most of the members from the club didn’t know anything about direct provision before I joined but now they understand what’s going on. Sometimes they are scared to ask me questions but I always tell them that anything they want to know, they’re free to ask.

“I would prefer if people asked more questions so that they could learn that people in direct provision are not just asylum seekers; there are qualified doctors, qualified nurses, so many different types of people. They are just in an asylum system right now with lots of limitations.”

I would love to stay in Cork city and settle here because I have friends now and wouldn’t want to leave Togher AC

Earlier this summer Mhlophe was granted permission to work under the Government’s newly launched access to work scheme. However, like many other asylum seekers who are also looking for a job, Mhlophe has yet to find an employer who will accept the document she was given by the Department of Justice. “Companies just don’t understand the permit. The other challenge is opening a bank account because they request a copy of my birth certificate and I don’t have that.” Without a copy passport, and unable to apply for a driving licence, Mhlophe has been refused by four banks from opening an account.

Mhlophe is now preparing to run the Waterford half marathon in December, having run her first half marathon in Clonmel in August. She also recently began a 12-week course in community psychology and hopes to find the funding to study at university.

“I would love to stay in Cork city and settle here because I have friends now and wouldn’t want to leave Togher AC. If it hadn’t been for the Sanctuary Runners I might not have friends today and I wouldn’t know anything about Irish communities. Maybe I would have paid attention to the negative stories you sometimes hear about Irish people without knowing that they are actually really good people. Those stories are not true at all from my experience.”

She also plans to continue training through the winter months. “I’ll keep running because I love it. I need something to do with my time instead of staying in my room all day. Running keeps me busy.”

We would like to hear from people who have moved to Ireland in the past 10 years. To get involved, email newtotheparish@irishtimes.com or tweet @newtotheparish