I meet Syrian artist Manar Shouha in a cafe in Dublin city centre. She has been staying in a hotel on the edge of the city as she waits for an interview with the International Protection Office, after which she will be issued with the blue temporary residence card (TRC) that gives asylum seekers access to public services.
This is just the first step in being recognised as an asylum seeker in Ireland.
In the past, getting an appointment and a card usually occurred within days of arriving in the country. Shouha has been waiting more than three months (she gets an appointment shortly after we speak).
When Shouha does receive her TRC, she will be able to apply for a PPS number and will probably be sent to a formal reception centre, before being sent to a direct provision centre, where she will get a €38.80 weekly payment and enter the more usual limbo where asylum seekers exist in Ireland.
Right now, in the emergency centre where she has a room, she receives meals but no access to money or clothes, and little information apart from what she gets from advocates such as Mavis Ravazani, founder of Cooking for Freedom, who introduces us.
Many people who have claimed asylum in Ireland in the past six months are in this situation. Many of their children have been without access to schools. Some have reported being unable to access GP care.
In a Caffe Nero in the city centre I meet Ravazani, Shouha and another volunteer, Rawan, who translates for Shouha, who has very little English. She has colourful clothes (all donated) and a broad smile.
Back in Damascus, Shouha, who is in her 20s, worked as an artist and a teaching assistant at the university. She has created art since she was a child. At home she made her own paint.
Here in Dublin an arts organisation has given her some art supplies and they also topped up a Leap travel card for her, which is why she has been able to travel today. She has been creating art since arriving here – beautiful acrylic paintings of Syrian people, from memory, and Irish people on St Patrick’s Day – but a hotel room is not an ideal place for an artist.
The war in Syria began when Shouha was a teenager. She grew accustomed to the sounds of bombs, and could tell whether one was near or far away. When she was young, she says, she only worried when she saw that her mother was worried. Her immediate family is just her and her mother.
As a student she regularly found herself stuck for long periods in the university if the road to it was being bombed. Once a bomb exploded near her, but she was protected by a wall. She was unharmed, but had problems hearing for several days.
Shouha is originally from Daraa in the south of the country, which is known as the "cradle of the revolution". This is on her Syrian identity card, meaning she was regularly harassed by the security forces in the city. Shouha points to herself and says, with a sad smile, "special woman".
She spent years trying to leave the country, and the need got more urgent when she was arrested for taking a photograph. It was a photo for an art project, but the police thought it suspicious. Her mother had to cry and plead for her release, and she had to promise not to take any more photos.
She was terrified that something she did or an artwork she created might lead to them hurting her mother. In the end her mother sold everything she had to fund Shouha's travel to Europe. Parts of the journey were dangerous, she says, but she was more afraid of staying in Syria. "Now when I think [of it], I think I'm crazy," she adds in English.
Like many refugees, she arrived to Ireland with false documents but sought protection on arrival and showed her real Syrian identity cards. The man at the airport was kind, she says. They took her photo, her fingerprints and gave her forms to fill. Then they took her straight to the hotel, where she is still living more than three months later.
Ravazani chips in: “She’s an Arabic speaker and that document [she was given] should be translated in her language.”
When Shouha first visited the International Protection Office, she believed she would have a translator, but when she arrived there was none. They wanted her to answer questions she didn’t understand. She also thought they would arrange travel back to her hotel because she had no money. She ended up walking back and got lost. “But I’m strong,” she adds with a smile.
A kind employee at the hotel helped her get some clothes and convinced her she was entitled to that
She came to Ireland, she says, because her mother had read about Irish history and thought there were a lot of commonalities with Syrian history. They thought it was a place where she would be treated equally and her rights would be respected. Instead, she feels abandoned.
She has nothing except what volunteers have given her. She arrived with just one bag. At the hotel they received donations of clothes for Ukrainian refugees but it felt wrong to her to take some of those. A kind employee at the hotel helped her get some clothes and convinced her she was entitled to that. “There are very good people at the hotel,” she says.
She feels let down by the State, but says that Irish people have been good to her. “I love Irish people. Thanks to Irish people.”
The language barrier leaves her feeling isolated. She has sought English classes since coming to Ireland, but without a PPS number can’t sign up for colleges. Because some Dublin-based art organisations have helped her, she worries about being transferred out of the city, which would further isolate her.
Shouha would love, she says, to live with an Irish family of artists, but she has been told that being settled with families is an option only for Ukrainian refugees.
She speaks with passion about her feelings, and Rawan translates. “When she came she was thinking of building a life. She wanted to be working, not just eating and sleeping. She’s not that kind of person. In Syria, despite her situation and circumstances, she was always working and studying and building herself. When she came here she was hoping for the same things but also to have a peaceful life.”
The current issue with delays seems to date from last autumn, and there is some suggestion that it’s due to an increase in applications that built up in the wake of Covid-related travel restrictions.
Ciara Ross, a case worker with the Irish Refugee Council, says it's unclear what is causing the delays. "We have people waiting for five months for TRCs so it's obviously a big issue at the moment, and one that we're constantly in touch with the department about."
When applicants get their cards there is a further delay getting PPS numbers. Without a TRC, asylum seekers such as Shouha end up in emergency centres or “pre-reception centres” – usually hotels. The actual reception centres, Ross says, are “well resourced”.
“They have doctors and psychologists and a lot of information for people. Spirasi [an organisation working with torture victims] do outreach there … Ourselves … It’s a real hub in terms of having everything in one place.”
Such services are not easily available at the “satellite pre-reception centres. They do have support workers in those pre-reception centres,” she says, but access to information there is “a little bit patchy”.
The agencies working with refugees welcome the humane way the Government has responded to the Ukrainian crisis. But they also worry about it formalising a 'two-tier' system
Ukrainians are experiencing a very different system. "People arriving from Ukraine are coming under the mechanism that was put into force in Europe, called the Temporary Protection Directive," says John Lannon, the chief executive of refugee support organisation Doras.
“So if you’re coming from Ukraine you’re directed to, in Dublin Airport, a one-stop shop where you get a permission letter which allows you to remain in Ireland. They can get a PPS very quickly, they can get supplementary welfare allowance and fairly streamlined access to medical cards. There’s a bigger conversation that needs to happen at European level in relation to how we respond and open our doors to people fleeing from those other wars and crises around the world.”
The agencies working with refugees welcome the humane way the Government has responded to the Ukrainian crisis. But they also worry about it formalising a “two-tier” system and note that the needs of other asylum seekers are being ignored.
Lucky Khambule, one of the co-founders of Movement of Asylum Seekers in Ireland (Masi), tells me about families in emergency centres whose children have not been able to go to school since arriving in November and others struggling to get medical care.
“We are all in solidarity with Ukraine,” he says. “We appreciate the fact that the Government reacted the way that they did. But the way they sorted these numbers so quickly tells us they could have sorted this for other refugees or asylum seekers quickly as well.
"At the same time, we hear unfortunate statements coming from officials saying that we do this 'because they are our neighbours'. It's a painful statement to people that come here to seek protection. It suggests they don't care about people from other parts of the world. It's so unfortunate that we can be undermined because we come from Afghanistan, we come from Palestine, we come from Yemen, we come from Africa. "
The Department of Justice says: “In recent months, the number of people claiming international protection has increased significantly with approximately 1,041 new applications received in the month of March alone. This has unfortunately impacted the IPO’s ability to complete an application and issue TRCs on the same day to applicants. There are currently approximately 1,200 applicants who need to return to complete their applications.
“The IPO is identifying what practical efficiencies can be made to the process and is putting in place measures to ensure that normal service is resumed as quickly as possible for the benefit of applicants. It should be noted that the IPO has been also impacted by the war in Ukraine, as some Ukrainians have been presenting at the IPO offices and on occasion applying for asylum, and experienced staff from the IPO have had to be reassigned to manage the process of giving temporary protection to Ukrainians at new facilities.”
Asylum seekers fear they aren’t wanted. They worry that speaking publicly will affect their application. One woman, who I’m told has been unable to see a GP about a medical issue, cancels a planned meeting by text. “I’m scared,” she writes.
At a park near a hotel in the Dublin suburbs being used as emergency accommodation, I meet another asylum seeker, Lisa, and her teenage son John (not their real names). Lisa and I sit on a bench while John cycles a donated bike around us to keep warm. It’s a freezing day and he’s wearing a light jacket. “Do you know anywhere that might donate clothes?” Lisa asks before I leave.
Lisa is from an African country and is escaping both physical and sexual violence. She has scars from her experience. She paid all her money to an agent, who arranged for her travel. The destination wasn’t her choice, and she and John knew very little about Ireland before they arrived.
'Why can't you just make a letter for me so that I can take the boy to school?' She was told, 'There is nothing you can do until you have your PPS'
They arrived in October and she only received her TRC the day before we meet. Because they have spent five months in the country without a PPS number, she has been unable to enrol John in school. None of the children in the hotel are in school, she says.
What happened when she arrived?
“I said, ‘I need protection’ right at the airport,” she says. “From there they took our photos and our passports and our fingerprints. They said because you are in a Covid situation, we are going to take you to a place where you are going to isolate for 14 days. Then they brought us here.”
She has no idea why they have been here for so long. She made several visits to the International Protection Office. “They said we can only go there when we have an appointment.” At one point she asked: “Why can’t you just make a letter for me so that I can take the boy to school?” She was told, “There is nothing you can do until you have your PPS.”
At home Lisa was a teacher. Here they have no money. They can walk around the park or a nearby shopping centre, but they can’t afford a bus into the city centre. They are given three meals in the hotel but if they are feeling unwell or miss a meal, they go without. At Christmas they hoped there might be something special but “it was like any other day”.
They spend lots of time in their room, says Lisa. “Our daily routine is just sleeping. We walk around the shopping centre. We eat whatever they give us. Sometimes we go without eating because we are not used to the kind of food they give to us.”
'I cry because I am so depressed. There is nothing I can do. Even with the stress back home I could work'
John adds: “The porridge is different. We make porridge with maize.”
He says he misses his friends. Do they know the other families living in the hotel? “We meet them at breakfast or dinner,” says Lisa.
Where are they from?
"All over the world. Afghanistan, Syria, Somalia, Kenya, South Africa. All different."
Do people get to know each other?
“Some say ‘hi’ and we can talk and some just eat and go. Mostly they sit on their own. Some don’t have English.”
Do they stay in touch with people at home?
“To call people back home is not easy. I don’t have money. I use the wifi to do calls through WhatsApp, but people like my father don’t use WhatsApp.
“If I had €38, to me it would be something. I would like to work. I can’t be sitting there doing nothing. I’m not used to that. I like to take part in everything. I was coming from a situation where I was working and earning money, but I don’t expect what I had at home. Some things have to change.”
When they first arrived they were told their stay here would be temporary, but they’ve now been at this hotel for five months.
“I cry because I am so depressed,” says Lisa. “There is nothing I can do. Even with the stress back home I could work. The way things are we are beginning to say that home was better. The problem is, maybe after five years we can go back. Now it’s too early and we are scared for our lives.”