‘People in direct provision are liars and thieves – that belief is part of Irish society’

New to the Parish: Rosemary Kunene arrived from Swaziland in 2014

Rosemary Kunene: “There are a lot of people who are depressed and don’t want to get involved in anything. I don’t blame them for that. The duration of stay in these centres is too long and I wish I could know what really causes the delays.” Photograph: Tom O’Hanlon

Rosemary Kunene: “There are a lot of people who are depressed and don’t want to get involved in anything. I don’t blame them for that. The duration of stay in these centres is too long and I wish I could know what really causes the delays.” Photograph: Tom O’Hanlon

 

The first time Rosemary Kunene felt comfortable in her new Irish home was at a set-dancing class. She had already spent a few months in the direct provision centre in Carrick-on-Suir in Co Tipperary and was starting to feel deeply depressed about her future prospects on this island when a woman visiting the hostel suggested she try dancing.

“I loved it because it made me forget about the reality of living in direct provision. The Irish lady didn’t need to convince me, she just invited me to a céilí and I really enjoyed it. Everyone else there was so happy so I didn’t think about my problems. I just enjoyed the music. Music can help you to heal.”

When Kunene arrived in Ireland in November 2014 she knew nothing about the country’s direct provision system. Fleeing an abusive ex-husband in Swaziland, her initial plan was to spend a year studying in Ireland before returning home to build a new life. Unaware of the long delays associated with the process, Kunene decided to apply for asylum after three weeks in the country.

She immediately felt uncomfortable in her new surroundings at the centre in Carrick-on-Suir. “At first it felt like a prison because I had to carry a plate downstairs for my food and then back to my room. I became stressed and I wasn’t active. I wasn’t involved in much apart from the set dancing.”

After six months in Tipperary, Kunene contacted the Department of Justice requesting a transfer to the Montague direct provision centre in Emo near Portlaoise, where she knew some people from Swaziland were living. When her first application to move was denied, she got in touch again, outlining the stress and depression she felt at the centre in Carrick-on-Suir. Her second request was accepted and in mid-2015 she moved to Laois.

In Portlaoise, she applied for a level 5 course in business administration and started making an effort to get out of the centre. “The course was really interesting and when you’re busy you can forget everything that’s going on in your life, especially when you’ve no control of the situation.”

Local initiatives

Kunene is grateful to the people in Portlaoise who looked beyond her current circumstances and encouraged her to get involved in local initiatives and activities. Last December, she was elected secretary of the Laois Integration Network and is a board member of Places of Sanctuary Ireland. She is also now studying part-time for a BA in applied addiction studies and community development. “The majority of people put you in a box. They think you are not educated and not able to do anything. But the groups I’ve been involved with have seen my potential and opened the gates for me to maximise that potential.”

Domestic abuse stays with you for a long time. You can try to let go and move on with your life but then suddenly it kicks you in the back

Kunene has found that many Irish people hold an unconscious bias towards those living in direct provision. “It’s not something I blame individuals for, it’s part of the society – the belief that people in direct provision are liars and thieves. I have sometimes seen the disgust people have on their faces towards us.”

Kunene recalls an encounter with a woman who she once met on a bus and chatted with for the duration of the journey. “She didn’t realise I lived in direct provision. It was only when I requested to be dropped off at the centre that she looked at me and asked ‘do you live here?’ I said ‘yes’ and she said ‘really’? The way she was talking to me then, she had changed.”

Even though Kunene often feels disheartened by her own circumstances, she tries to put a brave face on the situation by running Zumba and cooking classes for residents at the hostel where she lives. “I organise most of the activities in the centre. There are a lot of people who are depressed and don’t want to get involved in anything. I don’t blame them for that. The duration of stay in these centres is too long and I wish I could know what really causes the delays.”

As of May 2018, 723 asylum-seekers had been waiting three years or longer for a decision on their asylum applications, while it takes an average of 19 months just to be interviewed about refugee status, according to the UN Refugee Agency. A total of 5,375 women, men and children were living in direct provision centres around the country by May 2018.

Kunene has appealed the decision on her international status, which means she is not eligible to work under the recently introduced access-to-work scheme for asylum seekers. She is relieved many of her friends will be able to enter the labour market under the new system but says the Department of Justice should extend the programme to include those who are waiting for a response on their appeal.

‘New system is frustrating’

“The new system is frustrating to people who have suffered for so long in these centres and who were looking forward to being free from the dependency syndrome that develops slowly from spending so long in the system.”

“It’s painful to know that you can contribute positively to the community yet you are refused that opportunity. Sometimes it’s even hard to volunteer because of not having money for transport.”

If given the chance to work, Kunene would like to help single mothers. “I want to help those facing domestic violence because I have experienced it myself. Especially migrant single mothers. Domestic abuse stays with you for a long time. You can try to let go and move on with your life but then suddenly it kicks you in the back.”

For the first time, Kunene feels she can speak publicly about her grievances without fear of repercussions from the authorities or government officials. “Swaziland is a monarchy and people who engage in politics are seen as terrorists by the king and his subjects. I can express myself politically which I wasn’t able to do in Swaziland. I have more of a voice here as a woman, I can speak out and say no. I look at the abortion campaign and everyone could say what they wanted. In my country such a thing would never happen. There is a good side and bad side to being here. I have found the good Irish people who give me the hope to keep going so I sweep my troubles under my smile. I have learned to live for the moment.”

  • Sorcha Pollak’s book based on this series, New to the Parish: Stories of Love War and Adventure from Ireland’s Immigrants, is out now