‘Kids living here don’t have a normal childhood’

No Child 2020: Children in Direct Provision suffer bullying and restricted educational access

Rama Harrak (left) and Alma Harrak left Damascus in 2016. Photograph: Nick Bradshaw/The Irish Times

Rama Harrak (left) and Alma Harrak left Damascus in 2016. Photograph: Nick Bradshaw/The Irish Times

 

No Child 2020 is an editorial initiative by The Irish Times. Its purpose is to give voice to children, to explore the problems facing children in Ireland today and to offer solutions that would make this a better country to be a child. For more, see irishtimes.com/nochild2020

On May 29th, Donnah Vuma sat before the Oireachtas Committee for Justice and Equality and described the lives of her three children. Her eldest daughter will begin transition year next September but will not be able to join her classmates on the school tour, she said.

None of her children is able to take part in extra-curricular activities because of the added cost and lack of transport.

Speaking at the same hearing, Bulelani Mfaco, who like Vuma lives in the Knockalisheen direct provision centre in Co Clare, called on the Government to prioritise the rights of children in the asylum system. They must be able to have “a normal childhood” and not be “forced to grow up in State-sponsored poverty”, said Mfaco.

There are currently 1,672 children (813 girls and 859 boys) living in direct provision centres. Of these, nearly 85 per cent are aged 12 or younger, while 674 are between 0-4.

Eighty-six of these children are staying in emergency accommodation centres that have cropped up in hotels and B&Bs across Cavan, Dublin, Meath, Monaghan, Laois, Waterford and Wicklow in recent months.

Any improvements that have been made to the asylum system in recent years are overshadowed by the emergence of these emergency facilities, says Tanya Ward, chief executive of the Children’s Rights Alliance. It’s unclear whether children in these centres have access to school, if there’s a designated liaison officer available and whether staff have been trained to deal with asylum seekers, she warned.

What’s more, staff in these centres, and direct provision centres, risk becoming institutionalised themselves. “That was the learning from the Ryan report. Not just the residents but the people who are running them are becoming institutionalised very quickly.”

The human rights abuses that have been perpetrated within the asylum system are “probably some of the worst I’ve ever witnessed in this country,” Ward told the Justice Committee, adding that the primary social worker position within the Reception and Integration Agency has been lying empty for seven months. “Who is actually the watchdog? Who is keeping an eye on what’s happening to these children?” Ward asked.

Children who arrive in the country unaccompanied are referred to Tusla, the Child and Family Agency, which arranges care either through a foster family or placement in a specialised care home. Last year, 129 children, most aged between 15-17, were referred to the service. While these young people are initially looked after, as soon as they turn 18 most of them are transferred to a direct provision centre.

In March of this year, Ombudsman for Children Dr Niall Muldoon warned that direct provision was not a suitable long-term arrangement, particularly for children “who are spending large proportions of their childhoods living in an institution”.

The Department of Justice says it aims to ensure all asylum seekers can avail of “independent living” facilities by mid-2020. Outdoor sports pitches, including all-weather facilities, teenager rooms and family living rooms have also been introduced “to provide social areas for particular age groups”, said a department spokesman.

“New national standards” for the asylum system, which are set to be adopted over the next two years, will require that all accommodation is “clean, safe, properly furnished and complies with all statutory requirements”.

Rama Harrak (left) and Alma Harrak left Damascus in 2016. Photograph: Nick Bradshaw/The Irish Times
Rama Harrak (left) and Alma Harrak left Damascus in 2016. Photograph: Nick Bradshaw/The Irish Times

Alma and Rama Harrak

One morning in 2015 Alma and Rama Harrak woke up to find their father was gone. Their mother explained he would send for them as soon as he reached Europe. The sisters understood their country was at war. They also knew that walking to and from school was becoming increasingly dangerous. But they missed their dad.

“We were too young then so they wouldn’t tell us anything about the war,” says Alma who is now 15. “We were still going to school but we faced a lot of those army things; a lot of shootings and bombs all the time.”

“You knew there was a war,” adds her 12-year-old sister Rama. “They told us he was going to a better place and that we would follow him.”

In 2016, the sisters left Damascus with their mother, grandmother and younger brother and travelled to Lebanon, Turkey and finally Ireland where their father had claimed asylum. They were brought directly to the Mosney direct provision centre where they still live, nearly three years later.

The family has permission to stay in the country but cannot find a place to live that is suitable for an 83-year-old woman in a wheelchair. They have attended numerous viewings of houses but never hear back. While the girls’ parents feel stuck in limbo, their daughters are quite happy in Mosney and love the wide, open spaces and green fields surrounding the housing complex.

Upon arrival Alma was enrolled in 6th class and her sister in 4th. “It’s hard going into school when you don’t know anybody. We didn’t even speak the language properly. But the English just came to us, it was so fast. The last month of school you look around you and you have so many friends. You’re like, that wasn’t me a few months ago,” says Alma.

The transition into secondary school was more difficult. “When you start in a new school people say this girl lives in Mosney; it’s a refugee centre. Then they start talking and it spreads, and then the wrong people hear and they take advantage of this piece of information and use it against you. That’s the worst part. There’s always certain people you have to keep away from.”

Rama also experienced discrimination for being an outsider: “It’s not that they just say you’re a refugee. It’s like, oh my god, you guys are refugees in that rude way that would make us hate that we live here in Mosney. But it doesn’t happen much, and we’re proud we live in Mosney, actually.”

Asked if she feels like that period of bullying is behind her, Alma takes a deep breath and turns her eyes to the floor. She does not reply.

I want to study very, very hard too and become a doctor
 

I change the subject to music, something I know the sisters are eager to talk about. Both girls started classes organised by volunteers at the direct provision centre about 18 months ago and as a result, Alma began teaching herself the piano using YouTube tutorials.

The young student discovered she had a natural flair for the instrument and in September 2018 she was invited to play alongside the RTÉ Concert Orchestra for Culture Night. She now regularly plays gigs and plans to use the next three months of summer holidays to practice every day.

“I picked up music at the toughest time of my life. I was in secondary school and there was a bit of bullying so I played just to get away from it all and think about my friends back in Syria.”

While she loves playing piano, Alma wants to study medicine at university. “I don’t care if people say you’re going to change your mind, because I’m not. I’m going to study really hard and keep the music as a hobby. Then I want to work as a heart surgeon. I’ve always dreamt about that.”

When asked the same question, Rama echoes her older sister’s aspirations. “I want to study very, very hard too and become a doctor,” says the 12-year-old. “You can get what you want when you study.”

The girls’ father, Sami Harrak, sits nearby with a broad smile on his face as his daughters chat enthusiastically about their future plans. “Parents always live for their children and when you find your children are happy you will be happy too. We are happy because they are happy in this country.”

When Altamash Shaikh left India in 2017 with his father and brother, he had to abandon his secondary school studies, which he was close to completing. Photograph: Nick Bradshaw/The Irish Times
When Altamash Shaikh left India in 2017 with his father and brother, he had to abandon his secondary school studies, which he was close to completing. Photograph: Nick Bradshaw/The Irish Times

Altamash Shaikh

Every time Altamash Shaikh leaves the direct provision centre where he lives it feels like stepping into a different country. Mosney in Co Meath and the island of Ireland are two different places, he says.

“When I stay in Mosney, it’s a dilemma, it’s just so different to the outside world. It’s so far out in the country, even to get to the bus stop you have to walk 25 minutes to the junction. Kids living here don’t have a normal childhood, they’re isolated. It takes a toll on your mental and physical health.”

When I speak to Altamash he is three days away from beginning his Leaving Cert exams. He’s feeling nervous, of course, but after two years studying and saving the small stipend he receives as an asylum seeker to pay for revision courses, he’s ready to get started. When he left India in 2017 with his father and brother he also had to abandon his secondary school studies, which he was close to completing. Upon arrival in Ireland he discovered he had to go through the whole Leaving Cert cycle in order to sit his final exams.

“I’d just turned 18 after arriving but I needed to go back to school. I got a bit of backlash from people about education, they told me it wasn’t going to happen. But as soon as I heard we were going to Mosney I emailed all the schools and arranged the admissions myself.”

Altamash secured a place at St Oliver’s Community College on the outskirts of Drogheda. He lives in an apartment with his father and 17-year-old brother and speaks to his mother on the phone every day. He hopes that once they have secured permission to remain in Ireland she can join them here.

Studying in the small housing unit where the family are living has been a challenge, he says. “We had to remove the dining table because there was no space for us to move around. It feels very claustrophobic. The apartments are so close to each other you can hear the person speaking next door. I have to keep the curtains closed because people keep looking in.”

I feel like I’ve missed out on those proper teenager transformation years
 

Altamash plans to study business at university and has applied for numerous scholarships in the hopes that he can forgo the international fees he is required to pay as an asylum seeker. However, with only a small number of scholarships available, he worries he won’t be selected.

“I loved going to school and always strived to be at the top but circumstances didn’t let me. On August 13th, the CAO will offer me a college course just like any other Irish student, my immigration status won’t give me reduced points. On the CAO, you’re treated the same as everyone else, but not when it comes to paying fees.”

Altamash’s school friends know he lives in Mosney but he says many people from the centre prefer saying they live in Julianstown. “Mosney does have a bad image, and some kids face backlash for living here. I don’t think it really matters to my close friends but there are people who are racist towards us.”

Unlike some of the younger children in the complex who are unaware of the complexities of the asylum process, Altamash understands every detail of what his family is going through. It’s made him feel anxious and sometimes depressed.

“I feel like I’ve missed out on those proper teenager transformation years. I’ve felt under pressure since the day I stepped into Ireland.”

Rhianna Bandera, who is originally from Zimbabwe, has lived at Mosney for nearly a year and a half . Photograph: Nick Bradshaw/The Irish Times
Rhianna Bandera, who is originally from Zimbabwe, has lived at Mosney for nearly a year and a half . Photograph: Nick Bradshaw/The Irish Times

Rhianna

Rhianna Bandera was bullied at school when she first moved to Ireland for being small and skinny. Over time she figured out how to respond. “I’d say so what’s wrong with me being skinny? You wouldn’t like it if I said something to you so don’t talk like that to me.”

Now 11, the energetic fifth class pupil is happy in her Duleek primary school in Co Meath. The teachers don’t tolerate bullying, she says. “They keep an eye on things and if someone bullies you they’ll sort it out.”

We’re sitting in the cramped living-kitchen area of a ground floor apartment in the housing complex of the Mosney direct provision centre. Rhianna sits on the couch beside her friend Kayla, who lives in the upstairs apartment, while mother Sihle takes a quick shower before cooking dinner.

Rhianna, who is originally from Zimbabwe, has lived at Mosney for nearly a year and a half. All her school friends also live in Mosney, she explains as she lists out their names. “There’s Tyler, there’s Michelle, there’s Denisa . . . there used to be another girl, her name was Kimberly, but she’s left us now.”

The Mosney kids prefer to keep to themselves at school. “We don’t really play with the other kids. It’s our gang on one side and the rest play over there,” she says gesturing outside the apartment. “It’s okay because sometimes we don’t really want to play with other people; we just stick with each other. We have fun, we even have our own a cappella group.”

Rhianna spent her first few months in Ireland living in the Balseskin direct provision centre in Finglas, a stop-off point for nearly every person who arrives in Ireland seeking asylum. Most people only spend a few weeks in Balseskin before being relocated to one of the 39 direct provision centres dotted around the country. However, Rhianna spent significantly longer after her mother was hospitalised with tuberculosis.

“When they found out I was very sick immediately they took me away from her and put me in hospital,” says Sihle as she emerges from the bathroom and sits on the couch beside her daughter. “We were apart for a month. When I called she would say ‘Mummy, I’m scared’ because she’d never been alone back in our country.”

Rhianna spent her first few months in Ireland living in the Balseskin direct provision centre in Finglas, a stop-off point for nearly every person who arrives in Ireland seeking asylum. Photograph: Nick Bradshaw: The Irish Times
Rhianna spent her first few months in Ireland living in the Balseskin direct provision centre in Finglas, a stop-off point for nearly every person who arrives in Ireland seeking asylum. Photograph: Nick Bradshaw: The Irish Times

Residents at the Balseskin centre helped care for Rhianna while her mother was away. “It was sort of scary because I didn’t know if she was going to survive or not,” remembers Rhianna. “She’s the only person I came here with.”

In Balseskin, Sihle and Rhianna shared a bathroom with other residents at the centre. Often they would find urine on the bathroom floor. “We were neighbours with an old couple and the old man couldn’t see where he was peeing so he would do it on the floor rather than the toilet,” says Rhianna.

She also remembers the long queue for dinner where sometimes “you would be waiting for hours”. She loved eating burgers and chips, but her mother worried about the lack of nutrients in her daughter’s diet. “You know how kids are, they would love to see a burger every day,” says Sihle.

“But we couldn’t choose if we wanted something to eat. Sometimes I’d take her into Dublin and she’d cry for things I couldn’t afford to buy.”

Sihle also worried about the influence of other residents at the centre on a young child. “Sometimes people said vulgar words that she had never heard before. She would come to me and ask ‘Mum, is this a bad word?’ Now she knows words that she never knew before.”

Once Sihle had recovered from her illness the pair were sent to live in a mobile home at the Athlone accommodation centre. In early 2018 they were moved again to Mosney.

“Honestly I appreciated whatever was given to me, it’s better than sleeping in the streets,” says Sihle. “We didn’t know whether we would even have shelter when we arrived here but they gave us accommodation, food and blankets.”

In 2018 Sihle registered to work under the new permit system and now has a job with the Keelings fruit company. In March, they were given refugee status and are now looking for a place to live.

We briefly return to the topic of friendships and Rhianna assures me she is happy at school. However, she cannot understand why any child would pick on another “because they are different”. “We’re all human,” she says. “I just don’t get it.”

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