Refugees and punching down
In almost 30 years of working as a journalist, an interviewee had never let me down like this or left me feeling so annoyed and frustrated.
Here I was, sitting in a Galway bar, waiting for a woman from Nigeria to sit down for a coffee and tell me about her life in Direct Provision.
Half an hour had passed, and I called her phone.
45 minutes … an hour … a few more calls and texts, and still no answer. Over an hour and a half had passed when I finally left the pub, somehow bothered that the waitress thought I had been stood up after nursing two cups of coffee and telling her that, yes, I was waiting for a friend.
In more than 22 years of working for a newspaper, and three or four as a freelancer, this had never happened to me before. I sent another couple of texts, frustrated now that a story I had waited six weeks to work on would never see the light of day.
I had promised her anonymity, I had discreetly asked someone who volunteered in the former hotel where she lived to source someone who would be happy to be interviewed.
It had been a very slow process to get to this scheduled afternoon meeting in a Salthill bar.
At the time, few people had heard the voices of those who were living in Direct Provision.
I still had two other interviewees for the story, and I wondered if I’d be able to put a decent piece together for my editor in New York.
But, yes, I was deeply annoyed.
Why did she agree to the interview if she wasn’t prepared to turn up? Couldn’t she have texted or called, or answered her phone, rather than leave me sitting, staring at the walls, mid-afternoon in a Salthill pub?
At 11pm that night, I received my answer.
Her young adult daughter called.
She had been called away to a meeting by the health authorities that morning, at very short notice, and was kept away from the centre all day.
But she was living on an allowance of €19.10 per week at the time and didn’t have enough money to put even a tiny bit of credit in her phone. She saw my texts coming in and felt terrible but didn’t have any way of sending me a reply.
Shola, as I called her for the article, was deeply ashamed.
So much so that she arranged to meet me in the same place the next day and, according to the young bar tender, turned up an hour in advance just to be sure.
I was angry and frustrated but agreed to turn up and hear her story. After all, my editor had commissioned it after being told that such interviews were a rarity in Ireland in 2017.
We spoke for a long time. She tried to remain calm and collected, but her story was not easy to tell.
I was clueless about the trouble she went to in order to get from north-east Nigeria to the West of Ireland. That her daughter had become pregnant here in Ireland and that three of them were forced to share a small room. That she genuinely believed she would be killed if she was deported back to her home country.
“I’m stuck. I’m in the middle of a big stream and there is no way out for me,” she confided, while revealing that she had to put on a brave face in front of her daughter and Irish-born grandchild.
She even talked about taking a pill in order to end it all.
She fled Nigeria because she was in a church when 25 Christians were massacred by the Islamic extremists of Boko Haram. Only she and two other women were spared, and she believed she was taken to a place where she would be used as a sex slave.
“They came in when we were praying. They even killed the pastor. They killed many people, more than 25. They left me and two other ladies. They said we were pretty, and we would be of use to them,” she recalled.
Shola escaped from her kidnappers after pretending she needed to go to the toilet, after being moved from the church to a remote location far outside the town.
The person who helped her escape to Ireland was demanding €50,000 and yet she couldn’t afford to put €5 of credit in her phone.
A pharmacist, she had no right to work in Ireland as her application for asylum dragged on and on.
Suddenly, all the anger and frustration I felt sitting in the pub the previous day evaporated. I really hadn’t a clue about what her life was like, sharing a space with strangers in an overcrowded and ‘dingy’ former hotel.
I realised I shouldn’t have judged her until I met her, even though no interviewee had ever stood me up — without at least a call or a text — before.
I thought about Shola when “protests” took place across centres hosting asylum-seekers across Dublin tonight.
There is no doubt that Ireland has a housing crisis. Rents are now so extortionate that many, many people are only a month or two away from being on the streets. A reluctance to build public housing has been Government policy for two or three decades, since Thatcherism took a hold on this side of the Irish Sea.
There is no doubt Ireland has a public healthcare crisis — I watched my own late father spend 48 hours on a trolley in the University Hospital Galway (UHG) Emergency Department long before the first Ukrainian refugee set foot in Ireland.
But screaming “House the Irish, not the world!” outside unsuitable accommodation centres has involved the targeting of children, who were upset on cold January nights to hear those repetitive “Get them out” chants outside their doors.
Activists from far-right parties such as the Irish National Party and Irish Freedom Party have been travelling to and addressing rallies up and down the country, capitalising on people’s frustrations and stoking their fears.
The Irish, of all people in Europe, know what it’s like to make long journeys in search of better lives and to be confronted by racism and discrimination when they get to the other side.
The same two right wing parties, Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil, have been in power in this state since its foundation and inequality, and the crises in health care and housing, are direct consequences of their policies for decades.
It’s not the asylum-seeker child, looking out in tears as people chant “Out! Out! Out!” in Ballymun, who has caused the chronic overcrowding in our hospitals.
It’s not the asylum-seeker child staying in a Travelodge Hotel who has priced so many people out of finding a decent place to live at a decent price … or ever being able to afford a home.
And, as I discovered when I interviewed ‘Shola’ six years ago, it’s too easy to judge people — or to get angry at them — when you know nothing about their lives.
People have a right to protest, and to be angry, but perhaps it’s time to look up at those who caused this sorry mess instead of playing into the hands of far-right elements who never campaigned for decent housing or health care for Irish people at any point in their lives.
Find Ciaran Tierney on Twitter at https://twitter.com/ciarantierney