Direct Provision is no place for these families

“I do not tell him about Santa,” Cindy (not her real name) says, lowering her voice so her three-and-a-half year old son doesn’t hear.

“He hears about Santa from other children but I have to keep his expectations low. The presents he will get will come from charity.

“We are very grateful for the kindness but he cannot get his hopes up. I do not want to break his heart.”

It’s just before Christmas. Cindy and her son have met me for a chat in a hotel lobby in a Munster town. Over the fireplace, Christmas lights wink on and off. Cindy’s son, Aaron, shouts “Broken! Fix!”

Cindy stops him from going at the lights and tells me that she, her husband and Aaron have lived for the past two years in a Direct Provision centre outside of the town. Most locals are barely aware of the centre.

“Christmas Day is the same day as every day,” says Cindy. “The staff will not be there, so we have cold food they leave for us and the day is very long.”

Cindy is South African. Her husband, Joshua, is Nigerian. She was a supervisor in a marketing company in Johannesburg and her husband was a businessman. She says they came to Ireland because they faced persecution as Joshua was a non-national. She says they were attacked and threatened with murder.

Cindy and Joshua chose to come to Ireland because they didn’t need a visa and came here because they are Catholic and liked Ireland. On arrival, they applied for asylum. Their application was rejected because South Africa is not recognised as a conflict zone. They appealed the decision and their appeal was rejected. They have appealed again.

The cycle of rejection and appeal is a common story, although it is unusual for asylum-seekers to actually pick their destination as Cindy and her husband did. Most asylum-seekers are smuggled here and have no idea where they even are when they arrive in Ireland.

Cindy says that she is shocked at the levels of violence in the Direct Provision centre.

“There are a lot of fights. Gardaí call all the time. It is always women. These are desperate women suffering from boredom and depression. ‘Are you looking at my husband?’ Stupid stuff. ‘What are you looking at?’ Sometimes we fight over food. Like animals.”

As we chat, Cindy’s son shouts and runs around, ignoring Cindy as she tries to calm him. She is mortified by his acting out but then she tells me she is worried about his behaviour.

“He goes crazy here because he usually has no space. Because he spends all his time with us. One small room. This cannot be healthy.”

In another Direct Provision centre in the south, later the same day, I speak with a number of women who tell me that Christmas Day will be for them and their children “A nothing day. Less than a nothing day”.

Like Cindy, “Katherine” too is from South Africa. Similarly, she says her husband being a non-national led to their having to flee to escape persecution. She has two small children, a boy of four and a one-year-old girl. She alleges that the food in her Direct Provision centre is very poor.

“If we have chicken today, we have the same chicken tomorrow and the next day the same chicken in Uncle Ben’s sweet’n’sour sauce. Or if it’s beef on Monday, the same beef on Tuesday and beef stew with the same beef on Wednesday.

“Are we animals? Are we dogs that you feed scraps?”

She says she has not made a formal complaint for fear of being moved to another centre. Bad as she says things are, she fears her family being uprooted again. She claims that when the Reception and Integration Agency – the State body which oversees privately-run Direct Provision centres – inspects the facility, food quality improves dramatically.

I asked the Department of Justice – which is ultimately responsible for RIA – for a comment. I was told:

“RIA has a complaints procedure.. which resolves to deal with problems quickly and efficiently.

“RIA oversees a comprehensive and detailed inspections system of asylum seeker accommodation. Inspections are carried out by an in-house inspectorate within RIA and also by an independent company with expertise in fire and food safety.”

The problem is that people in Direct Provision have deportation orders hanging over their heads and most are terrified to complain.

Katherine’s friend “Jennifer” tells me to call her that, “like Jennifer Aniston”. She’s a young Muslim woman from Pakistan who fled her home because she married outside of her caste.

She and her husband fled under threat of a so-called “honour killing”. Jennifer has two boys. A three-year-old and a newborn.

Jennifer and Katherine are both Muslim and say that Islam doesn’t celebrate Christmas. However, they say they live in a country that has Christmas and they’d like their kids to enjoy that. “We want to belong in Ireland,” says Katherine.

“I have to ask,” I say, “because if I don’t, someone else will say I should have, but how did you both end up on an island that’s the last stop before America?”

“America?” says Katherine, misunderstanding my point. “We would not go to America!”

“Oh no,” says Jennifer, eyes wide with horror. “Not with what is happening there now!”

As they realise their misunderstanding, the three of us crack up laughing. It’s a rare moment of levity in grim surroundings. (Jennifer says she and her husband were smuggled here. Katherine and her husband came here from South Africa.)

“At the end of November there were 1,098 children in Direct Provision. The average length of stay in Direct Provision is around 2 years 9 months,” says Nick Henderson of the Irish Refugee Council.

“The Irish Refugee Council, along with various different organisations and individuals including the Irish Human Rights and Equality Commission, the Special Rapporteur for Children, Geoffrey Shannon, and most recently Minister Katherine Zappone have called for an end to Direct Provision. In the interim, living conditions should be improved.

“We need a system that embodies the best interests of the child, allows for self-determination and privacy, is based on care and not profit, identifies and supports individuals with special needs and vulnerabilities, allows for independent complaints mechanisms and provides for the right to work.

“Saturday 10th of December, International Human Rights Day, was the anniversary of the direct provision allowance being introduced in 1999,” notes Henderson. “That allowance, €19.10, hasn’t changed since, despite inflation and the considerable increase in living costs. The Christmas bonus for people in Direct Provision was just €16.23 for adults and €13.26 for their children. Christmas can expose existing poverty in our society, not least for people living in Direct Provision.”

‘Temporary shelter’ is damaging people

Direct Provision was originally planned as a temporary solution to provide shelter for asylum-seekers for approximately six months but many people spend years in conditions which have been condemned by the United Nations and international human rights groups.

Direct Provision gives asylum-seekers their bed and board and it prohibits them from working. Asylum-seekers get €19.10 a week. Children get €15.50. Asylum-seekers are not eligible for free third-level education.

Currently we have 4,300 people in 34 Direct Provision centres across the State. A third of them are children; 55% have been here for five years, 20% of that for seven years or more.

Direct Provision centres, which include former hotels, hostels and a mobile home park, are run by private contractors who receive about €50 million per year in State funding.

Until now, parents have not been allowed to cook for their children and many say they have lost their sense of independence. Sue Conlon, formerly of the Irish Refugee Council, notes that some children in Direct Provision – crammed into close proximity with adults (and not just their parents) – are seeing things they should not see and are replicating behaviour they should not understand.

“We have created a system which infantilises adults and sexualises children,” she says. “This is a recipe for horrors.”

Ireland has warehoused asylum-seekers in Direct Provision centres since 1999. Direct Provision was introduced as a temporary, six-month, solution at a time when annual asylum applications were 10,938. Applications peaked in 2002 at 11,600.

Last year we had 1,448 asylum applications.

In EU terms, Ireland has a lower than average number of asylum applications per head of capita. According to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, Ireland received 1.4 asylum seekers per 1,000 population between 2010 and 2014. The EU average is 3.5 per 1,000 and, over the same period, Sweden received 24 applications per 1,000 population.

Ireland only accepts approximately 5% to 6% of asylum applicants upon first application. The European average is somewhere between 26% and 28%.

Ireland remains the only country in the EU, other than Lithuania, that does not allow asylum applicants access to the labour market at any stage during the asylum process.

A number of prominent figures, including the former Supreme Court judge Catherine McGuinness, have predicted that a future Taoiseach will end up standing in the Dáil and publicly apologising for damage done by the Direct Provision system.

We should demand dignity, kindness and respect for all

In August of this year, an asylum-seeker from Korea, a woman in her thirties, took her own life in the Kinsale Road Direct Provision centre, which houses 200 or so people. She was the mother of a six-year-old boy.

“She lived in the same block as me,” one woman, a fellow asylum-seeker, told RTÉ’s Brian O’Connell in the wake of the tragedy. “Lovely lady, very private, and didn’t choose to mingle with people. It was obvious that she had issues, but she chose to remain private about them.

“Lively. A real live wire,” she says of her late neighbour’s son. “He interacted very, very well with other children. Very sweet and loved his mum dearly. And she loved him as well. You could see. When it came to her son, you could see how much she loved him.”

That little boy is now an orphan and in the care of Túsla.

“Depression, sometimes, is within and you carry it wherever you go. Certainly your circumstances can and might exacerbate a situation you already have,” the dead woman’s neighbour told Brian O’Connell.

Brian O’Connell points out that 90% of asylum-seekers will have suffered from some form of depression. O’Connell notes that sixty-one asylum seekers, including sixteen children under the age of 6, have died in Direct Provision centres between 2002 and 2014. That is, he says, out of an asylum-seeker population during those years of just over 50,000.

If, like many of us, you don’t know the Kinsale Road Direct Provision centre, it is – as you drive out to Cork Airport – on the left-hand corner immediately before, and beside, the Bull McCabe’s Bar. If – as an Irish citizen – you are interested in meeting our guests, the men, women and children living in Direct Provision, the residents on Kinsale Road are always delighted to get visitors.

All you need to do is call to the gate and talk to the security guards. Tell them that you’d like to meet some of the people who are living in our country as our guests. If they turn you down – and they almost certainly will turn you down – then ask to make an appointment.

(The usual excuse is “privacy concerns”, which is an interesting line of argument when some asylum-seekers are forced to share bedrooms with total strangers.)

Please think about bringing gifts of toys or books when you call. Santa will always do his best for the kids in there, but Santa never turned down a kindness either.

As Irish citizens, as tax-payers, we all pay for the Direct Provision system and – as we are responsible for it – we surely have a duty to make sure that our guests are treated with dignity, kindness and respect.

Originally published in the Evening Echo 28th December 2016

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Visiting the grave of Saint Nicholas on Christmas Eve

 

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Santa Claus by Thomas Nast (1881)

Today I visited the grave of Santa Claus.

The first thing to say, of course, is that Santa Claus does not – and cannot – have a grave, because Santa Claus cannot die and Santa Claus never will die. Santa is – as every child knows – a magical being, given life and strength by the power of belief.

Santa lives in the North Pole and once a year, at Christmas time, he sails the night sky in an enchanted sleigh towed by his flying reindeer. The most famous of those, of course, is Rudolf, whose shiny red nose has saved the day more than once. This Christmas night, and every Christmas night, Santa will visit every child in the world and he will do so as long as children believe in him.

I always wonder, though, if Santa gets a little tingle when he stops to deliver presents to the children of Thomastown in County Kilkenny. Maybe he takes a wistful look over toward Jerpoint Park, to the ruined Church of Saint Nicholas. After all, that’s where he’s buried.

Before Santa became Santa, he was a human being named Nicholas, a very long time ago. He was born, more than one thousand and seven hundred years ago, on the 15th of March in the year 270 in what is now southern Turkey.

Nicholas was the son of wealthy Christian parents and he was a very religious child. When he was very young, his parents died in an epidemic and his uncle, who was the local bishop and also called Nicholas, took him in and raised him. In time, Nicholas was ordained a priest and years later he too became a bishop. He became renowned for his generosity and his secret gift-giving.

Interestingly, he attended the First Council of Nicaea in 325, which was convened by the Roman Emperor Constantine, and which would set in stone what would become universally accepted as the details of the story of Jesus Christ.

Legend has it that Nicholas – who believed that Jesus was co-eternal with God the Father (meaning Jesus existed with God and as God since the beginning of time) and was thus as divine as God – became so angry at the heretic Arius – who contended that Jesus was created by God and thus less divine – that Nicholas punched him in the face. Later years obviously mellowed Santa…

(Other details were added to the story of Jesus at Constantine’s insistence.

According to the English writer Alan Moore, Rome was “a city divided by different theological factions, the largest and noisiest probably being the early Christian zealots. Then there was the cult of Mithras, which was smaller but which included the bulk of the Roman Military. Finally there was the cult of Sol Invictus, the Undefeated Sun, which was relatively small but very popular amongst the merchant class.

“Constantine’s posse came up with a composite religion to unite Rome: Christianity would incorporate large chunks of Mithraism, including the stuff about being born in a cave surrounded by shepherds and animals on the 25th of December, and would make concessions to the cult of Sol Invictus, the Undefeated Sun, by sticking a big Sun-symbol behind the messiah’s head in all the publicity hand-outs. This is politics.”)

During his lifetime, tales of Nicholas’ great kindness spread and with them rumours and tall tales of miracles he had performed. It was said he saved three young women from shame by giving their impoverished father dowries, which Nicholas may have thrown down the chimney.

He was said to have saved Myra from a famine in 311 by performing a loaves-and-fishes miracle with a ship cargo of wheat.

He was even rumoured to have resurrected three murdered children.

Being human, Nicholas eventually got old and – at what would have been at the time the incredibly old age of 73 – he died on the 6th of December in the year 343.

But that was only the beginning.

His tomb became a popular place of pilgrimage but – and this gets gruesome, so adults look away – in 1087 Italian sailors seized half of St Nicholas’ skeleton and brought it to Bari where those remains lay today in two churches, one Catholic and one Orthodox Christian. Venetian sailors later claimed the remaining fragments of the skeleton and brought them to Venice, where the church of St Nicholas was built.

 

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The Tombstone of Saint Nicholas, Newtown Jerpoint, Co Kilkenny

However, there is another legend about Saint Nicholas.

It is said that two 12th century crusaders brought the remains of Saint Nicholas as far away from danger as they could, to Ireland, effectively taking him to what was then the ends of the Earth.

It is believed that the remains of Saint Nicholas were buried at the Church of Saint Nicholas in what is now the lost town of Newtown Jerpoint, two miles from Thomastown in Co Kilkenny. The grave’s stone slab is carved with the image of a cleric with the head of a knight behind either shoulder, said to be the two crusaders.

It is a historical fact that Norman knights took part in the Crusades and the Normans in Kilkenny were well-known as collectors of religious relics.

Who really knows?

What’s important is that in death, Nicholas became bigger than a man, bigger even than a saint.

Nicholas became a story.

And everyone knows that stories get stronger every time they’re told. And if it’s a really simple story, a really powerful story, like a story about a man who secretly gives gifts and wants nothing in return, well, a story like that can become magical.

The story of Nicholas grew as it spread, gaining power as it went. In Europe, it bumped into Martin Luther’s legend of the Christkind – a magical version of the Baby Jesus who gives gifts to children – and absorbed it.  In Britain, it met the story of Father Christmas (think Charles Dickens’ Ghost of Christmas Present) and absorbed that too. In the Netherlands and Belgium, Saint Nicholas became Sinterklaas, where he’s celebrated still.

By the time the story reached the New World, Sinterklaas was Americanized to Santa Claus and in 1823, the publication of “A Visit From St Nicholas” (“‘Twas the night before Christmas, when all thro’ the house Not a creature was stirring, not even a mouse”) gave new impetus to the legend.

In 1863, the cartoonist Thomas Nast drew Santa as a portly, white-bearded gentleman giving toys to children and the picture was almost complete. The North Pole, the elves, Rudolf, Mrs Claus and all the other details grew from there.

Contrary to persistent urban myths, Santa wore red and white long before Coca-Cola portrayed him in those colours. In fact, Santa as we know him, in his white-trimmed red suit and cap, appeared on the cover of “Puck” magazine in the first years of the 20th century.

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Given life by the power of belief, Santa Claus has come to be the embodiment of Christmas for millions of children around the world, a magical being of great joy and kindness.

Even as he races around the world to reach every child this Christmas night, when Santa comes to KiIkenny, perhaps he will find the time to stop at the ruined Church of Saint Nicholas to pay his respects to the man he was before he became Santa.

Happy Christmas.

Donal O’Keeffe

Alan Moore on organised relgion

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“(To) me, organised religion seems to be the accumulation of dead ritual, lifeless dogma, and largely fear-driven belief that has built up around some original kernel of genuine spiritual experience.

“From what I understand of the original Essenes, for example, they were Gnostics. That is to say, their spirituality was based not upon faith or belief but upon personal apprehension and knowledge, or gnosis, of the powers at work in the Universe. They didn’t believe. They knew. If there was ever such a historical personage as Jesus Christ, and if this person did have a group of Apostles around him, they were not acting from belief either. Saul/Paul had the heavenly searchlight turned upon him during his day-trip to Damascus. Pentecostal fire danced on their tongues. Thomas… a pure-bred I’m-From-Missouri Gnostic if ever I heard of one… even put his hand in the wound of the resurrected messiah. Gnosis… personal knowledge and experience of the spiritual… I have no problem with.

“What I do have a problem with is the middle management who have manoeuvred themselves between the wellspring and those who thirst in the field of spirituality, just as efficiently as they’ve done it in every other field of human endeavour.

“It seems to me that when the blueprint for the modern Christian faith was first sketched out by the Emperor Constantine and his marketing department, it was constructed largely to solve a couple of immediately Earthly problems that Rome faced at the time. They had a city divided by different theological factions, the largest and noisiest probably being the early Christian zealots. Then there was the cult of Mithras, which was smaller but which included the bulk of the Roman Military. Finally there was the cult of Sol Invictus, the Undefeated Sun, which was relatively small but very popular amongst the merchant class.

“Constantine’s posse came up with a composite religion to unite Rome: Christianity would incorporate large chunks of Mithraism, including the stuff about being born in a cave surrounded by shepherds and animals on the 25th of December, and would make concessions to the cult of Sol Invictus, the Undefeated Sun, by sticking a big Sun-symbol behind the messiah’s head in all the publicity hand-outs. This is politics.

“The effect in spiritual terms is to move the emphasis away from any genuine personal spiritual experience. Whereas for the original Gnostics such a personal knowledge of and direct communication with the Godhead was the cornerstone of their spiritual life, after the priesthood moved in, the basic proposition was vastly different: ‘You don’t need to have had a transforming experience yourselves, and in fact neither do the priesthood need to have had a transforming experience. The important thing is that we have this book, about people who lived a long time ago, and they had transforming experiences, and if you come along on Sunday we’ll read to you about them and that will be your transforming experience.’ This sounds to me like a co-opting of the divine impulse – a channelling of the individual’s spiritual aspirations into a mechanism for social regulation.

“So, no, I’m not a big fan of organised religion of any kind.”

Alan Moore

in conversation with Dave Sim

Alan Moore: Portrait of an Extraordinary Gentleman

Copyright abiogenesis press 2003