Wednesday 17 July 2019

'Direct provision is like being in an abusive relationship' - Nigerian writer Melatu Uche Okorie on direct provision and racism in Ireland

Nigerian-born Melatu Uche ­Okorie, a newcomer to Ireland's literary scene, came here 12 years ago seeking asylum and spent eight-and-half-years in direct provision. She tells ­Maggie ­Armstrong about finding the strength to confront her past through writing and the casual racism she encounters on a daily basis

New life: Melatu at Trinity College, where she is studying for a PhD. Photo: Damien Eagers
New life: Melatu at Trinity College, where she is studying for a PhD. Photo: Damien Eagers

Maggie Armstrong

'Direct provision," writes Melatu Uche Okorie in the foreword to her story collection, This Hostel Life, "is like being in an abusive relationship".

The Nigerian-born author arrived in Ireland 12 years ago seeking asylum with her infant daughter. She spent eight-and-a-half years in direct provision, living on €28.70 per week, her days policed by security men.

Direct provision was established in 2000 to provide the survival needs for people seeking international protection. It was promised that asylum seekers would stay no longer than six months before applications were processed.

But people remain in accommodation centres - of which there are 34 around the country - for an average of 23 months, some for years. Living with strangers, without permission from the State to work, losing basic life skills as meals are doled out in a canteen.

Okorie is the first Irish author to emerge from that purgatorial setting and publish a book. This Hostel Life is a tiny little book of three stories published with Skein press, a new outfit whose mission it is to find minority ethnic voices.

I am excited to meet this newcomer to Ireland's all-white literary scene. Also, cautious. The author describes herself in her foreword as "not a natural sharer".

"I'm really thankful to God that I've found, in writing, a medium through which I can talk about myself," she writes.

The hostels in her book are not named, for obvious reasons. So many questions are off-limits. Sitting in a café near Trinity College, Okorie is softly-spoken - just audible under the din of whizzing coffee beans. She is a PhD candidate at the college, having received an MA here in Creative Writing. She arrived from Nigeria with no books in her bags. This journey from migrant status to the highest rung in education is remarkable to me. What first spurred her to write?

"There was just nothing to do with the time, where I was. I had these stories running around my head."

I ask Okorie to describe day-to-day life in direct provision.

"One thing that might resonate with everybody is just the emptiness of the days. You have long days of not doing much.

"Everything is repetitive, monotonous. A long day of nothing. Little things take on so much of your emotions and your energy."

Included in This Hostel Life is an article by UCD law professor Liam Thornton. He writes that "over 5,000 men, women and children remain in direct provision centres in Ireland today. Convicted of no crime, the system of enforced dependency and institutionalisation reminds me of the crueller and less understanding Ireland of the borstal, the Magdalene laundry, the mother and baby home, the mental institution".

Direct provision is "degrading" and should be abolished, writes this expert in human rights law.

Although Okorie came here 12 years ago, she feels she has lived here only four years. "Because for the first eight-and-a-half years, I wasn't part of anything, I wasn't part of the society, I wasn't acknowledged for anything. How can you be, if you're not contributing anything?"

Raised in a small town in Nigeria, Melatu had a degree in English when she came to Ireland in 2006. Until very recently, people living in direct provision were not entitled to work - now the ban has been lifted, subject to restrictions. Did the people Okorie lived with want to work?

"Everybody wanted to work. 100pc."

Those first years living in a hostel, Okorie wrote by night with her daughter sleeping next to her. She borrowed books and read widely from contemporary fiction. Her favourite authors are Anne Tyler, Margaret Atwood, Jennifer Johnston and Roddy Doyle.

In 2008, her story 'Gathering Thoughts', about female circumcision, won the Metro Éireann writing award. "It was a horrible story, thinking about it now," she laughs. "I was just pouring out stuff on paper. It wasn't about me but…"

You will have to look to Melatu's fiction to find out how she ended up in Ireland. She has a good reason for drawing a line between past and present. "Going into these topics affects my daughter, because her life is entangled with mine. But if you read my stories you find out."

Asked if she experienced harm or ill-treatment, she replies: "It was a lot of these things. And I have to be cautious about putting things out there because I have another life that I have to protect. There are some things you wish you could move away from. I think I'm strong enough to confront things now. But when the confrontation is taking place, I don't know what's going to happen."

In not wanting to talk a lot, she did talk a little, about her own mother, who raised Okorie with "quite a few" siblings. "My mother was a great storyteller, which I didn't appreciate at the time. She was someone who was full of stories. I suppose I realise I'm like that now."

One of the stories in the collection, 'The Egg Broke', is based on local lore she heard from her mother. It describes the practice of killing newborn twins, abolished in the 1900s.

Okorie got "leave to remain" in Ireland in 2014 and once she left direct provision, her family moved around, from Lucan to the outskirts of Sligo to north Dublin, where they have settled. What was it like after eight-and-a-half years of queuing for meals to gain independence?

"At first it was exciting. To go into a shop and make choices. It made me feel like this is normal life. The next feeling I started having was of fear. How am I going to cope with life away from here?

"It's a whole new ball game," she says. "When you live in seclusion for eight or 10 years, it's harder to get into the mix of things.

"You are afraid of meeting new people, you don't know how they are going to accept you. You feel like a failure. Your confidence is extremely low. Everything is a challenge to you, and there is always that temptation to run back to safety, to go back and be that person that will just sit down and not have to engage with the world."

She feels there should be more follow-up when a person leaves the system. "Nobody checks to see how are you getting on."

Alongside her studies at Trinity, she is slowly working on a novel while volunteering at the creative writing centre Fighting Words every week. She encounters what she calls "casual racism" all the time.

"It's everywhere. It's in everything. It's an attitude. It's just breaking that glass ceiling in Ireland. I suppose, as a migrant, I feel there is not enough opportunity to do certain things."

Though she saw close friends deported, direct provision gave her a community that keeps her in Dublin today. Women from Nigeria, Somalia, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Ivory Coast, Sierra Leone, Kurdistan, the Lebanon. "They are family now. We've shared so much. Cried together, laughed together.

"At the time, they weren't happy times," she emphasises. "In retrospect, they become happy times."

This is what telling stories is about. Will she ever write her own story down, the way it happened?

"I did attempt to do a memoir. But I'm not as bold as, what's her name? Nuala O'Faolain. I read Are you Somebody? Oh my god, it blew me away. It takes a special kind of woman to do something like that.

"After I read her, I asked, can I be that brutally honest about myself? The answer is kind of no." She gives a flavoursome laugh. "Because if I do a memoir, I wouldn't want it to be kind of sweet and nice, you know?"


Melatu Uche Okorie will read from This Hostel Life at the West Cork Literary Festival on Friday, July 20 in Bantry Bookshop

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