'I knew I would not get a beating like I would in Zimbabwe' - sisters who fled Mugabe regime earn Gaisce awards
Unable to work or continue their studies, Tanya Sweeney talks to asylum seekers who took up the Gaisce President's Award challenge
On a bright yellow wall, next to the auditorium in Mosney's direct provision centre, an inspirational quote in cursive writing takes pride of place: "Follow your dreams, they know the way." Yet for the 700 asylum seekers living there on €21.60 a week, following dreams can sometimes be a challenge.
Still, it hasn't stopped a number of the centre's young school leavers hoping for a better life. Many of them have the same wishes, hopes and preoccupations as any other person their age. What they don't have, and crave desperately, is the opportunity to freely study and work.
Like most young women, sisters Tracey (20) and Trish (19) Sefu love make-up and fashion, often spending their €21.60 allowance on cosmetics, phone credit and whatever clothes or shoes they can afford. But they have ambitions too - Tracey dreams of owning her own accountancy firm one day. "I'd love to live in Swords, as they have nice houses," she admits. "For college, I'd love to go to Sligo IT or maybe NCI."
The two arrived in Ireland in 2014 after fleeing the Mugabe regime with their mother and four younger siblings. Settling for a while in Globe House in Sligo, the family shared a single room, with the sisters sleeping in one bed, and their three siblings sharing a bed with their mother. In Africa, they'd gone to an exclusive boarding school. "Back in my country, I never knew Ireland existed until the day I got here," admits Trish.
The two girls flourished in school here, yet while their classmates headed for college with nary a backward glance, the girls found that, despite getting good marks, their opportunities for further study were much more limited.
"It was a challenge," admits Tracey. "The history and geography were hard to cope with as it was all about Ireland and Europe." Trish, meanwhile, found school in Drogheda "amazing". "I knew that if I got something wrong, I would not get a beating like I would in Zimbabwe," she recalls. "You just get corrected, so I was more open to saying things."
Tracey went on to do an accountancy PLC, but there are restrictions on asylum seekers who hope to access third-level education - they are required to pay non-EU student fees of several thousand euro. After leaving school, the two girls were soon at a loss on how to fill their days.
"I applied for 360 jobs and I got one interview," recalls Trish. "They accepted me, but I couldn't do the job because I didn't have the green card. People here do a lot of charity work to fill their days, but that would only motivate me for so long."
They learned of the Gaisce President's Award earlier this year, which offers medals to people aged between 15 and 25 for a number of challenges: community involvement, personal skills, physical recreation and adventure journeys. After completing each challenge, both girls - along with 10 other residents in direct provision from areas as diverse as Kosovo, Kurdistan and the Congo - received their Bronze awards from Michael D Higgins earlier this week. For the young people involved, it's a way of bolstering one's CV and prospects while living in bureaucratic limbo.
"I was kind of bored, but I did also want to meet the President," admits Trish with a laugh. "Usually, it was just me grabbing toast (from the common area cafeteria) and going back to my room. When you're here, you want to fill your day."
The participants started a community garden and grew their own vegetables, or started to volunteer with Foróige. Some explored filmmaking, psychology and songwriting as part of their challenge.
Rilwan Kadiri (23) has been living in Irish direct provision centres for 14 years. His application for asylum, along with that of his mother and four siblings, has yet to be processed.
Rilwan studied media in IT Blanchardstown for three years, and was devastated when he wouldn't continue his studies for financial reasons. He's clearly not one to let the grass grow under his feet, however - he organises talent shows in Mosney, with up to 100 youngsters. He is also the man behind regular film nights, thanks often to DVD donations.
"Sometimes it's like I'm the boss of Mosney," he jokes. "I'm always organising activities here and there."
Using his allowance, he travels to Dublin once a week to volunteer with Foróige, and has trained in studio engineering and helps kids with creating apps and websites.
"If you're in direct provision and you're not active, you feel you're not able to do anything," he explains. "There's loads to do, but you have to look for it."
Does he feel people believe asylum seekers sit in direct provision doing nothing with their day? "Definitely," he says. "My friends first thought that we were trapped in here, which is ridiculous. You can do what you want, when you want. (The financial aspect) is just a slight part of it. You get a little money, but I'm grateful. My mum always says, 'if you're sheltered, you can do anything in life'.
Yet much like with the Sefu sisters, Rilwan - who fled war-torn Nigeria - yearns to live independently in Ireland. And as an adult, thoughts have now turned to what he wants to do with his life as and when his asylum application is finally processed.
"Ireland is one of the best countries as it has no natural disasters and no war. It's a nice calm country where you can raise a child, get a job and live your life."
Dating while in direct provision, he admits, can be tricky.
"Maybe four or five months into a relationship you might say, 'there's something you should know about me'," he explains. "If they say, 'oh my God, you live there', or they feel sorry for you, you get a sense that this person will judge me throughout the relationship, so it might be better to step away."
Last year, Gerry Adams famously described the Mosney direct provision centre as "like Long Kesh without the watchtowers". It's a mindset, the residents admit, that can sometimes be more hindrance than help. "Some Irish people think we're really struggling - and we're struggling with some parts, but not majorly," says Rilwan. "We're happy. We're smiling every day."
For more information on Gaisce, see Gaisce.ie.