I have learnt about ice cream made from snow gathered in the Afghan mountains. A graduate of nutrition has regarded my nails and accused me of a deficiency in calcium. I have seen images of bombings transmitted through a mobile phone and I have sung the English alphabet with two Ghanaian men. Hatch Hall, just off Harcourt Street is Victorian redbrick and full of stories. Until 2004 it provided Jesuit residence for male students of UCD and it is now a centre for asylum seekers. I know it only on a Wednesday night but each week it is a new place.
There assembles at the entrance to the Trinity College Arts Block each week (as part of the Suas mentoring programme) a group that makes its way to Hatch Hall. A security guard buzzes us in and we make the walk through the entrance hall across the lawn and into the dining hall where there lingers in the air canteen curry and orange squash. There is a shuffling buzz as soon as the door is opened. Some familiar with the programme are seated already at a table waiting to be assigned a teacher and others, new stand alone at the periphery or chat in small groups. There are snippets of French but otherwise I recognise in the surrounding languages only sounds.
At present, an asylum seeker in Ireland receives €19.10 a week and €9.60 for their children. The system of direct provision, which has been in place since 1999, assigns the asylum seeker to specified accommodation on a full board basis rather than providing them with an allowance to live independently. In October 2009, when I first visited Hatch Hall and for which the statistics are now available, there were 54 direct provision centres in Ireland. The centres with the highest capacity are hostels, hotels and former colleges or nursing homes though a mobile home park is also in operation with a capacity of 350. In October there were 6650 people being accommodated under direct provision, which represented almost 85% of the maximum capacity of 7779. The publication of the Free Legal Advice Centre (FLAC) report on 18 February revealed that many asylum seekers are spending over three years in direct provision centres waiting for their cases to be processed. In fact the largest proportion of residents (32%) have spent over three years in these facilities. That’s 2156 people. It’s the length of our Undergraduate college years and contrary to the Government’s vision of residence in these centres occurring on “a short-term basis (not more than six months)”. Those in the legal profession are aware that asylum cases represent a lucrative business. A barrister is likely to earn €1000 per tribunal ruling on asylum. The nickname Mr Njet has been given to one barrister notorious for his refusal of asylum. Word outside the chamber is that he has a few politician friends in high places. Undisputed is that he earns per ruling 50 times more than what those, whose fate he decides have to spend each week.
The moment you sit down opposite one of these 6650 people, their facts and figures evaporate into the curry sauce and orange squash air. They look you in the eye, they shake your hand, they smile: they are human. They’re no longer seeking asylum but a conversation. Some time ago a bright-eyed Afghan man with a killer white smile produced for me a photo of a gleaming red sports car and a bright-eyed Afghan man with a killer white a smile. I looked at it, then at him. ‘Is this your car?’ I asked. ‘Are you a model?’ I thought. He grinned. ‘I do photoshop’ he replied impishly. He used to work in software.
Each week a sheet is passed from table to table where pupils and teachers sign their names. The first day I meet Mark he takes the pen and while he signs it I talk to his friend Dag. I am talking a long time and I sneak a glance over. He is forming the ‘A’ of M –A-R-K. We spend the next half hour singing and writing the alphabet and the following week he connects letters to sounds and a world begins to open up before him. Sometimes I’m asked if I believe in God and other times I have been told that Allah created everything. Quite often I’ve been asked to explain why the Irish drink so much and why so many young girls smoke. I’m still working on an answer. There are compliments too. Nowhere are the people so kind and friendly as in Ireland. Nowhere do they care so much.
Rafiq graduated with a degree in nutrition in Pakistan and speaks impeccable English. He suffers however from ‘hesitancy’. He had some difficulties in the Ilac Library last week because he came 5 minutes too late for the internet time he had booked on the computer. All he needed, he tells me were 15 minutes, but the computer had been given away by the time he arrived. To overcome his shyness we practise some role- plays and I do my best to inspire confidence with my outrageous rudeness. He notices that I don’t take sugar in my tea and asks if I have a general aversion to sweetness. I certainly do not. Next week, he promises to bring me some Pakistani treats, which he is ‘sure’ I will like.
Before Christmas an Iranian polyglot came to the class simply to socialise. He learnt his French from time spent in prison in France and picked up Italian, German and Spanish somewhere along the way. With fluent English under his belt, and TG4 available in Hatch Hall it seems natural that he wants to learn Irish also. In three minutes he has learnt the personal pronouns and is eager to begin the pronominal declensions. He makes etymological connections at alarming speeds and smiles with glee while he does it. In another world he is working in translation for the EU or in the department of Linguistics at Harvard. The class is over and he bids me ‘Slán leat’. He could have said ‘Au Revoir’ but I have not seen him since.