What’s the Story? – Cathedral Event Gives Voice to Lives in Direct Provision
By the Revd Abigail Sines, Dean’s Vicar at Christ Church Cathedral.
In recent years the ongoing civil conflict in Syria has brought images of refugees attempting, through desperate circumstances, to find safe haven in Europe. This crisis moment brought a steep learning curve of awareness as these images were available to us via television, newspapers and online. In Christ Church Cathedral, for the past two years we have sought ways to engage with these issues as manifest in the concrete experience of people who have come to Ireland seeking sanctuary. Specifically we have sought to create opportunities to listen to the experiences of those who have been through or are currently living in the direct provision system, through our speaker series, ‘What’s the Story?’
‘What’s the Story?’ this year took place on October 21 and featured four powerful testimonies of resilience and determination. Mavis, our opening speaker, spoke on the topic of ‘Home’, in particular the challenges of being a single–mother in direct provision, in particular the lack of control over the surroundings and influences on one’s own children. Mavis and her daughter earlier this year had to be relocated when the owner of their previous direct provision accommodation, Hatch Hall, decided to sell the building. In the midst of all the challenges and lack of control, Mavis has emerged as a true leader within her community of mums and families in direct provision.
What came through her reflection was how much direct provision circumscribes what an individual is able to offer to the world: gifts, talents and unique perspective. Mavis has much to give and despite the challenges of the system she has found a way to be a positive and empowering voice.
Our second speaker, a young woman from India, reflected on the topic ‘Time’. Articulate and determined, she expressed her desire to use the time she has while waiting for a decision in a productive way, so as not to slip into feelings of hopelessness. She had observed others around her who have been in the direct provision system for some time, and who end up with nothing to occupy their days other than sleeping and staying isolated, and so as soon as she could, she found an educational opportunity open to her and began a course.
Our third speaker, King, originally from Zimbabwe, brought the perspective of a father, desperately sad to be separated from his children and yet feeling he had no other choice. He spoke on the theme ‘Family’ and talked of the family he has made for himself in Ireland while awaiting his decision: the older people he has met through volunteering in the community. He emphasised the danger of isolation for people living in direct provision saying, ‘the more you are alone, the more you break’.
Our final participant of the evening brought not just words but music. Cherinet, a pianist and composer from Ethiopia, treated the audience to four pieces of music, including two of his own compositions. He then spoke about the importance of music in his life in expressing who he is. It was clear from his performance and his speaking afterwards that music is central to his life, his well–being and his self–expression.
After the four main presentations, Caroline Reid of Irish Refugee Council spoke briefly to talk about some of the current issues surrounding the asylum system in Ireland, and in particular the pressing issue of emergency accommodation being used due to shortages in the direct provision system. Conversation continued informally in the Chapter Room over refreshments catered by Our Table. Several of those who attended agreed to their reflections from the evening.
Philip McKinley writes: ‘Narrative medicine’ isn’t a new idea, but it is finding traction in a range of influential new spheres. As a concept it can reshape the directive of Proverbs 31 – to give ‘voice to the voiceless’ – to mean that when a person is equipped to ‘voice their voiceless voice’, that something most transformative, empowering and healing occurs both to the individual and the listener, across a range of psychological, emotional, cognitive, cultural and political levels.
In this light, the series ‘What’s the Story? Lives in Direct Provision’, is a remarkable example of ‘narrative medicine’. It draws its voices from those living under a system, which has been described by the Irish Human Rights and Equality Commissioner Emily Logan, as a ‘severe violation of human rights’. Members of this system are also largely intimated against and barred from voicing their voice publicly.
In sharp contrast therefore, the annual series offers participants the wide open space of an unfiltered open mic, it provides a concerned yet trusted audience and it takes place in a deeply symbolic and evocative setting.
Christ Church Cathedral represents so much of the heart of Dublin – with contemporary civic and religious headquarters, historic Viking foundations and even the heart of the city’s Saint, all pivoting in or around the place. Being at the historic heart of Dublin, therefore allows the Cathedral to bestow a unique sense of authority, recognition and affirmation upon all speakers. On Monday 21st October, all four speakers began by recognising this as they registered their sense of privilege at being invited.
As is expected with any voicing exercise, each contributor’s style, theme, tone and approach was distinct and yet each had profoundly shared heartfelt and emotional qualities.
At a time of widespread anti–Direct Provision meetings in towns and villages across Ireland, it was so powerful to simply encounter the real stories of residents, from their own perspectives. Surely this is a Mother Church leading by example? Surely this is a fulfilment of all Christian’s obligation to give ‘voice to the voiceless’?
Miriam Ryan writes: It was really delightful to attend ‘What’s the Story?’ What a lovely idea. Stories are what our lives are made up of. The stories that we heard from people now living in Ireland were heart breaking, full of joy, inspirational, and a real testament to the lives of many people from across the world. One went from tears of heart break, to tears of joy. All of us part of a human journey. I felt inspired and disturbed, after a wonderful evening of very trusting Speakers, who bared their souls with such passion, dignity and integrity. Disturbed is a valuable emotion, to lay many questions out in our minds, and to nudge us slowly but surely to become more compassionate and mature in our connections with people who have to struggle so hard to find a peaceful place, to live out their lives in dignity. Our comfortable lives sometimes can dull our sense of social responsibility, a responsibility, which the radical Gospel calls on us to uphold.
Ebenezar Segatu,another attendee writes: These days it’s hard not to hear about direct provision in the media here in Ireland. But unfortunately, all we hear about is the fierce opposition of different communities who don’t want to see a centre in their community. Often the discussion is accompanied by strong opinions about broken government policies and the increasing numbers of asylum seeker applications in the last couple of years. But we don’t often hear about the people who are in the direct provision system. ‘What is the story?’ gave us the opportunity to see the faces behind the system and listen to their stories. It was so uplifting to hear how King found a new family despite being far away from home and being placed in a direct provision centre. It was also wonderful to hear from a young woman striving to make the most out of her time in this ‘limbo system’ by pursuing her education and looking to her future positively. Cherinet, a talented musician, made sure we heard his side of the story through his piano compositions. Indeed, they have stories to tell, and it was wonderful to have the opportunity to listen to these real life human stories of connections and resilience.