A resident of the Ballyhaunis direct provision centre, Ola Mustapha has nothing to do once her children leave for school each day.
On Mondays Mustapha, a former trader, walks to the local post office to collect her weekly allowance: €38.80 for herself and €29.80 for each of her three children, while Sundays are when she goes to church. The remaining five days roll mindlessly into one, as do the years, of which she has spent five following this crippling ritual inside the Old Convent in Ballyhaunis.
“Once the children are out the door that is the end of my activities,” the 35-year-old Nigerian national said.
“With the amount of Judge Judy I have watched I could become the Minister for Justice,” she joked.
Recently she met a man who said he envied her life of unemployment and state aid.
“What part of this would anyone want? You might enjoy it for a day, after this you will have had enough,” she said.
Five years ago Mustapha fled a violent relationship and Nigeria, a country marred by conflict and corruption, in search of a better and safer life for herself and her children.
When she spoke to the Western People last week, she had just returned from an unusually busy weekend at the inaugural Movement of Asylum Seekers in Ireland (MASI) national conference held in Dublin, where she spoke about the importance of staying active in the direct provision system.
“Fine, the government gives you this service, but what are you doing for yourself?” was the key question she put to asylum seekers at the event.
Mustapha said it is impossible to be lazy when living in Africa.
“The government does not give you anything, so you work for everything. School, university, medicines; nothing is given to you,” she said.
She has not lost her drive in Ballyhaunis, and she does all she can to stay active and to be involved in the community.
She completed a Level 5 qualification in community care. The certificate now gathers dust under her bed, “useless” until she is permitted to work.
She also organises activities for women living at the centre and gives speeches elsewhere about her experience as an asylum seeker.
But it is difficult to remain involved and to grow your skills, when you are not allowed to work or drive, she said.
“I paid €30 for a taxi to Kiltimagh to volunteer in a charity shop just because I needed to get out of the house and do something,” she said.
Mustapha has seen hard-working migrants turn to alcohol to forget their problems and deplete their days.
“The longer you wait in the system, the harder it is to enter back into society and restart your life. You cannot have someone here for eight years who still cannot work at all. It is just cruel,” she said.
“The assumption is if you are seeking asylum you are poor, uneducated and unskilled. That logic needs to be thrown in the garbage. These people are doctors, nurses and teachers who are wasting away in direct provision when they could be helping out,” she added.
Asylum seekers who have been in the State for nine months or more and have not had a first decision made on their refugee status have the right to work.
Ola Mustapha had her asylum refused, her application for social protection refused and is now in the long process of appealing her case. Her interviews have been stymied by her inability to demonstrate she fled an abusive relationship.
“I don’t know how you prove to someone that you are truly a victim of domestic abuse. I had reports from psychotherapy that still weren’t enough. I you look at me I seem strong physically. Should I show them stab wounds or bruises?”
Even though she is not where she wants to be in life, Mustapha doesn’t regret coming to Ireland.
“The safety I wanted for me and my kids I now have, and that is the most important thing for me. But the fact that I cannot give back to the society that let me in here in the first place makes me feel like a leech.”
Meanwhile, those with the right to work still face barriers to employment.
In a rural town opportunities are limited and without the right to drive some people waste almost all their earnings taking trains to Roscommon. The meat and chicken factories in town, two of the biggest employers, require a work permit of at least a year, she said. Asylum seekers have their permits renewed every six months.
“People just see that we have a roof over our heads and think we should be grateful, but Irish people should ask questions,” she said.
“If you are paying your taxes you should be making sure you are getting your money back, and if we can work we too will pay our taxes.”