March 2010 Reflection

The fourth week I was in Galway I did not know what to do with myself. The second I had been livid. The eighth I was impressed. And now, I am pondering a crusade.

In college philosophy class Shelly Kagan told us that people often weight the concerns they see in front of their eyes more heavily than others-even if philosophically they are identical. And I think it is this exactly that has underpinned each of my weeks’ variations.


My fourth week in Galway I did not know what to do with myself.

It had all started out pretty easy. I’ve been working with refugees since before college. I believe in it as something that makes moral-courage a baseline-safe affair. (It is never pleasurable to think about how standing up against discrimination might cost you your life in your home country, but at least it is that much easier to do if you know that you can leave and some place will take you in if your claim is good enough.)

Triona welcomes me with warmth that only an older Irish woman can have-chatting to me as if we were old friends the second time we meet. In our welcome meeting, she says that she wishes she could say Ireland was a better place for asylum seekers. For a country where generation after generation has been immigrants elsewhere, this country of all countries, should know how to treat asylum seekers. It reminded me of the Bible verse: “Also you shall not oppress a stranger: for you know the heart of a stranger, seeing you were strangers in the land of Egypt.” (Exodus 23:9)

Now, in principle I agree. But often enough over the past weeks, when talking with refugees or faced with their daily problems my first response has been to come up with an excuse or remind them that things could be worse. I walk out of these rooms and every time, even before I am in the hallway, I wonder why I responded as I did.

It is not what I meant or even what I believe. And usually you want to be sympathetic, not unsympathetic. So why have I been responding the way I have? I think one part of it might be that I can see so clearly what it takes to make the system run. How easy it would be for system administrators to put asylum seekers in prison as holding places, as they do in the US, rather than direct provision hostels, troubled as they are. (And they are troubled, horribly: there is little privacy, even less inspection, outsiders are not allowed in, and basic things like food seem to be more a money making scheme for the providers than meant to provide what the asylum seekers need.) I can see how easy it is for politicians to cut the asylum budget, or not extend upper level health care to them. Of course I also see the middle-men getting rich while holding a hard line against the asylum seekers they provide for, but that too is easy to imagine: they are just doing their business, and their job-mandate is to make a profit. What is hard to imagine is the realities of being an asylum seeker. How can I even call up a scene of the conditions that would make one want to be an asylum seeker? The scenes are hard to imagine happening to me. Functioning in a new culture in a different language without freedom of movement and no community nearby and no Skype? It’s not only disparate from my experience (and there fore hard to fill in the details) but also unpleasant to imagine too closely. There are so many things you need and I know we don’t provide, I’d prefer not to think too closely.

One thing I did realize was that suddenly, in our interactions, I had become the establishment. Someone who was integrated in the system and knew how to get things done.

It had not been so on week two of my stay in Galway. On week two I was livid. I had been standing out in the cold, in an industrial park outside the city, in the dark, for two and a half hours. And I could think of at least six ways to run the system better.

With a few exceptions, everyone who arrives in Ireland and is not from the EU must register with the Garda (police). I had spent the last two weeks running around setting up a bank account in a fifteen-minute break and gathering letters from this office and that to bring to the Garda. And the day before I had cleared the whole day’s schedule (I was told it could take a while and you better not plan on doing anything else that day), and walked out to the practically hidden office, arriving puffing fifteen minutes after it opened-only to be greeted with sad smiles by other applicants. Clearly I was new. There were no tickets left. You had to arrive before the doors opened to get in the mad rush for tickets. How early had they arrived? 6am. And they might still be waiting at 1pm to even talk with someone. Some waited till 4 and were never seen the whole day.

The next day, determined to get an early ticket, I got up at 5:30, took a taxi to the abandoned industrial lot, and as the taxi drove away, wondered at the wisdom of waiting in the frost in the dark in a silent lot outside the city, a lone female. I felt suddenly vulnerable. Within the next hour people piled in from all over the surrounding city and country side, but it did not make me feel any less vulnerable. Each new arrival was nervous, bleary and cold. As we waited I got more and more frustrated. Surely it was not so hard to put slots online and let people sign up and arrive for their appointments on time instead of 7 hrs in advance? Or like medical offices, you could call for an appointment. Or there could be a paper sign up sheet, that they took in when it was full. Maybe some people do not have phones or internet or the ability to come in and sign their name? They could reserve 3 spots a day for drop-ins. At a minimum, they could put on the website the fact that you have to arrive before the office opens to get a ticket. I had to come in person to figure that out, and was lucky I did not have to take off work. And the University had even briefed me on what I needed to do. Or, at the very least, a sign at the door when all the tickets have been taken (which, everyday, is at opening time. While I sat several couples came in and tried to sit down silently and wait to be called. They would have sat all day.) In the dark and cold, I began brainstorming why they might not do this. Most are well know systems that work in offices around the world. The majority cost less than $20. They have full authority to do it. What else? Stamping my feet to chase away the cold and furious from both mornings’ adventures I felt there was no other conclusion: it was not in the city’s interest to make it easy for immigrants. In fact you could imagine why a system that was frustrating and impossible to navigate might be intentionally preferred. In the dark I noted quietly that they made a different system for foreign undergraduate students, where they sign up and come at their designated time. Oh to be an elite!

When I entered and at long last saw the man everyone was waiting for, he was brusque and short tempered. Totally uninterested in being polite, he needed my fingerprints: first two thumbs and then two forefingers. Then into another room for all ten pressed down. Then each finger rolled onto a surface, repeating often for misreads. Then back out where he took my thumbs again to make sure it was me and that I had not changed hands between the two rooms. You would have thought I’d done something wrong or at least had threatened to. I walked home, and picked up my dignity at the door on the way out. That day, I had had no trouble imagining what it was to be an immigrant. I hope they change the system, but I’m glad I was there. In week two I was a stranger and a suspect.


In my eighth week I was impressed.

Ireland is in a period of intense change. I don’t think I realized this until the St Patrick’s Day Parade.

Like scores of others I decked my self in a range of shades of mismatched greens and crowded to the parade streets. We piled ourselves five deep and balanced on railings, climbed into trees, even stood on the bridge pillars to get a better view. The floats were by turns hilarious and creative: real boats drawn by horse with ten year olds dressed like old Irish men and women sitting inside them, waving plastic fish; church group re-enactments of cowboy-and-Indian scenes teaching basic morality (how I’m not quite sure); squeaky lower school marching bands. Much more striking though were not the costumes but the identities of the floats. Some were what you would expect: middle school groups, arts camps, a church or two-but far out-weighting these were the Nigerian groups, the Russian Paper Crane Association, the East Asian Group (not dressed up as anything but all carrying their kids and decked with smiles), the Galway Traveler Movement (representing Roma); the Middle Eastern Belly Dance troupe; The Tae Kwon Do group demonstrating moves on the back of a truck bed with loud yells, the group who were doing African Drumming in Ghanaian garb….even a community security force that was mainly made up of women, including some in their sixties. The train went on and on. Some of the loudest cheers were for the groups I thought were most socially ostracized.

Somehow, in the past years celebrating being Irish has come to include celebrating being Nigerian and Russian and East Asian. It would be a parody if it weren’t actually real.

On that day, I saw several Nigerian faces with green hats and red beards, and it did not even seem weird. Now I admit this normalcy wasn’t entirely expected for me. On days that don’t honor St Patrick I’ve seen other things: drunks weaving trying to grab a young black man saying things I hope I did not hear right, moments when it seems that everyone on the street is drunk and yelling, and as far as I can tell the only three people the police stop are sober quiet Roma women. But St Patrick’s Day reminded me that the city and whoever put this together consciously chose to celebrate the diversity of origins that now is Ireland.


Triona and I were brainstorming. They wanted to use the media. But most media outlets, when they write about asylum seekers, write skeptically or often write about how they might take away jobs from locals. (Never mind that asylum seekers are not allowed to work.) It could be worse than counter-productive to ask the media to write a story. And yet in my mind, the journalists responses’ were reasonable: the journalists had no more contact than I with the asylum process (despite all my volunteering and law), but plenty of contact with lost jobs and uncertain futures. Plus, it is not news worthy. Then we got to talking about Labor in the Pulpits, a movement in the US where churches, mosques and synagogues talk about a Biblical or Quaranic quote and then bring in a local guest speaker who exemplifies this issue. The one year I saw it they talked about the Biblical precept forbidding withholding wages, and brought in a Mexican tile worker who told about one recent week where the employer promised him a wage and then after the work was done kept on telling him to come back at different times, and then, after weeks of this, outright refused to pay anything. It was hard to listen to but his face has staid with me. Maybe this was what I needed. The response to my troubled knee-jerk replies… Passover is upon us and the time for liberation from suffering. The liberation that forms a nation. Easter is upon us and the time of redemption from suffering. The redemption that comes from love beyond social ostracism.

“Also you shall not oppress a stranger: for you know the heart of a stranger, seeing you were strangers in the land of Egypt.” (Exodus 23:9) Perhaps it is this that I came to Ireland to learn.

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