Opinion: Activist Ellie Kisyombe writes about living in Ireland as an asylum seeker, and the streak of racism she's experienced in much of the country.

As a black woman in Ireland, I experience racial bias or discrimination every day, and it scares me to death. As an asylum seeker living in direct provision until recently, I have seen racism in all corners of Ireland.

In the last two years, an awareness of migrants' rights and the reality of living as a person of colour in Ireland has increased.

But when we talk about direct provision, racism and migrants it is usually the more public moments of controversy, conflict and even hatred.

The burning – not once, but twice – of the proposed direct provision centre in Rooskey on the Leitrim/Roscommon border in January exposed how unwelcome migrants are in some communities and showed the presence of a little-acknowledged far-right movement in Ireland. 

A viral video of a white man physically and verbally assaulting a black taxi driver and using a racial slur against him shocked many but showed just how often events like this can happen. 

And that's just the events that make the news. Living as a black migrant in Ireland is full of daily struggles and attacks.

"Go home"
On a summer’s day this year, I was standing in a bank line playing games on my phone, while waiting to be served like the two dozen or so other people around me. Crammed and humid with heat, the bank was busy, but in the way Dublin city always is, jostling with many people from many walks of life. 

The man in front of me was of African origin, a detail I took in only as a white man began shouting at him and myself, unprovoked and in front of all those people. "Tell your friend to move or tell him to go back where he came from", he said, pointing his finger. Everyone stood there looking at me, frozen in place, and did nothing, and I was terrified. "Go home", he said. 

I came to Ireland from Malawi as an asylum seeker many years ago, after the death of my parents, looking for a safe place to raise my children away from the prevalent threats of rape and mob violence in my home country. 

After arriving in Ireland I felt safe and thought Irish people were welcoming and friendly people, something I’d experienced from the many Irish people I’d met in Malawi. I knew Irish people were caring and sympathetic, and I’ve been lucky enough to see a lot of that. 

But I have also realised that there is a strong streak of institutionalised racism in Ireland. 


If nothing else, the event in Oughterard should wake us up to the fact that there are now more than 7,000 asylum seekers in this country needing places to live, with more coming, and we are underprepared, in terms of accommodation and mindset. How can we move forward when people like me come to Ireland for safety, but others view us as the threat? 

I eventually got the shouting man in the bank to leave by recording a video of him harassing us, just one of the methods people in vulnerable minorities have learned to protect themselves somewhat. But what if I was alone? What if I was not able to stand up to him?

As a black woman, there are times I don't feel safe. I am always looking over my shoulder. As a black mother, raising a black young man gives me some sleepless nights as I am always worried for him: Will he come home okay? 

My home - our home - is Ireland. Despite experiencing some of this negativity, in July I got my residency, and a huge weight was taken off my shoulders. I now feel safe and after years of uncertainty in the direct provision system, like a part of the Irish community. As an activist, I have always dedicated my life into community work but now I can do greater things, knowing I am home to stay. 

A thousand welcomes
But what about those still waiting, still looking for papers, for acknowledgment, for the thousand welcomes we heard so much about? What about those unable to work, to contribute to society, to cook meals for their family and friends, to build a home? 

I have heard of people from a migrant background who refuse to speak, because they are scared that if they are honest and share their experiences of racism people are going to sideline them, call them names and - worst of all - utter the far too familiar phrase: "If you are not happy, why not go back to your home?"

Do I need to keep quiet for the sake of looking for my residency? Or is it good for me to stand up and speak up? I have always said to myself why are we letting hate manifest its power? What is the Government doing or thinking about this situation?

As an activist, I know that now more than ever we need migrant voices and I hope that by speaking out, I'll inspire others to do the same. But we need support and cooperation from the Government. 

Hate Crime
Ireland lags behind other EU countries by lacking hate crime legislation. While An Garda Síochána defines a hate crime as any crime "motivated by hostility or prejudice, based on actual or perceived age, disability, race, colour, nationality, ethnicity, religion, sexual orientation or gender", there is little in place to ensure this doesn’t happen to people. 

Another positive change would be tweaking the approach of the Government on how they are going about in opening more centres around the country. Communities should be involved more and invited to be part of the process of welcoming new people into their communities.

As well as this, many Irish people also need to realise that many migrants that are moving here are doing so to better their lives, not to cause problems. To improve their lives while they are raising their families. 

Integration programs in major cities like Dublin would help ease this transition, where people learn from each others’ culture. It would also help combat the fear some people feel towards people of colour, which can sometimes lead to violence. 

Ireland is the land of one thousand welcomes, one that welcomed Suaad Alshleh from Syria, who just this week became the first person to win a new scholarship to study medicine. Migrants enhance Ireland's culture and charm, and in pushing them away, in calling them spongers, in attacking them while they try to live, we are losing an opportunity to connect with those who share our historical experience of moving in search of safety.

The views expressed here are those of the author and do not represent or reflect the views of RTÉ.