Finding Refuge

An asylum seeker reveals how a Sanctuary Scholarship from University of Limerick is set to change her life.

A single mother with three young children, Donnah Vuma travelled to Ireland from Zimbabwe in 2014 and is currently living in direct provision. She has experienced many difficulties, from financial strain to societal stigmas, but rather than resting on her laurels, she founded Every Child is Your Child, (ECIYC) a community group that aims to improve the lives of children in direct provision. Living on a weekly allowance of €21.60 without the right to work or social welfare benefits is extremely difficult for parents, says Donnah. “All children deserve the chance to live full and happy lives and we want to help them do just that.”

Educational expenses can be extremely costly and Donnah felt it was important that children in direct provision shouldn’t stand out amongst their peers. Together with her team at ECIYC, she has raised money to establish a back-to-school fund that has so far assisted 43 children. “The stress of having to meet the back-to-school requirements was reduced for parents and it allowed the child to fully focus on their studies.”

Word of Donnah’s initiative began spreading and in September 2016 she was approached by Gráinne Hassett, a practising architect, lecturer and member of the advisory board at the School of Architecture, University of Limerick (SAUL). Gráinne’s students were making tables as part of their first year project. She and Donnah discussed the lack of cooking facilities for people. “What if we found a space where people in direct provision could cook and serve a meal on those tables?” The idea for a community kitchen was born. But this initiative was to go beyond just cooking.

“We wanted to bring together two groups of people who wouldn’t meet under normal circumstances,” she explains. “A lot of people don’t know about direct provision and there are stigmas and stereotypes associated with asylum seekers. This was about breaking down those boundaries and making connections.”

A lot of people don’t know about direct provision and there are stigmas and stereotypes associated with asylum seekers. This was about breaking down those boundaries and making connections.

The support came rushing in. Christ Church in Limerick offered a space to host a meal and Sarah and Ean Malone, owners of Zest Café brought practical and financial support. Sarah Malone, a member of the women’s friendship and service organisation, Soroptimist International, donated money to buy kitchen utensils, dinnerware, a new fridge and freezer.

Donnah and six others from her centre prepared a meal on Christmas Day with traditional cuisine from Zimbabwe, Syria, Malawi, Palestine and Nigeria. She’s hoping with impending food safety training, this community kitchen will become a regular occurrence.

Continuing to push beyond the boundaries placed upon her by direct provision, she has recently gone back to education. She was awarded a scholarship to study sociology, politics, history and English literature on the mature students’ access course in UL, something she describes as life-changing. “I can finally pursue an area that I’m very passionate about.” Donnah says she enjoys studying the topic of social construction and she particularly relates to the gender issue. “Stereotypes confine us as human beings. As women, we’re expected to stay home and rear children, not to have our own hopes and dreams. I’m trying to be a role model to my kids, to show them that you don’t have to be limited by what society expects of you. You can go out there and be a doctor, you can be the CEO of a company. You don’t have to fit into that role that has been defined and says this is who you’re supposed to be.”

We shouldn’t play the victim or burden people. Instead, we should strive to find temporary solutions that we can use to empower ourselves and get people involved without making them feel bad.

This scholarship is just one of the initiatives welcoming asylum seekers and refugees that saw UL designated as a University of Sanctuary in 2017. Commenting at the award, President of UL, Dr Des Fitzgerald said, “UL has committed to a three-year action plan to promote access and to integrate those from a refugee and asylum background into third level education.” The scholarship includes a fee waiver and travel subsidies and covers stationery, printing and IT requirements.

So how does she feel about the future? “I’m really hopeful – people are telling other people about ECIYC and expressing such an interest in getting involved. I’ve made a lot of friends and I’ve learned a lot of things.”

Donnah has become a symbol of hope for her community: her upbeat attitude shines through everything she does.
“We shouldn’t play the victim or burden people. Instead, we should strive to find temporary solutions that we can use to empower ourselves and get people involved without making them feel bad.”