Writes Maeve McTaggart, News Editor
UCC Refugee Week 2021, now an annual event in the college calendar, marked its fourth year last week with events, workshops and initiatives which explored the lives of refugees in Ireland and abroad. From Monday 22nd to Saturday 27th February, an occasion usually celebrated with a strong campus presence migrated online and seized the opportunity to address and engage as many staff and students as possible through the digital space.
The week was facilitated by the University’s Equality, Diversion and Inclusion (EDI) Unit who worked in with UCC Fáilte Refugees Society, the Glucksman Gallery and a multitude of other external organisations such as NASC, Every Child and Your Child, and Cork Migrant Centre. Interviews, art installations and workshops populated the schedule throughout the week; the penultimate event being the Annual UCC Refugee Week Conference held on Saturday 26th.
While the online space argues greater accessibility, organisers kept the link to the UCC campus with an exhibition exploring the creativity and lives of children residing in Direct Provision (DP). ‘Art in Action’, the twelve-month collaborative project between UCC Fáilte Refugees and the Glucksman Gallery, breached the digital space and became part of an installation on campus. “The initial plan was to carry out the project in person, bringing children from DP centres across Cork to UCC to take part in art workshops, and hold an exhibition of their art is the gallery itself,” the Chairperson of Fáilte Refugees, Méabh Lonergan, tells University Express.
“Unfortunately, with COVID restrictions we had to adapt, and so art supplies, worksheets and tutorial videos were sent out to children in Drishane Castle Accommodation Centre in Millstreet and the finished art was posted back to us [to] be displayed across campus.”
The exhibition runs on the exterior of the Boole Library from 18th February to 12th March 2021, offering imaginative insights into the children’s lives and exploring themes such as friends, family, the pandemic and their hopes for the future. The accompanying webinar ‘Art in Action’ explored the importance of creative activities to young people dealing with their troubled living situations and how exhibitions and projects can provide a platform to share their experiences in a supportive environment.
Since its inception in 2000, criticism surrounding the Direct Provision system and the treatment of refugees in Ireland has continued to mount, with a long-awaited Government White Paper on the replacement of the system published on Friday, February 26th. The White Paper outlined the international protection process that will replace the Direct Provision system by the end of 2024. “The institutionalisation, which was very much an element of direct provision,” says Minister for Integration Roderic O’Gorman, “needs to end and we need to work towards integration from day one.”
Refugee Week at UCC engaged heavily with the conversation surrounding the Direct Provision system and its inadequacies, providing a platform for the voices and lived experiences of those who have lived in the Centres. On Tuesday, February 23rd, Fáilte Refugees Society and UCC Paediatrics Society hosted an event entitled ‘Children in Direct Provision,’ exploring the social, psychological and physical challenges that refugee children face across Ireland. A common thread throughout the week, was a focus on the barriers to education young people in Direct Provision face.
Due to difficult conditions in the law which make refugees and asylum seekers ineligible for grant schemes like SUSI and instead liable to pay expensive International Fees, Susan Mackey of NASC explained that young people in Direct Provision face profound barriers when accessing education.
Raphael Olympio, a music artist and a student of Occupational Therapy at UCC, told a webinar hosted by The Glucksman and Fáilte Refugees of the anxiety of waiting for the legal requirements to align so he could enter UCC and fulfill his acceptance. “I was frustrated, I felt stagnant,” he said, “If I didn’t have my music my mental health would have deteriorated really badly,” he said, “music keeps me going.”
Limited access to educational supports—magnified by the virtual learning space of COVID-19—makes learning “so much harder for children in Direct Provision because of the environment they are in,” Donna Vuoma, a former resident of Direct Provision and mother to three children said, “these children need supports to access their education, so many of them are falling behind.”
Donna spoke of her mission to ensure that “these children have everything they need to go to school” as she outlined her work with everychildireland.org to ensure every child has access to a laptop or tablet so that they can learn.
When asked by University Express what the objective of Refugee Week is, UCC Fáilte Refugees Chairperson Méabh Lonergan said: “I hope that students and staff come away with not only greater knowledge of the massive social issues which face refugees in our community, but with some prejudices broken and some humanity felt.”
“We hope that this week will [show solidarity with], empower and champion the people who need it most, and continue to bring about a fairer and more equal UCC, Cork and Ireland for all.”