The Waiting Game

Belltable Artist in Residence Katie O’Kelly writes about the experience of asylum seekers waiting to hear if their status application has been approved.

Have you ever waited anxiously to get a letter, waiting to hear if some fishing line you previously threw out in to the world has worked out for you? It’s a familiar feeling in the theatre world about eight weeks after the frenzied Arts Council deadline time. You open the door as you hear the postman coming to see if he has anything for you. As if your life depended on it. Giving the poor postman a fright in your pajamas and mad bed hair. You know as soon as you see the envelope size. A big envelope means it worked. You got some funding to make a thing. A small envelope means you didn’t. “Due to the high number of applications received I am sorry to inform you…” It’s always a tense time. You count down the days to getting that news.

Belltable Artist in Residence Katie O’Kelly

But imagine if your life actually did depend on it. On what was in that letter. And instead of eight weeks, you had to wait months. Sometimes years. Getting the “we are sorry to inform you…” and having to apply again. And again. Requesting protection in Ireland. Appealing when your application is rejected. Seeking asylum from something you can’t go back to. This is Direct Provision. Walking down to the reception of the centre you have been put in every day to check. To see if you’ve gotten a letter. What size envelope it will be. To get that sinking feeling over and over in the pit of your stomach. Knowing that the letters from the Department of Justice usually arrive on a Friday, and that if you didn’t get one you will have to wait until next week. But you still check every day, just in case.

Mount Trenchard Direct Provision Centre

My friend told me about this. I met him in Limerick, he is in Mount Trenchard Direct Provision Centre in Foynes. He said it was awful, waking up every morning, going to check for a letter every morning and being disappointed every morning. He has been in Direct Provision for three years. Sharing a room, eating canteen food, not allowed to work, your life on hold. For three years. It’s a form of torture, an endurance test with no finish line in sight. He called me a couple of weeks back. He sounded different to usual. He told me he had received a letter. I waited to hear what would come next; he has been appealing his case and we knew this was the final chance. The words sprang down the phone line. He had been granted the leave to remain. I nearly jumped out of my seat on the packed bus I was on, the news fizzing down the crackly what’s app connection. Leave to remain. Three crucial, life changing words.

A couple of days later we were sitting in the Pipers Bar, across from the Abbey Theatre, having a celebratory pint. Celebrations like this don’t come too often, you have to mark them when you can. A famous traditional singer who was sitting at the bar was introduced to us, and the reason for our libations explained. He said he wanted to welcome our new friend properly to Ireland, and sang an old sean-nós Connemara song of welcome that reverberated around the bar, hushing people to stop and listen. I felt uplifted at this act of solidarity and humanity as the beautiful tune echoed through the bar.

But I also felt appalled that our government continues to enforce Direct Provision for years on end on people seeking asylum on our shores.  What my friend has endured should never have been endured, and could very easily have been avoided. All it takes is one A4 page. A letter. A letter that determines the outcome of years of waiting. As the song came to an end I thought of Vicky Khokhar, who danced on the Abbey Theatre stage across from the pub we were in as part of Jimmy’s Hall Today, before going to the airport to be deported. A nurse from Pakistan, he had been in Direct Provision for three years, volunteering five days a week at a nursing home, but his application for asylum was denied. He was deported.

Back in the Pipers Bar, the song ended, and as me and my friend said goodbye I boarded the crowded Luas, full of people on a Thursday evening. Full to the brim with people going places, people with worries and schedules and craic and lives lived. And as the Luas departed Abbey Street, I thought of the 4,500 men, women and children still waiting in a state of stasis in Direct Provision centres across Ireland. Waiting for that letter. For the letter to arrive, at some point, that will grant them leave to live.

The next performance in the development of Displace by Belltable Artist in Residence Katie O’Kelly will take place in Belltable on Thu, 13th December 2018.  Click to book tickets.