Photo courtesy of Irish Refugee Council

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The Project Arts Centre on Tuesday morning was the first time I’ve tried pap, a traditional African polenta with melty carrots and earthy spiced beans and a dark rich sauce. I’m already craving another serving.

But some of the women who grew up with these foods have probably been yearning for a taste of them for years now.

Annet Mphahlele and Ellie Kisyombe, and other women in direct provision in Dublin, cooked these dishes. Through the food and the Our Table pop-up luncheon – at which the meals are being served – they hope to raise awareness of the conditions they live in.

For the last two months, they helped test recipes and prepare the menu for this two-day event (5-6 April). Before this, Mphalele hadn’t cooked since moving into a direct provision centre three years ago.

Since then, she’s moved from the first centre, to a second, and to a third, and found them all the same – serving greasy meals three times a day, the menu tailored to the wants of the accommodation provider, not the residents.

Fried burgers, chips and chicken nuggets. There’s no fresh food, and she doesn’t even have the freedom to make a cup of tea.

Each dish at the pop-up was a team effort, but Mphahlele is particularly excited about the polenta. She finds it nostalgic.

For her, it is more than just a tasty side dish. It’s a throwback to her Ugandan origins, a reminder of her mother, who taught her how to make it, and a welcome healthy alternative to what she’s used to.

“We have been hiding, but we had to let people know what’s going on,” she says.

She wants people to understand the complex situations that face people in direct provision, why they came to Ireland and the conditions they live in.

She wants to put a human face to the direct provision that people hear politicians and journalists prattling about.

A Thorn in the Side of Irish Pride

Our Table was the brainchild of Michelle Darmody of the Cake Café, who was inspired when she learned that in direct provision, people can’t choose when or what to eat.

Food can completely vary from centre to centre, she says. Some make an effort to serve familiar dishes for residents, but many serve greasy, processed meals that lack nutrition.

“Its just not the thing you want you and your children to be eating day in, day out, for years on end,” says Darmody. “That really resonated with me, and it kind of upset me. So because I work with food I thought this up.”

She’s proud of Ireland, she says, but not the conditions in Irish direct-provision centres. She encourages Dubliners who, like her, aren’t proud of the system, to drop by Our Table to show solidarity for those in direct provision.

“I mean they’re in your community and people are just in this liminal state. They have no control, very poor food conditions and it just seems wasteful,” she says, motioning toward centres surrounding the Cake Café. They’re all around us on the quays, on Hatch Street, on Gardiner Street.

In Kisyombe’s experience, many Irish people aren’t aware of the extent of restrictions in these centres, and she sees Our Table as an opportunity to share food, as well as talk.

“We all share one thing in common, and that’s food,” she says. “Our Table is another way of integrating.”

The plan seems to have worked.

Around the tables yesterday, children played together while the volunteers from direct provision were deep in conversation with people who had dropped by to show support.

Food quickly began to run low. The green salsa and coconut-milk curry disappeared first.

“I like the idea of the name Our Table,” says Darmody. “A table is for eating over, for doing your homework on, it’s for chatting over. It is central to a lot of family life, but for people in direct provision, that table is taken away from them.”

The Effect on Families

Last year, the government set up a working group to look at how to improve direct provision.

In its report, besides complaints regarding a lack of nutrition and monotonous menus, it found children complaining of hunger. The report noted that mealtimes didn’t always cater for children coming back from school. Parents of young children also complained of a lack of control over when they can wean babies onto solid food.

Caroline Reid of the Irish Refugee Council says she knows a lot of people who have developed diabetes while inside the system. But, on another level, she says living in direct provision can affect children’s development as they are not familiar with a kitchen and can’t learn about cooking from their parents.

Darmody recalls hearing a story of one young boy who was asked to clear the table at a friend’s house. Not knowing what to do, he brought the plates to the bathroom.

Kisyombe hasn’t been able to pass her knowledge of food, cooking and baking on to her daughter yet, because she’s been in direct provision for such a long time.

“It’s just unfortunate that I can’t teach my daughter how to make good meals,” she says.

Kisyombe says she is from a background where the women usually do the cooking for their families. She’d love to teach her daughter, so that she could do that too.

But whether she gets married or not, it should be her choice, says Kisyombe. “Not that she didn’t learn or that she doesn’t know how to cook.”

Waiting for Change

There are already rules in place for accommodation providers that say they should provide varied and nutritious meals over a 28-day menu cycle.

The government’s working group last June recommended that they should engage with nutritionists and that new contracts should include an obligation to consult with residents when planning menus. Reid says there hasn’t been movement on any of the group’s 170 recommendations.

“There’s been very little progress, even on the ones that would be quite easy to bring into effect,” she says.

Because of the lousy food provided, people end up spending their meek weekly allowance of €19.10 on food. Particularly parents with children and teenagers going to school, says Reid.

Kisyombe, who took part in interviews for the working group, says: “Nothing has been done. But you know, we can’t stop pushing.”

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