EVERY December for the last few years, UCC lecturer Dr Michael Fitzgibbon has dressed as Santa Claus, bringing joy and colour to the world of refugee children living in Direct Provision.
Three years ago, when this teacher of International Development first decided to arrange Christmas parties for migrant children, he decided to get his students involved. They were more than happy to help, but insisted that no- one would be better suited for the role of Santa than Dr Fitzgibbon himself!
Sitting at his office and laughing joyfully, Dr Fitzgibbon touches his long, white beard and says that he found Santa duties stressful at first.
“I think you have to worry about things like that, because you only get one chance with children,” he says. “You don’t want to burst their bubble.”
Dr Fitzgibbon and Billy O’Donovan, one of his third-year students, are now carrying on the annual tradition by organising a GoFundMe Campaign to garner funds for purchasing Christmas toys for the children in Direct Provision (DP).
Dr Fitzgibbon says that they use “a variety of sources” to provide for about 400 children across the county.
“The fundraising so far has caught about half of what we need. We like to give these children something that is of quality,” he says.
“So, we estimate that each present would cost around €15 or €20.”
There is also the additional cost of transportation and organising buses for children, Dr Fitzgibbon notes.
The Christmas parties usually take place on campus at the Student Union building on December 7.
Billy, who is originally from Kerry, says Dr Fitzgibbon’s lectures and endeavours have opened his eyes to the fact that refugees and their children are “just humans”, like all of us.
He recalls a little girl living in Clonakilty’s DP centre whose patience and politeness as she waited to receive a Christmas gift astonished him.
Billy says he and his classmates had run out of presents, but that the little girl stood expectantly and silently, complaining not even once.
“We didn’t have a present for her because with numbers of this scale you always mess one up,” he says.
“And she was so patient, she was so mature, and she was only about four or five.
“And we had the elves literally tearing through Clonakilty looking for a doll!” he adds, smiling.
“And they ended up finding one,” Dr Fitzgibbon chips in, jovially.
According to latest reports, there are 1,672 children — 813 girls and 859 boys — currently living in DP centres across the country.
Of these, about 85% are aged 12 and younger, while more than 600 of them are aged four or under.
A special Oíreachtas Committee for Justice and Equality recently reported that children growing up in DP centres miss their only chance of having a normal childhood.
Back in June, a special report in the New Yorker magazine described Ireland’s DP system for accommodating asylum-seekers as “strange and cruel”. The system was established in 1999 as a response to a sudden surge in the number of asylum applications received by the State.
Refugees living in DP centres receive an allowance of €29.80 for children and €38.80 for adults per week.
Dr Fitzgibbon, who is a familiar face at Cork demonstrations against racism, says the only way to fight the rise of racist sentiments is by trying to integrate refugees in the society.
He thinks that the DP system is averting such objectives, by keeping refugees isolated from the rest of the population.
“It’s about people getting the opportunity to engage with refugees,” he adds.
“[DP] keeps people from mixing with the greater community and adds to the amount of racism in society.
“Sorry, but this is State racism, and this is something that us, as the general public, shouldn’t tolerate.”
Dr Fitzgibbon says some of us are under a false impression that refugees are “in and out of” these centres, but “I know someone who has been in DP for 16 years”.
“There is no-one coming out of DP in nine months,” he says.
Dr Fitzgibbon reasons that racists are using glossy words such as “populism” to beautify their hate-mongering message in an attempt to attract more followers.
He says “fascist” groups use immigrants as “scapegoats”, and these people are being blamed for the State’s failure in addressing social eccentricities, most notably, the accommodation crisis.
“It’s not like as if these people have created the housing crisis,” he says.
Both Dr Fitzgibbon and Billy get emotional when recounting their most heart-breaking experience of running the annual Christmas events.
“Every year, we’re saying goodbye to those kids, and we know exactly where they are going, and I get upset every year,” adds Dr Fitzgibbon sadly.
“You’re going to get me emotional now,” Billy says to his lecturer.
Billy recalls helping one of the mothers bring her children’s presents to their tiny room as one of his most heart-wrenching experiences of his life.
“It was one of the first times that I had seen inside of their rooms, and it just struck me so hard,” he says.
“I just couldn’t imagine that these kids just visited Santa and it was Christmas, and they had to go back to that, for another year. It was incredibly hard for me.”
The GoFundMe campaign for refugee children’s Christmas Party has raised almost €3,000 thus far.
To gift a smile to the faces of migrant children living in Cork’s DP centres this Christmas, visit https://www.gofundme.com/f/cork-direct-provision-christmas-parties-fund