A CORK collaborative textile project is exploring the theme of ‘Welcome’ with women who are asylum seekers living in Ashbourne House Hotel Direct Provision Accommodation Centre.
In Glounthaune Church Hall, a group of around 20 women are sitting around a table. Crochet needles and yarn come out, and soon they’re working away, swapping stories, examining each other’s work and learning from each other.
The textile project is run as an informal class setting, where teaching is available but where women can also just connect and learn from each other, either developing existing textile skills learned in their countries of origin, or picking up new ones.
Importantly, arts facilitator Inge Van Doorslaer says, the drop-in sessions are open to women from the local community too.
“There’s hesitancy on both sides,” she says. “They’re chatting, but the locals still sit together and the women from direct provision do too.”
The classes used to be held in The Crawford Gallery in the city centre, but Inge decided that more contact with local women would be of benefit.
“The gallery’s great, but the education room was tucked in at the back and they weren’t actually meeting and mixing with locals. We asked the parish centre if we could work from here,” said Inge.
Women in Ashbourne House Hotel Direct Provision Centre come from all over the world, from Rwanda to Albania. One resident has lived in the centre for eight years. While waiting for their asylum application to be processed, they can’t seek work.
In the relaxed setting, Suela Mara is from Albania and has been in Ashbourne for almost four and a half years. She is a skilled embroiderer.
“Albania has very nice embroidery and crochet and national dress,” she says. “I don’t know everything, but small things I learn from my mother. I knit, crochet and embroider, and I’d like to learn dressmaking too. I don’t know if I’ll be a good learner, but I’ll try. Most of us are in the group for a long time and it’s a nice, friendly group. It’s nice to learn something new.”
Embroiled in complex asylum processes, and many with painful personal histories that led to them leaving their home countries, many women don’t discuss their personal stories much in the setting of the classes. But they do discuss the impact that living in direct provision is having on their lives; they live in limbo, unable to plan for the future, for many years at a time.
“I can’t imagine my future for now because it does not exist,” Suela says. “All the time we are here in accommodation we don’t think about the future, because you don’t know when it’s going to be your future. We live in the present; we live scared that something is going to happen tomorrow and we are going to get deported.”
At the end of the room, Salma Sarfaraz and Helen Dobbyn are discussing which colours to choose for a crochet piece. Salma is from Pakistan and has lived in the Ashbourne Direct Provision Centre for over two years.
She was a trained massage and beauty therapist before she sought asylum in Ireland. For Salma, the textile sessions are a pleasant way to pass the time, connect with Glounthaune residents and pick up new skills.
“We used to do this class in the art gallery and that was a really good experience and we learned lots of things like tie-dye and fabric printing,” she says.
“Now, we have local people who come and join us. They come to know us and we are sharing.”
Helen has taught English in the Direct Provision Centre for the past eight years, but she likes the social element of coming to the textile classes.
“Women working together always have this experience,” she says. “You get to know people on a different level like this. I like being one of the girls here. It’s the interaction, as much as the end product.”
South African Miriam Raja arrives with a buggy; her little boy, Muhammad Jahaan, is waking from a nap, looking around at the room and its occupants. He’s I4 months old. Miriam shares two rooms at the Ashbourne House Hotel facility with Muhammed, her older boy who is 11, and her husband. She’s not particularly enamoured of textile work; a keen gymnast in her youth, she says she’d rather be playing cricket, but options are limited:
“I come to the yoga and art classes too, because at home there is nothing to do,” she says. “You are just in your room. There’s nothing happy or fun about it to me, but it keeps me busy. I’m trying to get myself into everything, mingle with people from Ireland and get to know people.”
Continuing to feel grateful while facing the cramped conditions at the Direct Provision centre is both a challenge and a necessity, Miriam feels: she feels the plight of the homeless in Cork particularly.
“There are whole families in one room: it’s difficult to say, but you need to be grateful,” she says.
“You always know there are people worse off than you, so I don’t think it’s right to complain. In my home country, I would be much, much worse off than I am now.”
The Welcome project is in receipt of Creative Communities funding from Cork County Council. In the New Year, Inge hopes the group will work towards an exhibition of finished pieces on the theme of welcome.
Glounthaune residents are welcome to drop in to the Wednesday morning textile classes, which take place between 10.30am and 12.30pm.