IRELAND: Some relief for Zim woman after 7 years battling for asylum; says ‘my auntie’s daughter [was] tortured and buried alive’

IRELAND: Some relief for Zim woman after 7 years battling for asylum; says ‘my auntie’s daughter [was] tortured and buried alive’

By The Irish Times

IRELAND: I’m meeting Fortunate Nesengani (51) at Athlone train station. The cold, damp day couldn’t be further from where she grew up in rural southwest Zimbabwe, but she’s had some time to get used to the weather. Seven years in direct provision is time enough to acclimatise.

She has been living in a direct provision centre in Athlone since 2016, when she arrived from South Africa with her husband, David. “Ireland is paradise compared with South Africa,” she says.

As a young girl in the 1980s, her family was traumatised during the Gukurahundi genocide in Zimbabwe when, not long after independence from Britain, Robert Mugabe’s forces orchestrated a campaign of terror against her people. They came to her village in 1984 and set the grass huts alight, she says. Nesengani says she saw it happen and escaped.

“Many died,” she says. “It was a massacre. My auntie’s daughter [was] tortured and was buried alive. She didn’t die and was discovered the following day. She’s still alive – sixtysomething now. Sixteen people in my family were buried alive.”

“Everyone who was a girl or a woman was raped or kidnapped and you just disappeared,” she says.

She eventually fled Zimbabwe for South Africa with just $10 to her name. Travelling through desert and bush in Botswana, she says she survived through the generosity of “bush men”, who offered food and water.

Fortunate Nesengani: ‘One of our friends also died in direct provision. He just collapsed.’

Between 1989 and 2016 she lived primarily in Cape Town and Johannesburg, where she worked as a receptionist, seamstress and preschool owner. She met her South African husband through her church.

“Parents brought their children to my preschool because I could teach them English,” she says, and adds that she ended up with more children than the school run by locals.

However, she says she faced hostility and the threat of violence from some people who “had a problem with foreigners for taking jobs”.

“We used to go to this church. They used to let us sleep there, and they raised money for us to travel [to Ireland].”

When the pair arrived in Ireland, on her 44th birthday, they didn’t know where to go. They had chosen Ireland because of the country’s reputation as a safe and peaceful country. They caught a bus into Dublin, went into a Tesco and started asking strangers where to seek help, she says.

After attending the International Protection Office, and spending two weeks in Balseskin Reception Centre, they were moved to their current accommodation, a mobile home in an Athlone direct provision centre. And like many before them, they embarked on a long wait for certainty.

Over the years, Nesengani has volunteered all over the town, helping schoolchildren with homework and helping young girls in the community.

Some day, when she finishes her education, she hopes to work with asylum seekers and contribute to policymaking.

She got involved in New Horizons Athlone, an organisation that helps asylum seekers integrate into their new communities. In the future she says she would like to partner with others to open an African/Asian restaurant in Athlone.

On a number of occasions, Nesengani and her husband were denied leave to remain, but appealed the decisions. Nesengani says this led to periods of depression for for her, and, in December 2019, things came to a head when a close friend died.

Nhlanhla Baron Masuku was an engineer in his 30s, she says. “He was my neighbour from Zimbabwe, but we met only in Ireland. We became like brother and sister. When he died, I felt like hell just broke loose from me.”

Nesengani organised a funeral for Nhlanhla as he had no relatives in Ireland.

Direct provision, it helps to calm down your trauma. It provides the basic needs … It is very painful if you are staying for a long, long time – it is not supposed to be like that

Nesengani and her husband were granted leave to remain this year. In June, a case worker at the International Protection Office recommended leave to remain for Nesengani citing the “exceptional circumstances” of her case and recommended “exceptional measures” be used to offer her permission to remain in the State.

Three days later she got an official letter informing her that she had been granted permission to remain in the State for two years, after which she can apply for her status to be renewed.

“I was so, so, so excited,” she recalls. After sharing the news, she says she received calls from her lecturers in college and students’ union representatives who had campaigned for her to stay in Ireland. “The people here in Athlone wanted to have a big party for me, to celebrate [getting] my paper,” she says.

Due to the accommodation crisis, the couple remain in the direct provision centre, like many others across the State.

“[In direct provision] you don’t have time to cry. You don’t have anything. Of course you see people coming and going, but you’re still there.” Nesengani has been going to therapy for two years now, a big help for her, she says, but misses her three adult children dearly – she hasn’t seen them since 2016.

Despite her struggles, she maintains her experience in Ireland has been good. “To say the truth, direct provision is the best … that Ireland can do.” She says that although the system is in great need of improvement, direct provision has given her opportunities she was never afforded before, such as third-level education. Nesengani is now studying for an honours degree in applied social studies in social care, and is writing a thesis comparing Ireland’s direct provision system with others around the world.

“Direct provision, it helps to calm down your trauma. You don’t need to think about what you are going to eat tomorrow, because it provides the basic needs … It is very painful if you are staying for a long, long time – it is not supposed to be like that.

“Ireland has changed a lot. People aren’t living so long in direct provision … Irish people are so genuine and sociable and so welcoming.” On one occasion, students at her college and the Union of Students in Ireland spoke out in favour of Nesengani and her husband after they received a deportation notice during the pandemic. “The people here in Athlone really stood with me when we had nothing. They really supported me like brothers and sisters.”