A burden on the state

Only after seven long years in Ireland did Zainab Disu finally wade through the bureaucratic mire and secure some sort of stable status here. This bright and determined young woman talks to Colin Murphy.


Zainab Disu received her first, official permission to live and work in this country in January. She had been here for seven years.

Zainab's mother is a refugee here, granted asylum under the Geneva Conventions, and Zainab Disu has been living with her since 2003. But Zainab Disu's own application for asylum was rejected.

Her mother then applied for Zainab to be allowed stay with her – a bureaucratic process known as “family reunification” – and Zainab herself applied for permission to stay here on “humanitarian grounds” – a form of status known as “leave to remain”. Both applications festered in the Department of Justice.

In the meantime, Zainab Disu went to school, did her Leaving Cert (scoring over 500 points), started a community college course, and then went back to school to do A Levels.

Then, in January, she received a letter from the Department of Justice, granting her “leave to remain” and permission to work for one year “as an exceptional measure”. The letter stated the conditions of her leave to remain: that she “take up gainful employment”, “not be a burden on the State”, and “be of good behaviour”.“I am very much grateful, for many things,” says Zainab.
“But if they're going to accept you, it would be better  that you know at an earlier stage. I'm supposed to be finished my master's degree by this time. So many young asylum seekers of my age, they're not doing anything. There's no opportunities. You can't go to college, you can't work… you don't have any opportunities after secondary school.”

Her language reflects the intricacies of negotiating the immigration process.

“Residency is different to refugee status, refugee status is different to leave to remain, blah blah blah… Refugee status or leave to remain gives you the GNIB [Garda National Bureau of Immigration] card and you have to have Stamp 4 on the card. If you don't have Stamp 4, then you can't work.”

Zainab Disu was born in 1985 in Lagos, Nigeria. Her parents were not married, and she was sent to live with her aunt and grandmother in Kaduna, in north-central Nigeria – “the Northside”, she calls it. Though the state of Kaduna is largely Muslim, the capital, Kaduna city, has historically been mixed, with a large population of Christians. Zainab Disu's family are Christian, and her grandmother had a church in Kaduna.

In February 2000, reports of the planned introduction of Sharia law in Kaduna led to violent clashes between Muslims and Christians. At least 2,000 people were killed, according to Human Rights Watch, including some shot by police. (There was further violence there in 2002, following the decision to stage the Miss World contest in Nigeria.)

“They were just killing people like chickens,” Zainab says. “At home, killing someone is nothing – if you kill someone, you can get away with it, if you're rich.
“My grandmother's church was burnt down. By the time I got home, the house was burnt down as well. I ran to my grandmother's friend – she was a Muslim.
“They came to her house because they found out I was hiding there. They were threatening that, if she doesn't let me out, they were going to burn the whole house down.”

Zainab Disu's grandmother was killed, she says. Her grandmother's friend did not let her leave the house, and the sectarian gang left. Her aunt had left Kaduna previously, and had come to Ireland. After a few days, her grandmother's friend organised for a man to smuggle her out of Kaduna.
“She said I should just follow him and he would take me to where my aunty was. That's how I got here.
“When I got to the airport, he got me into a taxi, and when I got to the Justice [the Refugee Applications Office] he just said to me, ‘just go in there and tell them you are looking for your aunty.' That was it, then. Seven years, now.”

Zainab Disu was 15. She went to live with her aunt, who had an Irish child and had therefore secured residency in Ireland. (This was before a constitutional amendment removed the right to Irish citizenship by virtue of being born here.) Her  application for asylum was refused, and her  subsequent appeal was rejected. In the meantime, her mother arrived in Ireland, and was granted asylum. (They had had different experiences in Nigeria and had left for different reasons.)
Zainab went to live with her mother, with whom she had not lived with for years: “Oh my God, it was a big clash! Every day we fight,” she says, laughing.
Zainab Disu went to Castleknock Community College, where “it was tough”.

She explains: “The culture was totally, completely different. It was difficult to make friends. You want to try to join some groups and they kind of ignore you, they won't accept you – there's loads of ignoring.”

She was startled by the lack of academic motivation:
“If you get a test result or something like that, they just said, who cares?”
And by the levels of indiscipline:
“Where I came from, you can't just roll up a piece of tissue paper and throw it at the teacher, or things like that. I nearly slapped a student one day. The teacher looks back and they're talking to each other and pretending they don't know anything about it. And they made the teacher look completely stupid. And I felt humiliated – the fact that I was in a class where that happened.”

She settled in, eventually, and excelled at school. She set her  sights on studying medicine, but was not able to go on to third level. Asylum seekers and those without long-stay permits here have to pay “international” fees, often many thousands of euro. She occupied herself by doing a course in laboratory science at St Kevin's College in Crumlin, and then returned to school to do A Levels, this time to nearby Loretto College, thanks to the support of the nuns and some Irish friends.

Since receiving her leave to remain, Zainab Disu has been working as a nurse's aid at St Michael's Hospital in Dun Laoghaire. She plans to do a part-time diploma in psychology at the Dublin Business School, and then go on to do a degree in psychology, part time. By then, she hopes, she will have Irish citizenship (she will be over 10 years living here) and will be able to attend university, to study medicine. It will be a long haul, but she is ambitious and resolute.
“If we get an education, then we can contribute to the community.”

Zainab Disu is part of a group of young people who came to Ireland seeking asylum that meets in Dun Laoghaire every Monday evening. Many of them have been in Ireland for three years and more, and have done their Leaving Certificate.

The group has campaigned to be granted leave to remain. Michael McDowell, as Minister for Justice, consistently said he would not grant leave on a group basis, and the Department continued to pursue the deportation of some of them. (In each individual case, deportation was successfully challenged in the courts, and the Department ultimately granted leave to remain.)

The Labour Party included a commitment to grant them leave to remain in its election manifesto, and the group has received similar support from the Greens, Sinn Fein and Fine Gael.

Zainab worries about her friends in this group, those who are less motivated or ambitious, or simply more worn down by the system.

“Most of my friends, they're just having babies, and that's not helping at all. Most of them don't really want babies.
“But if you don't go to work, you don't go to school, you get frustrated and you start looking for things you don't really need. You just feel that maybe you need a boyfriend, or maybe you need this, or you need that…”

Zainab Disu is sure about one thing: she does not want, or need, a boyfriend. She has her career to think  about – and some past experience, when she discovered that cultural differences between herself and young Irish people were not just confined to the classroom.
“You know what they talk about? You're, like, going out with him and the first thing, he's, like, ‘I'm horny'. What the hell is that? That is a complete put off – you don't want to talk to them any more. You just go, ‘What do you see me as, like a sex toy or something?'

“It's just so ridiculous, no respect or nothing. They go to clubs, and they've just met somebody, and they just start kissing. What the hell is that? It's really, really hard for me, and for my  friends, even just to go out with them, it's so hard to have a relationship with them.

“I would really like to meet a very good Irish guy, but the culture is too different, they way they have relationships is just too different to the way we see relationships. No matter how educated they are.”

It's been a long, slow seven years for Zainab Disu – seven years during which she would, ideally, have studied for a degree and continued on to do a master's. But she has settled in, has fought for her right to stay here and, now, she's on track. She has one year to prove that she will not be “a burden on the state”. She seems far more likely to be a contributor.

 This article was produced with support from the Forum on Migration and Communications (FOMACS), a partnership of NGOs in the immigration field, based in Dublin Institute of Technology. Contact info.fomacs@dit.ie