Ellie Kisyombe is a Malawi-born Irish woman living in Dublin. Having lived in Direct Provision for over eight years, Ellie has become a prominent activist in the movement for its abolishment. Her drive to create change has led her to co-found her own charity, OurTable in 2015, and run in North Dublin for the Social Democrats in 2019.
On a crisp, sunny Sunday, Ellie greets us warmly at her home in North Dublin, with a smile as bright as her blue eyeshadow. As we enter, it quickly transpires that Ellie has only just begun moving in, but despite all the usual throes and stresses of such a task, Ellie is tranquil, insisting that we make ourselves at home.
"Growing up in Malawi I came from a very good family. My mum was a farmer and housewife, my dad a businessman in agriculture - both academics. A lot of my family members were involved in politics. We grew up happy kids with a normal life, until unfortunately tragedy hit us and I lost both of my parents. After that, I had to survive, to live for my siblings and I, but it was really hard to be in Malawi after their death. I learnt what it's like to live without parents and without protection, and as a result I decided to come to Ireland to seek asylum.”
“The decision to leave was not an easy one. It's embarrassing and shameful when the home where you were born becomes tough and difficult to live in. When your life is in danger it isn’t worth taking risks. I have children and siblings, all my responsibility - so I made the decision to move and live safely for me and my children."
When Ellie arrived she had no idea what awaited her over the course of her first decade in Ireland. The Irish Government introduced Direct Provision in 1999 as a short term, emergency response to aid those seeking asylum. Over twenty years later the government continues to operate almost forty Direct Provision centres across the country, and it is estimated that as many as six thousand people are currently living within this widely criticised scheme.
“Direct Provision is a system that caters for asylum seekers when you arrive here in the country. The government saw a lot of people coming to Ireland to seek asylum. They were afraid that people would be homeless or living on the streets, so the idea was to look after people for a minimum of six months - until they were settled, had their status and were able to move on with their lives. Unfortunately it didn't work that way, and instead of six months it has continued for twenty years.”
“When I came to Ireland, the Direct Provision I experienced was even tougher than the Direct Provision in place today. We were given nineteen euro a week, had no access to third level education, we weren't allowed to cook and we didn't have the right to work. Direct Provision centres are like open prisons. We need to remember that people are coming to Ireland legally to get their status and they want to call Ireland home. If you want to bring people to be part of the community you don’t bring them and dump them somewhere where they become a problem. You have to integrate them into the social economy.”
“I was in Direct Provision for a decade, longer than many other people. When women have a voice sometimes we end up in trouble, and I have been a strong voice against Direct Provision. Coming into Direct Provision, where I was so restricted, I could have easily lost it. I'm a social entrepreneur, I'm a hardworking woman, I'm smart. I look around at the people alongside me, doctors and news anchors, and you have to think, if these people are held for five years will they ever be able to go back to their work? It is important that when an asylum seeker arrives they be treated as a normal human being, that they are able to keep their dignity, and be treated the same as every other Irish individual. They want to move on and live in a very good way, and not just live, but to contribute and to work and be a part of the community, a home to feel safe in - this is what I wanted too. These are the things that everyone wants, every Irish person, every person around the world. I think it is best for Ireland as the host of these people to understand that and to realise it is their duty to make these people safe and dignify them as normal human beings. Nobody leaves home because they want to”
Despite the pain and struggle of Ellie’s journey so far, she remains positive and forward thinking - a mindset she credits to her family.
“I learnt from my parents to be strong, and to focus on the positive things in life. People can take or leave this truth; but people do not like people who moan a lot. There is a lot of negativity right now in the world, and if you bring more of that you can destroy anything. Life is hard when times are tough, but when you give people hope or light then everybody wants to be part of that.”
It is with this attitude and outlook that Ellie was able to take her difficult circumstances and turn them into a real opportunity for change on a much bigger scale. In 2015 Ellie, alongside Michelle Darmody, co-founded OurTable; a community driven, non-profit organisation aiming to highlight the need to abolish Direct Provision in Ireland, with the goal of facilitating change through conversation over food. As an avid chef and baker Ellie believes in the immense importance of food’s place within heritage and community. As people are unable to cook for themselves within Direct Provision, Ellie saw an opportunity for herself and so many like her to come together, learn, and gain new skills for when they were integrated into society.
“Food is everything, don’t get deceived, food is everything! There is no life without food. Not just for our health but for connections, it’s how I have met so many people. Food is powerful, food is a connector, food is a bridge to a successful life - food is everything. We started OurTable to highlight Direct Provision, to ask the government for the right to work, the right for people to make choices and to cook in their centres. At that time people were not allowed to work, people were just staying in hostels or other accommodation for five to ten years or even longer in some cases. You find you aren't able to do anything, so we wanted to facilitate training to enable people to go out and get a job.”
“There are always challenges. I don't take on my activism or my campaigning just for the sake of appearing in a magazine or newspaper. My desire to speak up and lead is something that is in me. If you look at my history there are people who have come to challenge me, but they walk away and I still stand and still carry on. No matter what has been said, I have always strived for better. To create and run OurTable whilst being in Direct Provision, to train, to employ people has not been easy. I'm not here to be malicious, I'm here, in Ireland, to do good. This is my home.”
“I am a Black Woman and I run OurTable. It is a successful project, but if I was a born Irish Woman I believe that I things would have been a hundred times easier for me. It's not easy to be a Black Woman, it is not easy to be a Woman of Colour. Being a black woman you fight for everything - especially in the professional world. I am a very straightforward person, and very opinionated, and when it comes to standing up for myself I never fail to do that. I have standards and boundaries - whether I’m Black, Green or White I don't want them crossed. We are all equal and there is nothing different between us. If you want to create sisterhood then we can do that, so why am I having a hard time but you have it easy? The system was created to put certain people down. I can't control that, but I can connect to other people in a way that we can disgrace the system. We can show people a better way, but you have to keep going.”
That's exactly what Ellie did, with some help from the Irish Refugee Council and Christ Church Cathedral, OurTable has grown in capacity to pop up cafes, outside catering, and a brand new confectionary shop. This facilitates over twenty-five paid staff and over a hundred volunteers - these numbers growing with every new project. A born leader, Ellie took her leadership and community activism against Direct Provision a step further when she ran for the Social Democratic Party in North Dublin in 2019.
“My father was a voice in our community, and like him I want to be an activist and a voice as well. The things I'm seeing through Direct Provision aren’t supposed to be happening in developed nations like Ireland. My key motivation in running for office was to bring Direct Provision onto the table, because you can’t speak about us, without us, and whilst I didn't get in, we did make headlines. While I was definitely met with some negativity, I will always delve into the positive memories. I had huge support, and got a sense of how the Irish appreciate and believe in me. This is the Irish spirit, I can't put it any other way.”
“This will be my home for the rest of my life, and my children will live here, my great grandchildren will live here. People won't even know that they are from Malawi - they will just be Irish. My goal is to be here and create a life where they can be proud to live here.
Despite the continuing impact Direct Provision in Ireland, Ellie's story of resilience and strength highlights the tangible hope for the future of our island.
“I want you to understand that the people who move over to Ireland want the same as everyone else. We don't want handouts, we want to be able to lead our lives by being hard working people and providing community. I hope that we can all live in a world where we can appreciate our similarities - loving one another and being kind to one another. I'm so excited for the future, to spread my wings and fly, and to expand OurTable.”
Having been granted residency just this past year, Ellie quips that “The freedom has come at a good time, when you are heading towards forty you might want to put your feet up”. With expansion plans for OurTable, her new YouTube channel, potential political aspirations, and her ever present desire to build community, I'm not convinced she will be slowing down any time soon. One thing I am sure of however, is that we are all the richer to have Ellie call Ireland home.