Creating a community out of turmoil

“I remember this particular time when we newly arrived into the system… you know when you don’t have anything to do and you don’t know anyone or anything? Well you end up just sleeping all day. You wake up, do one or two things and go back to sleep.

“I remember there was a time when my son came into the room. He was four at the time and had just started junior infants, he needed €5 for something and he’d just learned how to say a fiver,” she smiles at the sound of the fiver. “He said, ‘Mum, I need a fiver for something for school.’ And I said, ‘but I don’t have a fiver.’ You could see him thinking, and then he was like, ‘Of course you don’t have a fiver. You’re always sleeping. Where are you going to get it from?’

“For me, that was the moment that I thought: this is not right, this cannot be, this cannot happen, this cannot ever happen ever again. I started thinking, what are the older ones thinking? What are they seeing? What are they learning from this? At that moment my children became my motivator. They force me to stay sane,” said Donnah Vuma as she reflects on the early days of her time in the direct provision system, five years later she is still in the system with her three children. If you want to know more about the history of direct provision and what it entails then you should watch this balanced and factual report by RTÉ.

Coming up with a campaign out of dire need

For me international women’s day is about seeking out women that inspire you and Donnah is that person. Despite all the obstacles thrown in front of her she motivated herself to stay sane by volunteering at Doras, The Limerick City & county council and the Global Peace Foundation. She also won a University of Sanctuary scholarship to study Politics and International Relations with Sociology, at the University of Limerick. “Formal education is something I’ve always wanted to do, not only for myself but to be exemplary to my kids as well. But also, because through life lessons you learn that education is the key to everything. You can literally just do anything if you are equipped with that degree, that’s how the world works.”

My area is community building or in other words generating awareness around a brand or cause by getting people together. Donnah managed to create a hugely successful community strategy from a need that no one should ever have to face. “My daughter was finishing off primary school. I had a friend who had a daughter that was starting secondary school and she warned me about the upcoming expenses such as books and uniforms. At that time, the allowance that we were getting a week was €19.10 and it was €9.60 for a child per week and we didn’t have the right to work at that time. There was no way you could supplement that income. My friend was struggling so much to get any assistance from the organisations locally for the purchase of books or stationary or uniforms. Unfortunately there was nothing. There wasn’t anyone who was able to help her with those needs.”

Donnah centre

“I started to realise that the following year I was going to be in her shoes, I was going to be facing the very same challenge. It was a moment of awakening for me.” Donnah wracked her head to think of ways to get help from the government or the community. It’s then that her sales background kicked in, “you know how it is with salespeople, you’re always looking for an opportunity or a solution, one way or the other! I think, maybe that was the sales and marketing person in me going, ‘Okay, there’s clearly a problem here. Maybe we could do something for ourselves. Maybe we could come up with a temporary solution, something that we can do to help others that are in the same position as us.’” Her solution was to form the community group Every Child Is Your Child and the simple goal is to provide back-to-school assistance for asylum seeking children.

Creating a successful event

300 became her magic number when she came up with the idea to have a fundraising dinner. “I remember someone asking me how many people are you expecting to come to the event and I said 300 people which shocked everyone because they struggled to get 30 people to their intercultural and integration events.” Even though she picked the number from the sky, she stuck with it and encouraged everyone to think ambitiously. When Thomond Park Stadium gave her their 400 capacity suite she didn’t baulk at the challenge or the cost. She had no money to pay for it but her steadfast networking from when she arrived in Ireland stood to her as did her sales background as everyone loved her pitch and contributed towards the venue cost and entertainment. 

But like with most events, she learned very quickly that they weren’t going to make a profit with the tickets so they had a raffle and a live auction of local art. The artists were happy to donate their work to be auctioned due to Donnah’s compelling community story. By the end of it they raised approximately €3,000 for the children at her direct provision centre, “we had about sixty children at that point. And I remember we were able to support all of them with either book rental fees or uniforms or stationary. It wouldn’t have been everything for every child, but we were able to get something for everyone.” Word spread about her success and the other direct provision centres wanted to repeat her playbook which she happily helped them with.

Next she had the idea of the Backpack drive. “Obviously the fundraising dinner isn’t huge. It’s not big enough to support a large number but a backpack drive is.” Donnah and the Every Child is Your Child team put out a public call to the country to ask people to donate back- to-school items. She got a slot on national radio to promote it and has been on national television too, she’s just got that leadership quality that people want to get behind.

The future

“Unfortunately I’m in the process of planning the next fundraiser and it’s four years later, as we’re still in direct provision and there is still a need for this support.” Donnah explained to me some of the restrictions placed on asylum seekers if they try to find employment, “If you have received some kind of decision within nine months of arriving into the country, it means you’re not entitled to a permission to work. So what’s problematic is that it disqualifies the majority of the people that are in the system because they would have already received a decision within those nine months. Obviously, it’s a negative decision because then they would still be in the system, so it automatically disqualifies them from being able to work. If you receive permission to work, the permit is renewable every six months. So every six months you have to renew that permit. That has problems in itself because it’s so hard to find an employer that will just take you on for six months. People want someone more permanent and whatnot, but also many employers don’t even recognise that permit.”

Donnah Vuma

Her calmness and warmth belies her fierce drive and tenacity. In extraordinary circumstances Donnah has managed to carve out a resilient community that has got national attention. When I asked her if she enjoys what she is studying she said, “I love it. I was going to study psychology but I asked myself where would I be able to make or influence the most change? I realised that with psychology, it’s individual based. You’re able to help that one person. Yeah, it might have a knock effect and whatnot, but if I’m in something like international relations and politics, I can go into anything around policy areas, and really try and change things from that perspective.” And the thing is, she already is and is too humble to pause and realise how much she is moving things in the right direction. 

You can buy tickets to Donnah fundraising dinner or sponsor a ticket for someone living in direct provision to attend the event. More info here…
Donations directly to the back to school fund can be made here...