Deo Ladislas Ndakengerwa tells us about his role as policy and campaigns officer at the Irish Refugee Council.
What is it like to be an asylum seeker? That is the question I was asked. Now if I were to ask the question, I would frame it this way: What is it like quite suddenly to be nothing more than a helpless and useless asylum seeker?
It was as if I had never existed or that my life was suddenly snatched away, leaving only an existence that had no meaning. I tormented myself questioning a fate that I don’t believe even a hero could face.
I was like a child chasing his own shadow, as I tried to comprehend how in the blink of an eye what had been bliss became bleak. The question would not go away; it was like the sound of a chick trying to break out of an eggshell. Everywhere I turned I discovered only exasperation. I looked for inspiration to spark hope again.
As a child I was always told to be content with what I had and proud of who I was. I never questioned what my parents were trying to instil in me till I realized that I now had nothing to be proud of, and that there was nothing that could possibly make me feel content after losing all that I had believed in. I turned back to ask them what they meant, but they were no longer here.
In my childhood my parents often gave me juicy plant roots as a medication. They were bitter but not as bitter as the life I now lived. Such was my feeling of worthlessness that I would not have been surprised if someone were to spit at me, curse me, or swear at me. I was nothing more than an addressless, hopeless, helpless and useless asylum seeker. I was a vagabond moving from one land to another, crossing rivers and climbing mountains with bare feet and an empty stomach, a real persona non grata.
Could anyone who never walked in my shoes understand? But then I did not even have shoes! I felt no one would ever understand me. In the darkness of my meaningless existence, lessons from my Sunday school began to come back to me. I remembered Job, a man of God but whose friends and family turned their backs on him. I had to dig deep down into my memories of my good days. Yes, in the Bible, Job had also gone through times of torment, but his faith, his courage and his hope, helped him to come through and overcome this shameful condition.
I may not live to tell my story or write it down on clean white paper, or see it replaced by better days, but maybe that does not matter. What matters to me is to look up, to read the Bible with faith, to stand firm in what I believe, knowing that without that there is no hope, and in the absence of hope all dreams die with the dreamer.
Today I work as a Policy Officer in the Irish Refugee Council and that strengthens me in my own beliefs. Opening this door has meant closing others. I might have made a very fine doctor. I could have operated on sick people and healed hearts but I might not have had the privilege to touch any.
Meeting the least of the least, the most vulnerable group of humankind – asylum seekers – who struggle to keep hope that tomorrow will be better, is not an easy task. Listening to their stories, the miseries of each person, one worse than the other, could affect your own spirit, could spark anger and revolt against a world system where powerlessness is seen as a vice.
Sometimes I feel aggressive when I see mothers and children living caged in accommodation centres without dignity or anything to do other than think day and night about their misery, their uncertain fate, blaming themselves for what they have become, as if being an asylum seeker was an unforgivable sin or a crime against modern society.
People wonder where I get the guts to keep going, day after day. Is it because I cannot secure another job? Maybe. Could it be because I have taken too much interest in this desperate situation? Perhaps. Is because I am preparing for another career opportunity? Possibly!
Whatever the answer may be, what other people see as pressure has become pleasure as long as it helps an asylum seeker even a little. There is no greater joy than being able to give a voice to the voiceless, for a man like me who could not speak for himself. What could surpass the belief that you have lit a candle for someone in a tunnel-like darkness to prevent him from stumbling, and given him some hope that there is light at the end of the tunnel? When you think about it, compassion, if it does not find expression in some kind of assistance, is only an illusion, and it will soon drain away.
Any regrets? Maybe one, just one. A dream, which has never come true, a dream of transforming distress into blessed moments.
This article first appeared in The Messenger (June 2008), a publication of the Irish Jesuits.