The most well-known media for breaking down cultural barriers are food, football and sex, but apparently scepticism towards modern art and religion work too. This is but one of many realisations I’ve made volunteering with Tour the City, a project that organises regular historical and cultural tours for people living in Direct Provision. The project’s founder, Shem Romanowski, got the idea for Tour the City after returning to Dublin from Brussels, where he volunteered in another refugee outreach program, alongside his own work with the European Commission. When presented alongside Shem’s own experiences, establishing the Tour the City project was almost inevitable. Whilst in Brussels, Shem witnessed the bureaucracy of realising change at a government level, as well as experiencing how individuals respond to on-the-ground volunteer work.

These experiences translate with the objectives of Tour the City, when asked about what would constitute the project as a success, Shem said “every tour is a success; I’m at the front of the group so I can hear everyone’s conversations- that chatter is the success”. Shem’s appreciation from something seemingly obsolete derives from his own time adapting to a new country. “I was practically on my own [when I came to Ireland]” he says, having moved from Poland in 2004. The vast community and support systems EU membership promises didn’t extend beyond the office blocks, “there were no programs about social inclusion, and the country was ill-equipped to accommodate us”. The stigmatisation of asylum seekers living in Direct Provision is all too familiar to Shem, who seeks to offer a platform to combat social isolation.

There is a mix of pride and remorse in Shem’s voice as he tells me about a woman from Syria who has been in Direct Provision for four months and last Saturday’s tour was her first conversation since she arrived in Ireland. Obviously he is appreciative that this is a sign of the welcoming atmosphere he has fostered but her situation is a glimpse into the task at hand. For Shem and Tour the City, the challenge is in reaching out to and recognising these people earlier.

There is a growing number of campaigns and organisations focused on the system of direct provision, and while this work is vital and long overdue, the individuals still grappling with the system cannot be left behind. Tour the City serves as respite from a strict routine that institutionalises people and deprives them of dignity. Considering the fact that Ireland is very few people’s first choice for asylum, the project allows individuals to navigate the people, culture and history of a country they were not expecting to live in.

It is also worth noting that Tour the City is an exchange- from a volunteer perspective, I have gained an invaluable insight into life in direct provision, thanks to the openness and bravery of the tour participants. On top of that, it is gratifying to have one’s own views of the refugee crisis reaffirmed. As I alluded to in the opening sentence, the nuanced opinions and perspectives I believed to be unique to me or Irish people in general, are found everywhere. As tempting as it is to seek out what makes us individuals, it is far more satisfying to identify our commonalities.

Tour the City still faces many obstacles, a bi-weekly tour is small window in which meaningful connections can be made, especially considering how frequently residents are upended from one centre to the next. Access to centres is also notoriously difficult, and the project relies on Maruf Ahmed, who still remains in the direct provision system, to network and promote the tours. Shem’s holistic attitude is the perfect antidote to these unfavourable odds, constantly highlighting the minor details that maintain his motivation, like often being asked if he can forego the actual site visit so to not interrupt any conversations.

This time of year brings with it many sentiments about Irish emigration and we are inclined to exploit and romanticise our own examples of oppression. There is obvious hypocrisy when statements about ‘undocumented Irish’ are put into the context of a country that implements a system as inexcusable as direct provision. Until the fight against this system is won, initiatives like Tour the City are able to soften the daily blows dealt by the regime. As tour participant Syeda Yasmin says “[it] allows us to escape from the stress of our daily lives”.

If you’re interested in getting involved, you can sign up here.

Niall O’Shaugnessy – Music Writer