‘We need to go to school’
The sign held up by young children in Athlone this week has a succinct message for the Minister for Education and simply reads: "We need to go to school".
It comes on foot of an urgent appeal to Norma Foley, and International Protection Accommodation Services (IPAS), who are responsible for services to those in the asylum process, to put a school bus in place for children living in Kilmacuagh and Daly's accommodation on the Dublin Road.
Lucy Alexia Mncube, who spent time in direct provision herself in Athlone prior to getting her papers, has been working with the international protection applicants living in apartments in Kilmacuagh Avenue and at Daly's Apartments complex, where asylum seekers have been living since mid-May.
From the start of the school term, 17 national school going children from the ages of four to eleven living in Kilmacuagh and Daly's accommodation have been faced with the challenge of no school transport to St Mary's National School every day.
Having heard the Minister say in an interview that free school transport is available to anyone who needs it, Lucy has this message for Norma Foley: “I want to let the Minister know there are people out there who need the transport. In Lissywollen (direct provision centre), there is a bus for the different schools what is the difference between them and the residents in Kilmacuagh and Dalys? It's only two and half kilometres away,” she said.
“They (residents) told me there is no school transport two days after school started,” Lucy explained. “Some parents couldn't genuinely afford the bus, some are as young as four and they would have to go on the bus with them every morning and evening,” she added, a scenario they cannot afford when they get a weekly allowance of just €38 a week.
Not wanting to see residents stuck, volunteers stepped in from the beginning of the month and have been transporting these children every morning.
However, this takes three trips in two cars, and the volunteers then have to get to work themselves and look after their own children. After school the parents pay for the local bus from their weekly allowance or walk home in the evenings.
Volunteers believed this would be a “temporary” issue but as October and winter fast approaches, no transport has been put in place for the children and it has become too costly for them to continue.
This Friday, September 27 will the final run by the volunteers, who fear that the children may not continue to go to school if the school transport is not provided, especially as some walking will have to deal with worsening weather as winter sets in.
“They (asylum seekers) have no extra money to pay for transport,” Lucy stated, adding that she has spoken to the manager of the centres who said IPAS is aware of the issue. A letter has also been sent to Minister for Education, Norma Foley, to the highlight the urgent need for school transport for the children in Athlone.
“Friday is the last day that volunteers can help. They need an answer before Monday to know what is going to happen to the children,” stressed Lucy, who is due to launch a new social enterprise called Alexia Press Hub later this month to support and empower international protection applicants in Athlone.
IPAS has yet to respond to a query sent in by the Westmeath Independent on the school transport situation. The Department of Education has also been asked for comment.