28 year-old Ernest decided to travel from his homeland in search of job prospects. “Wages are much lower in Lithuania,” he explains. Friends had told him about an ‘opportunity’ to work in Ireland and put him in contact with some people who said they could find him a similar job to the one he had in Lithuania working in a supermarket warehouse.
As soon as he arrived, things didn’t seem right. “They put me in a tiny room on top of a pub in Arklow in Wicklow. But I wasn’t getting any news of work, so I’m like, ‘Guys, what’s going on? I need to work. It’s been three days already and you’ve not asked me for any documents.’ From the first look, I didn’t trust them.” Ernest says he had only previously spoken to the men by phone.
Due to an ongoing human trafficking case, Ernest cannot go into detail about what happened next, but he tells me off the record about this group of men and their alleged criminal activities. He knew he had to get out. So he ran away.
“At that time, I had no English. I walked out of where I was staying that night and just lay down on a street. What else could I do?” He had no sleeping bag, very few belongings and was frightened and alone. “In the daytime I used to sit in the church, and at night I slept outside. I slept for three days in a dark alley where no one walks. Then one day the Lithuanian guys saw me in the church and ran in. I got scared and ran into the garden of the priest’s house.
“The priest used to see me at the church every day. I was even there when there were funerals going on. He called the Gardaí and they took my details and that’s how I ended up at Balseskin.”
Balseskin Reception Centre in Finglas, Dublin, is a purpose-built site which houses up to 310 newly arrived asylum seekers and suspected victims of human trafficking. It was originally intended as short-term accommodation, however current inspection reports openly refer to its ‘long-term residents’. People living in this institutionalised setting cannot cook for themselves, typically share bathroom facilities and are subject to a long list of rules and regulations.
“I was very scared at first,” he says. “Not of the men finding me because it was very far from Arklow and it’s a gated area with a swipe card, but coming in from Lithuania, where there are only Lithuanians and maybe some Russians, you never experience any multiculturalism. But I didn’t want to go home because I would have been homeless there. I think the management could see my struggle, so for the first three months they didn’t put anyone in my room, which normally never happens. The way I feel about that place is different to how other people feel about it. For me, it was a safe haven.
“The worst place in there used to be C Block,” he says. “A, B and D are mostly families and women. But C block is just men. Some people are very aggressive, you could say mentally ill. But this was the place I came out as gay though,” he smiles. “Because of one Mauritian woman.”
When he first arrived at Balseskin, Ernest had little to no English and avoided interacting with other residents. He didn’t receive the asylum seeker allowance of €19.10 a week (now €21.60) for the first seven months, until an older woman encouraged him to speak with a social worker. “I used to run into the canteen, get my food and then run into my room. And this Mauritian woman, Bella, she used to see me doing it and she always used to say ‘hi’ and I’d say ‘hi’ back and then sprint. One day she grabbed me by the hand and said, ‘Can you talk with me?’ Next thing I know she brings a Lithuanian girl to translate. So she found out everything about me, and that’s how I learned English. We became close, she’s like my mother.”
Ernest was never offered any English classes. Instead, he learned by speaking with Bella and other residents and reading Marvel comics (“my favourite,” he says).
Ernest knew he was gay from an early age, but never came out to his foster parents, who he lived with from the age of seven until he was 18 – the age you are required to leave foster care in Lithuania. “My separation with my foster parents wasn’t the best,” he says. “They were nice, but they were much better to their ‘real’ kids. They had five of their own.”
Was being gay an issue for them, I ask. “It was. Even to this day I have never told them. But I think they knew, because my manner is different to other guys. Once my foster mother came to me and said, ‘If you’re gay, tell me’. But I didn’t, I knew she would have a bad reaction because one time when there was something about gay people in a movie, she was like, ‘How can they do this?’”
Ernest lived at Balseskin for a year and a half before he was transferred to Hatch Hall in Dublin’s city centre. As soon as he discovered he was entitled to claim social welfare of €100 a month as an EU citizen, he moved out “straight away” and found a shared room in East Wall. “And that’s where real life started,” he says.
His first job was in a coffee shop in Connolly Station and he now works doing deliveries “for the chippers”. He lives in Blanchardstown and has “loads of friends”, many of whom he met through the Identity LGBT group, run by the Irish Refugee Council. The group meets at Outhouse in Dublin every month and is a lifeline for LGBT asylum seekers across the south-east.
As we wrap up our interview, I suggest that he has led an incredibly tough life. “But it makes you stronger,” he says positively. “I got to have experiences here and be myself, and now I wouldn’t change Ireland for anything.”