Haunting realities of house hunting in Dublin

Sakshi Arya provides an insight into her unsettling first encounters with the city

The beginning of every new term brings not just the excitement of meeting new people and taking courses one is passionate about, but also a bevy of international students. Several of these, like me, are South Asians. Once we’re abroad, the peculiarities of racial encounters reminding us that we are people of colour ties us together more than our ethnicities. Seeing each other peppered throughout campus, and sometimes exchanging greetings in soft nods feels reassuring. However, the safety net provided by such reassurances received on campus doesn’t always work, especially when one ventures beyond its boundaries. And after all, even as a student one cannot always be on campus. The world outside the centuries-old, sturdy walls of Trinity is a living creature ready to swallow you whole if you are not careful. It is this real Dublin that you encounter before settling into life at Trinity.

Hundreds of students readily move to Dublin annually, often at their own expense, attracted by the standard of education, pride, and prestige that Trinity offers. But, if you’re like me and enjoy solo explorations or find it difficult to make connections, an encounter with Dublin immediately leaves you questioning if this city is really able to foster meaningful relationships with immigrants unless one moves in groups with their college folks. As first timers abroad we are so cautious of amplifying our voices in rebellion that our appalling experiences remain overshadowed by the veils of friendliness and inclusivity that Dublin wears to hide its haunting realities.

It’s been just a month since I moved here and, from Pearse Street to The Liberties, getting to know Dublin has already exhausted me. For me, the multifaceted trajectory involving the major leap of settling into another country began long before I even moved to Dublin. As a postgraduate student, I was aware that the hassle of finding  economical accommodation was solely mine. With this in mind, I had already familiarised myself with and become a proactive daft.ie user. In the midst of a global pandemic, it is easy to say that finding homes on Daft gives a tough competition to acquiring a vaccination slot in India. (If you’re from India, the horrifying comparison I am making between our CoWin website and Daft will make absolute sense!) But all that appears smooth on the surface is not so in hindsight. Preparing yourself to use Daft and applying through the ads doesn’t really help. You need to be present in Dublin, and  be able to view the apartments for yourself — the early bird catches the worm!

Without a given choice, my first week in Dublin (which now seems aeons ago even if it was just a few weeks prior) was spent, like many other students, at an overpriced purpose-built student living in Dublin 8. This had to be pre-booked for a stipulated period of ten days, extending which meant having to sign a contract for a minimum of 41 weeks. Some of the most bizarre nightmares I had at the time, which now seem funny in retrospect, involved all the houses running from me, causing me to often awaken soaked in cold sweat. Now that Ive settled into a flat owned by kind people, with amazing flatmates, I still sometimes shudder recalling my apartment hunting days when I perpetually wondered if all this effort was worth it or if there was the right house for me in a place like Dublin where one is expected to make several compromises.

“113 email applications, and five restless days later, I had about eight responses from Daft’s devilish housing platform.”

113 email applications, and five restless days later, I had about eight responses from Daft’s devilish housing platform. Three of those eight actually scheduled an immediate viewing, which suited best for my desperate situation. The two days when I viewed those three houses — one of them I now fortunately live in — taught me that being ready to pay the rent wasn’t sufficient. Quoting the exact words of one of the co-tenants of an apartment I saw first and didn’t end up living in: “You must be ready to keep your head low in case of public humiliation or violence, as a small price one must pay to live in Dublin City Centre.” Not only had this statement taken me aback, I was appalled at the nonchalance with which it was spoken. 

On the one hand, one of the greatest educational institutes in Europe has admitted me with promises of a better and high-held future. On the other hand, should I now expect to be constantly living in fear of my life and learning to walk with my head low at the behest of racial practices? Does the slogan of inclusivity carry any weight or is it simply a brand endorsement for allegedly progressive countries? This experience gave me the courage to be less dispirited after viewing the next house. Here the landlord suggested I change my name to an ‘English’ one because that would be easy to remember or even speak. Because my options at the time were limited, I couldnt even decide if I should turn these places down. I quickly realised that this decision in fact lay with my potential co-tenants or landlords who eventually rejected me. Imagine being ready to spend your money and being sent away because the shopkeeper sees you as a bedlamite with intrepid enquiries.

Keeping in line with that thought, store managers have sent me away, even if indirectly, because they felt and were dauntless enough to remark that my “colouring” did not align with the items of clothing I stood admiring. And I have left such outlets willingly because my colour is not my fault. I feel beautiful as a person of colour. Unfortunately, racial encounters like this have a tendency to induce doubts. More recently, merely 200 metres from my home in Dublin, I was hounded by a bunch of teens who as a manner of “offering” brought burning cigarette butts near my face and, seeing me horrified, left laughing. What I felt in that moment was a mixed sensation of anger, shame, ugliness, and fear, burning with a redness equally as bright as the tips of those cigarettes. But a greater shock was to be told, by two grown men who were watching: “You cannot expect it to be any better, they’re just children.” It’s jittering to think that those men expected me to neglect the violence projected at me, and allowed that bunch of reckless teens to become part of a sea of faces that I will likely never see again. Calling a bunch of harassers children equates to calling racism innocent. And that I cannot accept. 

Before moving to Dublin, I was told that “racism may exist outside campus, but it is a crime inside Trinity.” Now I’m compelled to ask: how does it matter? There should be no candy for keeping racism at bay on campus — even if that really is true. The fact that racist practices exist around Dublin is reason enough to make me or any other victim of this subtle brutality feel uneasy at the slightest hint of being scrutinised by a white person regardless of their intentions, on campus or off.

On video calls, my mum often says be kind, positive, and don’t think they’re being racially prejudiced; everything will come along. I don’t like to speculate whether she says this to make me feel better or because she is afraid that something bad will happen if I end up making enemies in a country where I am an outsider. Surely over time Dublin will become my family, even if it’s a dysfunctional one. But until it does, I will continue to question this layer of visible invisibility that overpowers a person’s identity and leaves them haunted by these strange and extremely problematic realities.