'The people here are my family': Women who rebuilt their lives in Ireland

To mark International Women’s Day, Martha Brennan speaks to three women who have rebuilt their lives in Ireland having fled their native country
'The people here are my family': Women who rebuilt their lives in Ireland

Marwa Wahhoud photographed at Lismore Millennium park. Photo; Mary Browne

"Refugees and migrants are not ‘others’. They are ‘us’. They are as diverse as the human family itself," UN deputy secretary-general Amina Mohammed once said.

In 2018, Mary Robinson quoted Mohammed's words in a piece she wrote for Time magazine about the importance of facilitating migration in a changing world. "For centuries, Irish people were forced to migrate to flee famine, poverty and political oppression," Robinson wrote, citing how the Irish are now celebrated abroad for their contributions to communities around the world. 

According to the National Women’s Council, as of March 2020 there were 4,000 asylum-seeking women living in Ireland’s direct provision centres waiting to contribute to our communities. In honour of International Women's Day, we spoke to a few of those who have settled into Irish life and are already leaving their mark on the world.

Opening doors 

Gaby Patino, pictured in Co. Cork. Pic: Denis Minihane.
Gaby Patino, pictured in Co. Cork. Pic: Denis Minihane.

In 2015, Gaby Patiño fled Venezuela with her boyfriend Max at 28-years-old, seeking refuge from the gang-based crime that had taken hold of their country.

“We left because of the violence. It was so difficult and it’s gotten worse there. We came here looking for opportunities,” she says over the phone from her new home in Carrigaline, Co Cork.

Gaby had a cousin living in Dublin who gushed about the friendliness in Ireland. The young graduate was sold and the couple began planning the long journey, selling their belongings and saving for over a year. However, they faced problems from the start.

“We didn't understand the process. We applied for tourist visas because there was a guy in Ireland who told us we could get them extended but he took our money, over €5000. It was terrible,” Gaby says. “We went to a lawyer to ask what we should do. We didn't want to go back, we didn't have any money. It was a difficult time.” 

The couple applied for asylum and in 2016 moved to Ashbourne House in Cork, where they spent the next three years in direct provision.   

“People were friendly. We shared our cultures together, food, everything,” she says. “But it was difficult at the same time. We were worried about our families back home and we were also waiting to hear about what was coming next.” 

Gaby and Max, who are now married, found not working the hardest part. Gaby had worked with a psychology company in Venezuela and Max had a degree in business management. “It was hard. We couldn’t use our degrees and it was difficult to look for work because we were asylum seekers,” Gaby says. “We needed to keep our minds busy. We started volunteering and did an English course. You can't stay in the room all day.” 

Gaby was soon kept busy with the arrival of her baby girl in 2018. “I was so worried because the room was too small and it was getting smaller. We didn’t have enough space to have a baby,” she says. “But in May, they gave us permission to remain here. It was amazing.” 

After three years in direct provision, the family began looking for a house around Carrigaline, where a friend was living. It’s difficult to secure a property while in direct provision, she says, but Max had fortunately found work with a company in Cork city. They moved into their current home three months later. 

“We fell in love with Cork, we had to stay here. What I found difficult at the start was being far away from home. It was out of my comfort zone and it was a challenge. But I found it so beautiful here and the people so friendly. The only problem was the accent. We got here and I thought ‘this isn’t English’ but it’s fine now,” Gaby says, laughing.

Gaby is currently taking a course in child psychology in CIT and is planning to work and volunteer with children in the local community. She one day hopes to bring her daughter to see Venezuela, but the family will apply for Irish citizenship once they can.

“We really miss our country but we know we can’t go there again. Every time we talk with our family it’s getting worse. We send money to our mums so they can buy food. We miss our families, our weather, everything,” Gaby says.

Besides Irish food needing more flavour, she has grown to love everything about Ireland, especially the people.

“I am so grateful to this country for giving my family an opportunity to live safely,” she says. “To other women in direct provision, I would say keep your mind busy and stay positive and focused on your future.” 

‘No protection’ 

Nqobizitha Vella in Mallow, Co. Cork. Pic: Denis Minihane.
Nqobizitha Vella in Mallow, Co. Cork. Pic: Denis Minihane.

Originally from Zimbabwe, Nqobizitha Vella came to Ireland nearly six years ago with her son and has had a similar experience to Gaby, spending three years in Ashbourne House. 

However, Nqobizitha didn’t know anything about Ireland before she was advised to seek safety here. The now 40-year-old has since moved to Mallow and fallen in love with the area. “Cork people are the best. I wouldn’t want to live anywhere else,” she says. 

Nqobizitha worked as a school administrator before coming to Ireland but discovered a love of writing during her time in direct provision. “I started writing out of boredom. I didn’t know I could write that well,” she says. Her stories were followed online by more than 10,000 people and she has since had work published in an anthology in Cork City Library. She originally studied IT in college, but it wasn’t what she wanted to do. 

“In African society, the parents usually chose careers for their kids. My uncle was paying for my tuition and chose my course. Unemployment in my country is 95%. At the end of the day you don’t get the opportunity to do what you love,” she says.

Nqobizitha is currently working in healthcare but dreams of writing for theatre. “It’s hard to penetrate any industry outside of healthcare when you're from outside of Ireland. So many people tell you that with any other skills you won’t succeed,” Nqobizitha says. “I want to do drama and write. But if I pursue that will I be able to penetrate the industry? I’ve applied to UCC but I failed to get in last year. I just hope everything goes to plan.” 

Nqobizitha’s son is in fifth class and she says the 12-year-old loves his school and is looking forward to returning after lockdown. Homeschooling has been tough, especially because she works nightshifts.

As one of four children, Nqobizitha had no problem with the small space she had in Ashbourne. She grew up in a tiny three-roomed house where the girls slept in the living room and the boys in the kitchen. “It was a problem for my son though,” she says. “Because he would go to school and for playdates and it was difficult for him to understand.”

Nqobizitha supports keeping direct provision in place until an alternative solution is achieved but strongly feels that no one should live there for more than a year. Even though she is settled here, she misses her native food and speaking her native Isindebele. Her biggest shock upon moving? Irish weather.

“Ireland gets four seasons in 20 minutes,” she says, laughing. “And I miss speaking my language. I love my language so much. Back home, the colonists were teaching that English was better. It was posh. It meant you were educated, civilised. When people got out of the country, they still had that mindset. But no, your language is still as good. It’s a part of your culture, your identity.”

Nqobizitha still has close relatives in Zimbabwe but says she has to be careful when contacting them. “I would love to visit but it’s still not okay. We’re celebrating that we managed to leave because if we hadn’t I don’t think we would be alive,” she says.

“You call anyone at home and they don’t speak to you about whatever is happening. There is no freedom of speech. There was a time when we were seeing people being battered in public. When we tried to call home, the government shut down the internet so we couldn't get through. It was so terrible. There is no protection.” 

Nqobizitha and her son are happy in Mallow. Like Gaby, she is a part of the community now and has no plans to leave any time soon.

'The right track' 

Marwa Wahhoud photographed at Lismore Millennium Park. Photo; Mary Browne
Marwa Wahhoud photographed at Lismore Millennium Park. Photo; Mary Browne

Marwa Wahhoud moved to Co Waterford in 2019 under community sponsorship, a government-backed plan that involves a core community group, such as neighbours, a business or club, organising financial and social support to migrants to help them resettle in Ireland.

Marwa and her brother spent seven years as refugees in Lebanon after they left their home in Syria, where more than five million people have fled a violent, ongoing, conflict. After years on a waiting list to be moved, they were shocked to see the people of Lismore waiting for them at Dublin airport. They continue to be surprised by the friendliness in their new community.

“I was doing my best in Lebanon. I studied but I didn’t have the right to work or to stay. Now, in Ireland, all the doors are open for me,” Marwa says. “I can remember the first day when I arrived. It was a positive shock for me because the people here are very friendly and supportive. I feel very lucky.”

Marwa’s background is in public relations and the 32 year old is currently working part-time and volunteering. “I’m supporting other Syrian families to enhance their language and life skills. I’m teaching Arabic to Irish psychologists working with refugees. I’m doing voluntary work and I’m working in a centre for refugees in Kilmeade, training and doing workshops for women there,” she says.

Marwa has “completely settled” into the Lismore community. Though she too had trouble getting used to the accent and spontaneous weather, none of it mattered.

“It’s different but our life has always been about trying to adapt. I feel like this is my hometown, like I was born here. The people here are my family. I feel like I’m similar to them in how I think and live. For me, the home is not about the place, it’s all about people,” she says. “I’m focusing on my life here and my future. I’m happy here. I feel like I’m on the right track.”

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