The loneliness of the reluctant immigrant

With my children on the Dover -Calais boat, on our way to my home

Today is St Patrick’s Day. the day you are supposed to be happy to be Irish (or in Ireland) and grateful for the Welsh slave who converted Ireland to Christianity.

But what if you don’t feel any of that? What if you just want to belong by just being you and not being part of this flag-waving leprechaun hat-wearing mass?

On days like this, I tend to feel very alone and very lonely. Sorry about the emotional post, you can just stop it here if you want.

I am a white European immigrant in Ireland. I came here 23 years ago, not because I wanted to, but because I wanted to try and make my (British, Irish-Welsh)husband happy. (I never succeeded, it seems).

To be honest, I never dreamed of coming here. I was not interested in your green hills and white farmhouses, I liked my own country, I liked the culture I belong to, and I saw no reason why I would come and move to a rainy, dreary country, that I only knew from very dark series about mines closing and the Troubles.

I was convinced to make the move by an Irishman with a very important position in the university of Cork, where my husband was offered some work. He came to Belgium, and did a tour of the country with me. Me being the guide (at 5 months pregnancy) and him telling me what he wanted to see. (the first visit he wanted to make was to the Red Light District at the Noord station in Brussels, just to see it…)

Then we did Brussels and Bruges, and then I took him to the airport.

It was fun. He was very funny, and that is what converted me to move with my family and my unborn third child to Ireland. I was pleased to see that a laugh could be had in Ireland too. We also visited Kinsale and to my pleasant surprise, there was a nice café with good coffee that also played my favourite music and had patience with children.

Simple enough. I didn’t have much time to do any other investigations. I was very pregnant and had an international move to organise.

My husband moved over before me ‘to find a house’, so I was left organising everything at home. My 70 something-year-old uncle helped me fill the container together with myself, my brother and brother-in-law, and my nephew.

My sons were 5 and nearly 2. On the day of our move, I was 7 months pregnant.

My dad took us to the airport, and I will never forget my son Sipke (yes, SIPKE, not Spike) pushing the buggy with Fintan in it, while singing ‘Molly Malone’. My father was good at hiding emotions, I saw him just another three times before he died of lung cancer. The letter he wrote to me is one thing I hold as if it is made of gold, my most precious possession.

I won’t tell the rest in detail, just that it was hard. The job my husband was promised didn’t materialise, we struggled but got there. I made friends thanks to the nosiness of Irish people, especially when seeing a highly pregnant woman arriving in their midst.

I became very involved in local life because I felt I had to, I became the chairperson of the school’s parents association and organised concerts in the church, I joined the local church choir, stood on the table in the pub to sing my party pieces, became pregnant again, had my daughter, joined the opera chorus and then our house building failed, and I got breast cancer.

It was stage 3. my daughter was 4, Sipke was 11.

I got all the treatments, three operations, radiation therapy, chemotherapy, and then a year of Herceptine treatment, which was stopped a little early because my heart muscle was showing signs of getting thicker.

It was during this episode that I started contemplating life, when I could, because I still had 4 children to mind.

I realized I missed being the old me. The one that was a liberated free woman in a beautiful city, who was called Roos and not Rousse by everyone,. who had work, a car, and independence, who grew up in the country in a village with a beautiful church with paintings by Van Dyck, just because he liked the village

(and the daughter of the Innkeeper where he stayed. )

St Martinus by Antoon Van Dijck,. St Martinus Church, Zaventem

I missed the piano that I left behind, I missed my dad, my sisters, my brothers, but most of all, I missed being myself, the woman who had stopped going to church because she didn’t see the point, who loved going to concerts, sitting outside on terraces in Brussels while reading a book, going out to cheap but good restaurants with my friends, dancing the lambada in a Latin American Club, getting drunk on Metaxa when reviewing the slide show of the motorcycle holiday in Greece, I missed languages around me, speaking them as well, on an everyday basis. Spanish, French, German, Dutch, listening to Lingala in Matongé in Brussels and Arabic in the Schaarbeek and Molenbeek villages of the capital.

Well, I missed everything. And I made some decisions.

We moved out of the little house we had lived in, to another village, to get some space and also to start again.

We grew our own vegetables in the garden, I still continued singing in the opera choir for a few years, the children changed schools, I did some work with my husband, and then he left. Not saying anything, not leaving a message, just left.

Back to change, back to moving house, a period I will not say too much about, except that becoming single in Ireland is not easy at all. And the social services do exist, but you are constantly treated like a naughty child when asking for help. Suffer, seems to be the norm here. Suffer before you get help.

I have gone through this for years, and still am.

I found myself after the divorce. I joined the world of migrants in Ireland, I found real friends, I helped other migrants with coping and being accepted, and I got involved with people in direct provision, who I describe as my second family.

And here I am divorced and recently widowed (or what do you call it when your ex dies? ), and while my children, who are very Irish, are celebrating Patrick’s day, I am wondering what the future will bring.

I am not Irish but not migrant enough either for some. Not Irish, not black, not brown, but a migrant all the same. My closest friends here are the people from Francophone African countries, and all the other refugees and migrants. I love them with all my heart. They are the reason why I get up in the morning and why I fight and will keep fighting until everything is right.

But deep down inside there is a little voice asking me when will it be that someone stands up for me, helps me with my struggles, and just tells me ‘I am here for you.’ I met someone, but he lives in Dublin and has 6 children, such is life.

Old age is waiting for me. My children have grown up, just Angharad, my daughter is staying with me. Her mental health needs support, and very little is available or trustworthy here. She also has a chronic disease, diagnosed in Belgium by a professor, because here the doctors dismissed her as a mentally ill pretender…

To all those who are involved with migrants or who have mothers from another country: please understand us, realise that you don’t just become Irish. We are who we are, and we are proud of it. And there are days when we feel very alone. Just understand and stop trying to assimilate us. We want to belong, but also stay who we are. And we miss our countries, at least in the way we knew them when we left. Because they have also changed.

OK, going to bake some Belgian waffles now, to celebrate St Patrick’s day.

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