'I studied English for 12 years but nothing prepared me for the Cork accent'
New to the Parish: An Eritrean refugee advanced rapidly after picking up the lingo
Sami Habtemariam: came to Ireland as a refugee from Eritrea in 2010. Photograph: Michael Mac Sweeney/Provision
Sami Habtemariam was 18 when he was forced to leave his home country. He was halfway through his second year studying computer science and had hoped to pursue a career in technology, when in 2008 he decided the time had come to join the hundreds of thousands of Eritreans fleeing their homes seeking safety abroad.
His mother had already arrived in Ireland in 2003, followed by his two sisters. It took Habtemariam two years of travel via Sudan and Uganda before he was able to join his family in their new home in Cork city.
Determined to go back to his studies, Habtemariam enrolled in a computer science course at Cork’s College of Commerce four months after arriving in Ireland.
“The toughest thing was definitely the Cork accent. Even though I had studied English for 12 years before coming here, nothing prepared me for understanding the speed of the Cork accent. When I tried to speak in English I had to think in my own language first and translate. I couldn’t understand what the teachers were saying. Spoken and written English are two very different things.”
He was very grateful when an Irish classmate made the effort to show him around Cork. “When I first started my classes I felt like the new one and didn’t feel comfortable. But there was this guy next to me who was supportive and asked where I was from.
“He gave me hope. He told me about Cork and in his spare time he took me out to see the city. He is the best person ever and we’re still good friends.”
I’d go to Belfast at midnight on a Thursday to be in time for class on Friday morning
He also struggled to adjust to the Irish climate. “Where I grew up we would have four months of rain, but then it would be completely dry for the next eight months. In Ireland, I don’t think the phrase ‘completely dry’ even exists!”
A job and postgrad
Once he completed his computer course, he was able to transfer to second year at Cork Institute of Technology, where he completed a degree in software development and networking. After graduation he was offered a spot on a graduate programme connected to the consulting company Aspira IT and began working part time while studying a postgraduate diploma in business and management two days a week at Queen’s University Belfast.
“I’d go to Belfast at midnight on a Thursday to be in time for class on Friday morning. I’d take the Aircoach from Cork to Dublin, wait for about two hours at the train station and then take the 6.45am train to Belfast. Then I’d take the bus to Queen’s.
“The Intertrade Fusion programme gave me the chance to work with experienced people, and the guys on the team were good enough to give me help and point me in the right direction.”
Despite the long hours between work on Little Island in Cork and classes in Belfast, the year-long project really boosted his confidence both professionally and personally. After 12 months on the programme, he was offered a full-time job with Aspira, where he now works as a web developer and software developer. As far as he is aware, he is one of only two Eritreans in Ireland working in software development.
Privilege of citizenship
Around the same time he began his new job, he travelled to Dublin to attend a ceremony where he was sworn in as an Irish citizen.
“Naturalisation is a great honour for me. I feel it gives me benefits but also responsibilities. I have the responsibility to serve this country as a national and transfer knowledge to others.
“I thank God every single day for the privilege of citizenship here. It is an incredible thing to live in a place where the rule of law not only protects our rights but ensures that anything is possible.”
“In Eritrea you couldn’t even move from one county to another without permission. But in Ireland you can go everywhere, day or night. I can now move freely around Europe as a citizen and have equal rights as a citizen.”
I have heard about racism in Ireland but it’s never happened to me
He has never experienced racism during his seven years in Ireland and says his friends, colleagues and neighbours have always been friendly and considerate.
“I have heard about racism in Ireland but it’s never happened to me. Maybe I’m lucky, but I can honestly say that I always find people welcoming. My classmates and my teachers were always very supportive.”
In December 2016, Habtemariam was finally reunited with his wife Winta, whom he has known since childhood. She was accepted to come to Ireland as a refugee after travelling from Eritrea to Ethiopia. “If you want to bring family here you have to have an income and be able to support the person. I couldn’t apply for her at the beginning and had to wait until I had a job. I don’t have that stress anymore. She’s here with me now, so no more worries.”
Around the same time as his wife’s arrival, he learned that he was to receive an award for his involvement in developing a system used to analyse the incidence and prevalence of cancer in Ireland. In January he travelled to Carton House hotel in Kildare to receive his award alongside the chief executive of Aspira.
He is now taking evening classes after work to continue his training in software development.
Sometimes it’s hard to believe how far I have come since moving here
“I like taking classes and I like learning. In technology you have to keep learning. It’s moving fast, so you have to go faster.”
“I have been in Ireland for seven years now, and in that time I have completed my education, entered the workforce in a high-tech role and managed to deliver an award-winning project. Sometimes it’s hard to believe how far I have come since moving here.”
He misses his family back home but reiterates how grateful he is to his friends, teachers and colleagues for their guidance and friendship over the past seven years.
“My message to other people arriving in Ireland with an uncertain path ahead of them is to seek out education opportunities, to work hard and you will be given the chance to achieve success.”