Ireland is our home now
Christmas is a time of year when people look forward to going home. But where’s that if you grew up elsewhere? Eight people talk about their experiences
‘Children of this time will be able to live where they want to’
MICHAL AND JUSTYNA SZPAK
Dad in the home and cosmetics chemist
Michal and Justyna Szpak were happily employed in Poland, having finished their studies in industrial pharmaceutical chemistry at Gdansk University of Technology in 2004, when Michal received an offer to do a grant-aided PhD in marine geochemistry at Dublin City University.
That offer, which he took up in September 2006, changed the lives of this young Polish couple. The decision to start a new life in Ireland prompted them to get married, give up their jobs and move to a country they had never been to.
Justyna, who had been working in a small aromatherapy cosmetics firm in Poland, got a job with a Swedish cosmetics company – her dream job – in Bray, Co Wicklow.
She is now fluent in English and living in Greystones, Co Wicklow, with Michal and their baby daughter, Jagoda.
So how has life been in Ireland? “It was difficult at the start. We found the Irish accent difficult even though we spoke good English. But I felt welcome. People said hi and smiled. In Poland people pass you by,” says Justyna. “Irish people are curious about people moving here,” says Michal. “We also share the same sense of sarcasm and humour,” adds Justyna.
The birth of their baby on Christmas Day last year was a joyful occasion. They still remember how nerve-racking and physically draining an experience it was without the support of family nearby.
“It was our first baby. In Poland there is more attention paid to the pregnancy at every stage, but in Ireland, I think, the maternity staff are better and more friendly after the baby is born. I had a lot of help with breastfeeding,” says Justyna.
Justyna left hospital on the early-discharge scheme. “I did want my family then, but they couldn’t come. It was emotional. I needed my mum to show me how to handle a baby,” says Justyna.
Both grandmothers visited in the early months. When Justyna’s maternity leave finished they decided that Michal would look after Jagoda until she was a year old.
“Everything changed when I went back to work. He was in charge now. I trusted him. I knew he would mind her well. It wasn’t that tough for me going back to work,” says Justyna.
Michal says: “I wanted the opportunity to bond with my baby, because Justyna was very close to her in the first months. Despite the difficulties I feel I will have a better connection with my daughter because of this time spent with her.”
Justyna is pregnant again, and Michal will start job-hunting in January. “It will be challenging. Childcare is so expensive in Ireland. We have used up our savings, and we don’t own our own place here.”
Do they feel at home in Ireland? “My home is where my family is, but the sad aspect of being an immigrant is that you are uprooted and detached from your own family ties. That’s a strain,” says Michal. “Jagoda is formally Irish before she is Polish. She was born here. Children of this time will be able to choose to live here if they want to.”
‘I feel like I’ve always been here. I have a Cork accent’
Student at Cork Institute of Technology
“I came here in 1996, when I was three and a half years old. I had been in an orphanage in Minsk, the capital of Belarus, since I was young. Adi Roche from Chernobyl Children International brought me here for medical treatment. An adoption agreement was brokered between Belarus and Ireland, and Helen and Robert Gabriel from Bandon, Co Cork, officially adopted me in 1998.
“I feel like I’ve always been here and that Ireland is my home. I have a strong Cork accent, and people accept me for who I am. I live in Bandon with my three sisters, two who are older than me and one who is younger. I’m the only one who is adopted, but we all have good relationships. If it wasn’t for them I don’t know where I’d be. I am in third year of business administration at Cork Institute of Technology.
“I needed a lot of medical attention when I was younger. I have hearing problems, and I used a wheelchair when I was younger. But when I was 13 I got two artificial legs, which means I can walk around and be like any other young woman.
“I would like to go back to Minsk some time, but I’m not ready yet. I feel I will have a better understanding if I see the orphanages for myself. I know it will be hard, and I am so grateful to people like Adi Roche and Ali Hewson, who have done so much work and given so much love to the children in the orphanages and baby homes in Belarus.
“I am really looking forward to being at home with all my family at Christmastime. It will be a great chance for us all to catch up and relax together.”