‘As foreigners in Ireland we are so touched by the people around us’

Judy Li arrived from China in 2004. Her husband died in 2015 and she is grateful for the support she has received

Judy Li: “No matter how bad life treats you there is always hope, always help and always a solution. Stay calm, be patient and always be positive.” Photograph: Dara Mac Dónaill

Judy Li: “No matter how bad life treats you there is always hope, always help and always a solution. Stay calm, be patient and always be positive.” Photograph: Dara Mac Dónaill

 

Judy Li arrived in Ireland in November 2004 with €600 and 20 carefully written-out CVs in her bag. She had spent the previous two years working two jobs – as an English teacher by day and in computer data collection by night – and saved the money to pay for flights to Ireland, a month’s accommodation and a six-month English course. She knew her parents could never support her financially and went straight to Dublin city centre the day of her arrival to find work.

“My parents work in a factory and didn’t have the money to send me abroad. Growing up, my family lived in one room. I didn’t have my own bed, I slept on the sofa.”

Li was in her second year of studying computer information management in the city of Dandong on the Chinese border with North Korea when she began to think about moving abroad. It was her Chinese-American English-language tutor who suggested she visit Ireland. “She taught me English but she also opened my eyes. For the first time I began thinking about how there were people in this world who live in a different way. She said you should go to Ireland because you can work there and support your own studies.”

Li’s first job in Dublin was as a cleaner. She had paid for four week’s accommodation with a host family in Finglas but knew she needed to find a more affordable option and moved into a shared room in Clontarf, where she paid €200 a month. She then found work with a home-care company and completed certificates in healthcare, childcare and special needs childcare.

“I quite liked that work because I met lots of Irish clients and became a part of their families. I felt very connected to my clients and the job also helped me save money and educate myself. I was studying during the day and working at night.”

Li went on to study a degree in international business and then moved onto a master’s in electronic commerce at DCU. It was here that she met her future husband, Yurong Liu. “At the start we were only friends. He was a very shy guy and he looked like a high-school student. I was looking for a man who was older than me, someone more mature. He was 3½ years younger than me. The first time he proposed I said ‘No, you’re too young’. But he insisted and I realised I couldn’t refuse him too hard, otherwise he wouldn’t have me.”

Marriage and child

Liu had come to Ireland on a Marie Curie scholarship as a bioengineer. The couple were married in March 2010 and shortly afterwards Liu began research work at Trinity College. Their daughter Helena was born the following year.

“My daughter picked up a cough and we all got it, but my husband’s didn’t get better. He was very busy with work but I made him see the GP, who found he’d lost lots of weight.”

Liu was sent for an X-ray at Beaumont Hospital and doctors found he had two litres of fluid on his left lung, which had to be drained. After 10 days in hospital Liu returned home but continued visiting the hospital for scans. In March 2013 the couple were told they needed to meet with the consultant. Li had recently given birth to her second child, a boy they named Elijah.

“The consultant said, ‘It’s bad news, he’s got lung cancer.’ It was stage 4. We couldn’t do anything. I was so shocked, it felt like an earthquake. I couldn’t control myself and was crying and panicking. How were we going to deal with this? We were the first generation here, we didn’t have family here.

“At the beginning I would ask ‘Why him?’ It wasn’t fair. Yurong was such a great guy. He had a postdoc, he was building his future, he was so beautiful, why him? I’d say to God, ‘Let me get cancer, society will benefit more from him’.”

That first year without him I went through emotional grieving. I couldn’t feel happiness or pain. I was numb.

The doctor gave Liu six months to live but he survived for another 2½ years. He underwent chemotherapy and radiation therapy and remained working at Trinity for a year following his diagnosis. He continued studying using online resources throughout his cancer treatment. Li secured an extended visa for her parents-in-law so they could come to Ireland and help with the children.

“I am proud of him. We never gave up hope and tried everything we could to save his life. We had no regrets.”

Liu died in September 2015, just two weeks before his 33rd birthday.

“That first year without him I went through emotional grieving. I couldn’t feel happiness or pain. I was numb. I was kind of living in a plastic ball and nothing could touch me – no loving, no happiness, no sadness.”

She explained to her daughter that God had taken her father to heaven because he was a very good man. “I remember her trying to comfort her grandma after the funeral and she said ‘No need to cry, Grandma, Daddy is with God. He is everywhere now. Anytime you think about him, he will immediately come’. I was surprised by that – kids have their own understanding.”

More confident

Li worried about her children growing up without a father and felt obliged to find someone who could fill his shoes. “I wanted someone to take over as their father and felt I needed someone to care for me. But I’ve found I could live alone with kids and could handle this life myself. I know it was tragic but I learned from the experience and have grown from it. I’m more confident now and feel there’s nothing that can bother me.”

The family are all Irish citizens now and live north of Dublin. Li works as a consultant and was recently offered a job in marketing. She has considered moving back to China to be closer to her parents but knows her children want to stay in Ireland. “They don’t want to leave here, they recognise themselves as Irish.”

Li hopes her story will help others struggling with grief and hardship. “No matter how bad life treats you there is always hope, always help and always a solution. Stay calm, be patient and always be positive.” She is also hugely grateful to the friends that have supported her family in recent years. “We are foreigners in this country, but we were so touched by the people around us.”

We would like to hear from people who have moved to Ireland in the past 10 years. To get involved, email newtotheparish@irishtimes.com. or tweet @NewToTheParish