‘At Dublin Airport they made me wait four hours. I was ready to cry’
New to the Parish: Laura Gordy Pugliessi arrived from Bolivia in 2020
Laura Gordy Pugliessi, a Bolivian doctor currently working as a healthcare assistant. Photograph: Nick Bradshaw
In late October 2019, protests broke out across Bolivia when thousands of people took to the streets to oppose the election of Evo Morales as president for a fourth consecutive term. In the city of Santa Cruz, the clashes that followed the disputed election results and irregularities at the polls left hundreds wounded. Laura Gordy Pugliessi, a young doctor working in the city, joined her colleagues in walking around the streets offering free medical care to those who needed it.
“The whole country had just stopped, and hospitals weren’t receiving patients. But there were a lot of people who still needed medical help so I walked the streets with a sign saying ‘free medical attention’. It wasn’t a major thing, I just went around with my backpack trying to do as much as I could to help.”
Like many Bolivian doctors, Pugliessi had become increasingly frustrated with the paucity of jobs for healthcare professionals and low wages for those who did make it into the sector. She was tired of the corruption within hospitals which required doctors to hand over money for training positions and knew she couldn’t afford to continue accepting low-paid, short-term contract jobs for much longer.
Born and brought up in southern Bolivian city of Tarija, Pugliessi was the first member of her family to become a doctor. “My mum had me when she was 21; both my parents dedicated their lives to educating us. My mum is a financial engineer and my dad is an economist so I always saw them working really hard. I got the idea into my head when I was 10 that I wanted to be a doctor. But I had to leave my city and my family to pursue this dream.”
I got enthusiastic about the smallest things like buses. I was amazed you didn’t have to yell for them to stop
Pugliessi moved to the central Andean city of Cochabamba to study medicine and after graduation went to Santa Cruz for work. Like many Bolivians, she became increasingly disillusioned with Morales’s leadership. “At the beginning most of us were very satisfied with his work but after a few years we discovered it was all a mask. He pretended to be the voice of the indigenous people and pretended to worry about everyone but the power just went to his head.”
Having researched places to visit, Pugliessi settled on Ireland where she would not need a visa to enter the country. While she already spoke some English, she wanted to improve her written language skills and signed up for a language course in Dublin.
“Because I wanted to become a doctor I knew when I was younger that in the future I would probably have to leave my country but I wouldn’t have the time to learn languages then. I learned English at school and also studied French so when I finished my studies I could have more opportunities.”
“I was tired of trying to find stability in my country so I decided to leave. It was my first time travelling overseas, my first time in Europe. ”
Pugliessi arrived into Dublin Airport on February 17th, 2020. When she approached the immigration desk she handed over documentation which explained why she had travelled to Ireland. This included proof she had paid for an English language course and bank statements to show she could financially support herself until she found work. However, like many other Latin American students who have arrived in Ireland to study in recent years, her motivations for coming to Europe were scrutinised in detail.
“They made me wait about four hours and took my phone to read through all my messages. They called my school to check if I was actually enrolled and then continued to check every chat on my phone. I answered every single question they asked but when I asked what was going on, the guy wouldn’t tell me anything. I told him I wasn’t hiding anything, that I was here to study.
“He was young and very rude. I was ready to cry. I thought they weren’t going to let me in. In the end he just stamped my passport, threw it at me and said ‘enjoy’.”
Pugliessi had been in Dublin only a few weeks when a second unpleasant incident left her deeply shaken. She and her new housemates had to call the gardaí after a young man living in their house threatened them with a knife and claimed he was going to blow up the building. They later discovered the man had been diagnosed as psychologically unwell and had returned to his family in his home country.
I’m trying to take things easier and be more patient. I want to stay on the medical path and validate my degree here. I’m just happy that things have worked out here so far
“I know how differently that situation could have turned out and how lucky I am. I just took it as an experience to be more careful with the people I meet and not give them too much trust.”
Despite these initial encounters, Pugliessi says she has fallen in love with Ireland. “My first few weeks I was surprised at every turn. Everything caught my attention because it was so different to Bolivia. I got enthusiastic about the smallest things like buses. I was amazed you didn’t have to yell for them to stop.”
Pugliessi submitted an application for her PPS number shortly after her arrival but it did not arrive before the country went into lockdown. She managed to secure work as a carer for elderly people but is only paid half the regular salary because she is not fully registered to work. After months of emailing and calling the Department of Employment Affairs and Social Protection, she finally received confirmation in late August that her PPS number was on the way.
While Pugliessi would prefer to be using her skills as a doctor, she loves working with elderly Irish people. “I don’t really consider it a job because I’m enjoying it so much.
“One client, he’s a journalist, he has taught me so much about what Ireland truly is. I’ve learned much more from him than I have in my English classes. I feel I’m actually doing something good for people and in return, I gain experiences and knowledge. It’s very fulfilling.”
Pugliessi dreams of becoming a nephrologist – a kidney specialist – but acknowledges that this hope may be on hold for now. “It was my dream but I’m trying to take what I can get for now. Before this I was very focused on my medical career and I think I was putting too much pressure on myself.
“I’m trying to take things easier and be more patient. I want to stay on the medical path and validate my degree here. I’m just happy that things have worked out here so far.”