‘I don’t understand people who move abroad and then stick with their own’

New to the Parish: A Georgian refugee explains how he ended up in Dublin

Mikhail Shengeliya in Herbert Park, Donnybrook: “I don’t understand the point of people who move to another country and then stick with their own.” Photograph: Nick Bradshaw

Mikhail Shengeliya in Herbert Park, Donnybrook: “I don’t understand the point of people who move to another country and then stick with their own.” Photograph: Nick Bradshaw

 

Mikhail Shengeliya has only a vague recollection of the few years he spent in Moscow with his family in the early 1990s. He remembers the terrible condition of the apartment where they lived and having to share a bed with his two siblings. He remembers being sent to a Georgian school where all subjects were taught through his parents’ native language.

Shengeliya was just three when his parents decided to move the family to RussiaGeorgia was in the middle of a civil war, while his father’s home region of Abkhazia was caught up in a battle for independence. In 1992, shortly after his younger brother was born, Shengeliya’s family fled the violence in Abkhazia and moved to Moscow, where his father found work with a German company.

“We didn’t know anybody in Moscow; we just went there. But that’s what people were doing at the beginning of the 1990s. That period was insane in general across the whole of the USSR.”

That’s the biggest thing I remember from that time; when the electricity came back on it was always a joyful moment.

His parents initially sent their children to a small Georgian school in the hope they would continue speaking the language. However, after a few years living in Russia, they decided it was more important the children grow up around family, so Shengeliya, his mother and siblings moved back to Georgia to live in Tbilisi.

“Georgia was quite a poor country back then. Well, it’s still not lavish in wealth today, but at that time things were quite bad. Electricity was always gone for a couple of hours in the morning and again in the evening. That’s the biggest thing I remember from that time; when the electricity came back on it was always a joyful moment.”

Georgian refugees

His parents sent him to a school where he joined children from Armenia, Azerbaijan and Russia to learn Chinese and martial arts alongside regular school subjects. As Georgian refugees, they were eager for their children to attend a school where they felt safe.

I came to Ireland to do my master’s but fell in love with the country and with a particular girl. So I decided to stay longer. She gave me a reason to stay

After school he completed an undergraduate degree in economics in Moscow and then began investigating master’s courses abroad. His father’s work prospects had improved significantly over the years and his parents now had the financial security to send their children overseas to study. Shengeliya’s younger brother had already moved to Ireland on the recommendation of family friends living in Dublin.

“They suggested my brother apply for a bachelor’s [degree] in Dublin, so he applied to UCD and moved here. When I began applying for masters’ my parents were like, ‘You need to look after your brother,’ so I didn’t have much of a choice.”

Crazy winter

He arrived in Dublin in September 2010, right before “the crazy winter that brought the nation to a standstill”. Accustomed to the freezing temperatures of Russian winters, Dublin’s snow-covered streets felt normal to him. He already spoke English but struggled to understand the Irish accent when he first arrived. Dublin also felt quite small and provincial after nearly a decade living in a city of more than 12 million people.

“I kind of liked that it was small and also people were not mean. In Moscow’s service industry, people are not friendly whatsoever. Here people were kind.”

After he completed his year-long master’s at Dublin Business School, he chose to stay in Ireland and continue his studies at Trinity. “I came to Ireland to do my master’s but fell in love with the country and with a particular girl. So I decided to stay longer. She gave me a reason to stay.”

In 2012 he embarked on a part-time PhD in Trinity’s school of business and also found a job in a tech company. Five years later he’s still completing the PhD but feels happy to be in Dublin.

“I’ve never actively tried to find Russian and Georgian friends here. I don’t understand the point of people who move to another country and then stick with their own. It makes no sense. When I came here I lived with a Polish girl and an Italian couple, I’m still very close with the couple. I just like meeting different people and learning about their country and traditions.”

Shengeliya recently began singing with Discovery Gospel Choir and also plays basketball in his spare time. He auditioned for the choir after an arm injury put basketball training on hold for a few months.

“One of my best friends here – an Irish guy I studied with in Trinity – knows a couple of the people in the choir and we heard there were auditions happening. I learn so much from singing with them. There are members from Nigeria, Haiti, India and Zambia and we sing different songs from their countries. You’re able to learn about people’s stories through the songs. That’s a history lesson right there.”

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