‘I’ve realised the people in Tullamore are calm and kind’
New to the Parish: Phathisani Nkomo, a teacher, arrived in Ireland from Zimbabwe in 2019
Phathisani Nkomo, from Zimbabwe, lives with her husband in a direct provision centre in Tullamore, Co Offaly. Photograph: Dara Mac Donaill
On the wall beside Phathisani Nkomo’s bed in the room she shares with her husband in Co Offaly, the Zimbabwean teacher keeps about two dozen multi-coloured post-it notes. Each one contains a short message – some are famous quotes, others are prayers while a couple are personal thoughts Nkomo has jotted down. Right in the middle of the collection, a short quote from the speech Michelle Obama gave at the 2012 Democratic National Convention stands out.
“Success isn’t about how much money you make, it’s about the difference you make in people’s lives.”
This “vision board”, as Nkomo describes it, is where she turns when she’s having a hard day. She has sent me a photo via WhatsApp of the messages posted above her bed, explaining that she has also pasted a few pieces of paper inside her wardrobe with plans and goals for the future.
There are moments when I really feel down, but I try to pick myself up and look at the positives. I remind myself that this is just temporary and everything will be okay one day
During the pandemic, Nkomo regularly seeks solace from the wise words of Obama and others. “To be honest, there are moments when I really feel down, but I try to pick myself up and look at the positives. I remind myself that this is just a temporary situation and everything will be okay one day. I also remind myself that I’ve helped other people at my centre. That keeps me motivated.”
Nkomo and her husband have spent the past 12 months living in a direct provision centre in Tullamore. The couple arrived in Ireland in December 2019 to claim asylum after fleeing their home and livelihood in Zimbabwe.
Brought up in the city of Bulawayo, Nkomo worked as a journalist after completing her college studies in education, history and languages. She spent four years in broadcast journalism in the Zimbabwean capital of Harare until her father recommended she leave the industry and retrain as a teacher.
“During that time there were some political tensions and my father felt journalism wasn’t a safe space so he registered me in a teaching school. There’s no journalism in my background, my father was a motor mechanic and my mother was a nurse. My uncle was a teacher and always encouraged me to read, I guess that’s how I got to love journalism.”
Nkomo was not happy with her father’s decision and admits moving into teaching felt like “downgrading” professionally. “Then when I was studying I realised the two jobs were interlinked and ended up enjoying it.”
Nkomo went on to spend 10 years as a teacher. “It taught me to be patient and kind. I learned it wasn’t just about teaching a subject, it was about helping young people to become better citizens.”
In the school where she taught, some students would turn up without breakfast or fall asleep in class. “It taught me to have an open mind and not be judgmental, to try and understand what was going on in a student’s life. Those students became a part of me.”
One gentleman stopped and said, ‘The community welcomes you here.’ That made me feel at ease, knowing that someone would greet you in that way
A few years ago, Nkomo started campaigning for teachers to receive better pay and helped organise demonstrations calling for better work conditions. “Doing that put me in a position where the government saw me as a political threat. They assumed I was no longer doing my work as a teacher.”
Nkomo and her husband left Zimbabwe in December 2019 after she says they were violently threatened by the local authorities. They were sent to the Balseskin accommodation centre in Finglas upon arrival in Dublin and briefly spent time in emergency accommodation before moving into the newly opened direct provision centre in Tullamore. Before arriving, Nkomo googled the centre and found articles quoting members of the community who were against the arrival of asylum seekers. In reality, however, she says local people have only been welcoming.
“I remember I passed one gentleman on the road, and he stopped and asked if I was staying in the hostel. He then said, ‘The community welcomes you here.’ He had just stopped to say hello. That made me feel at ease, knowing that someone would greet you in that way.
“I’ve realised the people in Tullamore are calm and kind. It gives me the confidence to be around the town.”
The staff at the new centre, which offers self-catering facilities, have also been very helpful, she adds. “I would say with an open heart we were really taken care of. The managers really tried their best to make sure everyone was okay during Covid. I think it’s high time direct provision came to an end, but I’m lucky to be in an environment with good management. There are others who are not so lucky.”
Despite support from staff, living in direct provision during the pandemic has been extremely challenging, says Nkomo. “You couldn’t go anywhere and just had to sit in your room and listen to the news. We were seeing people losing their lives every day and we were stuck inside 24/7. We didn’t have any cases at the centre during the first lockdown but we were reading about Cahersiveen and wondering, what if that happens to us? We always had that anxiety.”
I love when the young people go home with a smile at the end of the day. It makes me feel like I’m contributing positively to Ireland
As a distraction, Nkomo registered for some online courses and went on to do seven modules including a certificate in healthcare support. She also encouraged other women in the centre to sign up for the free training courses. “I explained I was a teacher so I can help. I wanted them to know there was comfort in numbers and we ended up doing them together.”
Nkomo went on to take part in an Irish Refugee Council “Integration from Day One” programme – an initiative from the Mná na hÉireann, Women of Ireland fund that provides guidance for those seeking employment in Ireland and was created by Rethink Ireland in partnership with Bank of America and the Department of Rural and Community Development.
Nkomo’s husband now has a job fixing ambulances while she is working with a charity for young people with disabilities. “I love when they go home with a smile at the end of the day. It makes me feel like I’m contributing positively to Ireland.” She is also a member of the “We Are Here Too” campaign, which seeks to raise awareness of the challenges and risks faced by migrant women in abusive relationships.
Nkomo is still waiting for her first interview with the International Protection Office but is trying to stay positive. “I don’t believe in complaining. I try to find solutions.” She hopes to go back into teaching once she secures permission to live here. “I tell myself what I’m doing right now – the social work – is a form of teaching. I’m also passionate about sign language and I’m trying to learn it. I’d love to teach in that environment.”