‘I was doing underground work ... My Irish friends never knew I was undocumented’

Albert Bello arrived from Malawi in 2015

Albert Bello: ‘It [regularisation] was a dream come true. It changed a lot of lives instantly, we had the trust to say it’s finally going to happen now.’   Photograph: Tom Honan

Albert Bello: ‘It [regularisation] was a dream come true. It changed a lot of lives instantly, we had the trust to say it’s finally going to happen now.’ Photograph: Tom Honan

 

Albert Bello had only been living in Dublin a few weeks when his plans to spend a year studying abroad in Ireland fell apart.

He and more than 200 other international students awoke one morning in April 2015 to the news that the Carlyle Institute on Grafton Street, where he had started a diploma in leadership and development but which also offered English language courses, was suddenly closing its doors.

Bello had already paid €1,800 for a year’s tuition.

“They told us they wouldn’t refund any money. We sought legal counsel but it didn’t help anything. We were advised to enrol in another college but the places they recommended were very expensive. Only those with financial support from their families could re-enrol, but I’d only just arrived here, I wasn’t settled financially. It was terrible.”

Born and brought up in southern Malawi, Bello dreamed of visiting neighbouring countries like Mozambique, Zambia and Tanzania but he never really considered leaving Africa.

After finishing school, he briefly worked with the family’s transportation business before studying public health at college.

In the years that followed, he started his own businesses, transporting beauty products from Tanzania back into Malawi. However, he wanted to continue studying and started investigating opportunities abroad.

He met some young men who had studied in the UK and Ireland and discovered he could save enough money for a one-year study visa in Dublin.

“The idea was to study for a degree in public health but it was too expensive. Weighing up my options, I decided to go anyway and found a course in leadership and development.”

He sold all his belongings to cover the cost and arrived in Dublin in February 2015.

When his school closed a few weeks later, he didn’t know where to turn. As a non-European student he was only entitled to work up to 20 hours a week during term time making it nearly impossible to save enough money to immediately enrol in a new course.

Odd jobs

“My visa was for the year and with the advice of my friends, I felt the strength to hang on. I decided I couldn’t go home to my family after losing all that money, I needed to work for a while.”

Eventually, after three months of working odd jobs, he found a role with a food production company and then re-enrolled in a business studies course at a different Dublin college.

His classes started in September 2015 but Bello knew he’d have to renew his visa by February 2016 to complete the course. Then, in early 2016, the company started laying off staff and he lost his job.

“I couldn’t pay my fees so the college couldn’t confirm my attendance to get the visa renewed.”

By the time he’d found another job and saved enough money to pay the remainder of the fees, his visa was two months out of date.

“When I went to the immigration office I explained about the first college closing down and not returning my money but they said ‘that’s not our business’. They told me they couldn’t renew my visa, I’d have to go back to Malawi and then I could travel back to Ireland on a new visa. But how could I afford a ticket to Malawi? They said there was nothing they could do for me, I was devastated.”

Bello had now paid his fees to finish his course but no longer had permission to be in Ireland. He turned to his family for advice and they agreed he should stay on to finish his studies. He also continued working on his expired visa.

“I was working for another fruit and vegetable supplier by this time, I was just praying they didn’t ask for a fresh visa. They never asked and I kept quiet.”

Bello knew he was taking a risk by remaining in Ireland undocumented.

“It was a scary time but my only option was to stay. I was supporting my family and transferring them back money. It was the only way to make ends meet.”

In 2018, Bello visited the Migrant Rights Centre of Ireland for the fist time and became involved in their justice for the undocumented (JFU) campaign.

“At first I felt nervous and scared thinking it would be even easier for the government to know about my status and arrest me. But the courageous men and women I met gave me strength. They were gathering, discussing what to do, how to push the government to change their status. It was a channel for us as undocumented people to be heard. That’s why I decided to join.”

Regularisation scheme

He was particularly impressed by the courage shown by Filipino, Brazilian and Mongolian members of JFU who shared their stories and photos on Facebook to raise awareness around Ireland’s undocumented community.

While he became more involved, he admits he was still “hiding” and did not share his story online.

“I was still thinking maybe somebody from work would see my face there. But I was doing underground work and then I was elected chairperson of JFU.”

Bello worked hard on campaigns calling on the government to introduce a regularisation programme for undocumented people and in June 2020, the new coalition Government committed to creating “new pathways for long-term undocumented people and their dependents”.

Bello and other JFU members struggled to believe the Government would stand by this commitment but, 18 months later, in December 2021, the Minister for Justice announced a new “once-in-a-generation” regularisation scheme for undocumented people.

“It was a dream come true. It changed a lot of lives instantly, we had the trust to say it’s finally going to happen now.”

Bello immediately submitted an application and on April 3rd, a letter arrived in the post.

“I didn’t expect my papers would arrive so quickly. I had done the Garda vetting process and now it was here. After struggling for years to get to that point I couldn’t believe it.”

Bello is now planning to visit his family for the first time in seven years. The trip home will be bittersweet as his brother died in 2017.

“You can’t imagine how difficult it was not going back to mourn with my family. Even today, it’s something I find difficult. But now I finally get to see them.”

Bello feels relieved he can now tell his Irish friends the truth after years of hiding in the shadows.

“My Irish friends are wonderful, they’ve made my life here easier but some never knew I was undocumented. Now they know and I am not afraid.

He also finally feels he can do something “tangible” with his life.

“The past few years felt temporary, like I’m here today but could be gone tomorrow. But when you are at liberty to live in a country you can make sound decisions. I can build a life and maybe even get married. The rest is just settling in and seeing what life brings.”