‘Ireland has a tolerant, forward-thinking vibe’

A Chilean man who moved to Dublin from Glasgow with his Scottish wife likes the Irish sense of belonging to Europe, which he did not feel in the UK

Joseph Abaud from Chile and his wife Nico Ferguson, from Scotland, at Trinity College. Photograph: Dara Mac Dónaill

Joseph Abaud from Chile and his wife Nico Ferguson, from Scotland, at Trinity College. Photograph: Dara Mac Dónaill

 

Joseph Abaud was not taught his country’s history at school. When he was growing up in Chile in the 1990s, the school history book provided students with a biased, one-sided version of the dictatorship under Augusto Pinochet. Even today, he says older generations prefer not to talk about the nearly two decades of dictatorship Chile endured under the late military leader.

“It’s like a form of amnesia,” says Abaud. “People choose not to talk about it. I think it’s because the coup was so hard; people still carry a fear. My parents were teenagers during the coup and heard about the disappeared. My mom would have seen corpses in the street.”

Abaud was three when his family emigrated to California, where he began school. When they moved back to the Chilean capital of Santiago four years later, he was learning how to read and write in English and spoke Spanish with a Mexican accent, having spent a lot of time with the large Mexican community in southern California.

“It was weird going back to Chile. I had to learn how to write and read again through Spanish, so I was a bit behind everyone. The kids would make fun of me because of my Mexican accent. The experience of living abroad and then coming back made me feel like a bit of an outsider.

“I’m a bit of a mish-mash, a citizen of the world,” he says when asked if he considers himself Chilean. “My background is Jewish Turkish; my family arrived in Chile at the beginning of the 1900s. The other side of my family is Cypriot-Greek and then there’s Basque on my mum’s side.”

He grew up in a bubble, he says, shielded from the stark inequality that exists in his home country.

“Chilean society is quite harsh. There was a sense of transition going on but what really happened was we got super neoliberalised, and inequality grew a lot.”

He often feels guilty about the opportunities he has been offered through his privileged upbringing when so many Chileans live in poverty. “If you’re one side of Chilean society you have a pretty good life. That’s the life I was lucky to have. Santiago is very segregated.”

New Year’s Eve party
In 2011 he graduated from university and started working for an architecture firm in Santiago. Soon after, he met a young Scottish woman at a New Year’s Eve party in the coastal city of Valparaíso.

“In Valparaíso there’s a big carnival and street party with fireworks on New Year’s Eve and about two million people out on the streets. I’d never met a Scot before; her accent was a bit of a shock. I got her number and thought, ‘I have a good feeling about this girl’.”

Nico Ferguson, who is from Inverness, was teaching English with the British Council in Santiago. The two began dating and Ferguson decided to extend her stay. They eventually decided to get married and after a year and half began talking about moving to Scotland.

Abaud’s family were very supportive of his relationship with a woman from halfway around the world. “My mum converted to Judaism for my dad, so they understood; my family were always supportive. The chances of meeting your perfect match in the Chilean Jewish community in the same age range are pretty slim. In Argentina there are a lot of Jews but in Chile it’s only about 30,000.”

In 2013 the couple moved to Glasgow, where Ferguson began a teaching course and Abaud worked remotely for his architecture firm in Santiago. They were married in January 2014. While on their honeymoon they began to discuss their next move. Changes to the UK’s immigration rules meant Abaud did not earn enough money to qualify for a visa.

Eventually they settled on Dublin, a city neither of them had ever visited. “First of all people speak English here, there are direct flights to Inverness and culturally it’s not that different from Scotland. It was a bit of a risk coming here, but we knew in that situation we had to take one.”

Although he found a job in Dublin, his hours were eventually cut and he was forced to become a freelance architect. Ferguson did a master’s in public history and cultural heritage at Trinity College Dublin and is currently writing her dissertation. Abaud sometimes misses Chile but says that when he reads the newspapers “that feeling goes away fast”.

“I have a couple of friends who work in politics in Chile, and it’s a difficult situation. It’s still the same system from the Pinochet regime. They basically didn’t do anything to change the system; they just wanted to achieve peace. Now you have the situation with student protests and young people leaving university in massive debt.”

The couple have considered moving back to the UK but say they have settled into life in Ireland and are happy living in Dublin. “Ireland is a humble country,” says Abaud. “So many young people have lived abroad, and when they come back they understand that it’s hard starting somewhere else.”

He likes Ireland’s connection to the European Union. “That broader sense of ‘we belong to Europe’ is quite fascinating. You don’t see that in the UK. Belonging to the EU is seen as a positive thing here.”

Historical memory law
He recently applied for a Spanish passport through Spain’s historical memory law, which entitles him to citizenship under the country’s “right of return”.

“My mum’s grandparents left the Basque country because of the Spanish civil war. I’m entitled to a passport because they were forced to leave.”

For now, the couple plan to stay in Ireland. “I would like to spend more time in Ireland because it has a tolerant and forward-thinking vibe. After the [same-sex marriage] referendum, I got a good impression of what sort of society Ireland wants to build. I know some things aren’t perfect, like the housing crisis for example, but no country is.

“I feel welcome here. The last time I came back from abroad the immigration officer said ‘welcome back’ to me. I smiled back and said ‘thank you’. I’ve kept that good feeling with me.”

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