‘Irish people would ask: ‘You’re Arab? Why don’t you have a veil?’’

New to the Parish: Houda Zghidi arrived from Tunisia in 2014

Tunisian Houda Zghidi moved to Ireland four years ago. She  works for a tech company. Photograph: Nick Bradshaw

Tunisian Houda Zghidi moved to Ireland four years ago. She works for a tech company. Photograph: Nick Bradshaw

 

When Houda Zghidi began chatting online with an Italian man based in Dublin she was not looking for a long-term relationship. She loved living in her small house in Tunis and enjoyed hanging out with friends in the evenings after work. Part of her job in the Tunisian capital involved transferring calls from customers through to the Irish headquarters of the technology company where she worked. When transferring these calls she would briefly speak to her colleague in Dublin and found herself interacting with the same Italian man each time. Eventually she decided to introduce herself properly.

“We found each other on Facebook and then started chatting. Then it turned into Skype and Viber and I guess our story starts from there.”

After a few weeks of conversing online, Zghidi applied for a visa to visit her new friend in Ireland. However, the slow but steady rise of Islamist militant attacks in parts of Tunisia, coupled with the aftermath of the 2011 Arab spring revolution, made it particularly difficult for Tunisians to secure European visas. Her request was refused. Instead Marcello booked a two-week trip to Tunis.

“We were both very nervous about meeting. Before then we had lived everything through the screen. Every evening after work I’d be on Skype with him. But by the time he arrived our feelings for each other were already very strong.”

Whirlwind affair

Upon meeting each other the couple’s online friendship immediately transformed into a whirlwind affair. By the end of two weeks they had decided to get married. “For me marriage was not one of my priorities. I was living my life and had my job and my friends. But we fell in love.”

Marcello returned to Tunisia for another visit a few months later and the couple were married in a small ceremony. From there they travelled to southern Italy where they spent a month with his family in the city of Salerno. Zghidi then returned to Tunisia to begin packing up her life while she waited for approval on her visa to move to Ireland.

“It was really difficult to leave. I stayed a little longer after I got the visa to close everything up and sell my stuff. But I think when you are in love your main goal is to be with that person.”

Zghidi arrived into a sunny Dublin in May 2014. Two days later it began to rain. Unable to work until her Stamp 4 visa was issued, she spent weeks sitting around the house, questioning whether she had made the right decision moving so far from home.

“Being married was a totally different way of life for me. I’d never had a long-term relationship or lived with a partner for me. I felt like I was starting everything from scratch. It was challenging for us both but he had been living here for six years already. He introduced me to his friends and they were really kind but I wanted to make my own friends.”

I have a feeling they see us as people who are staying here as guests. But we are not guests, we are here to live

After three months in Ireland, Zghidi’s work permit finally arrived and she found a job with a tech company. She immediately focused on building her own circle of friends so that she could feel more at home. However, she began to notice a similar trend in how people reacted when she introduced herself as a Muslim woman from Tunisia.

“It was the traditional idea that people have here about Arab women. It wasn’t just Irish people who reacted that way, it was people from abroad too. They’d ask ‘where are you from, Brazil, Spain?’ I’d say Tunisia and people would be so confused. They’d be like ‘you’re Arab, how is that possible?’ They’d ask ‘why don’t you have the veil’ and ‘how are you drinking and smoking’ if you’re Arab?

“At the beginning I was not offended, I’d just answer ‘how am I supposed to look?’ But it was really frustrating for me in the first two years here.”

Traditional labels

During her time in Ireland, Zghidi has met other women from Middle Eastern countries who are tired of the traditional labels they are often burdened with. “We have a group of girls here; one is Catholic from Iraq, one is Kurdish Iraqi, one is atheist Egyptian and the other is Palestinian/Romanian. We want to move on from this stereotype that Arab women must be veiled. I never see Arab women interviewed in newspapers here who are not veiled.”

Zghidi says she has found Ireland to be a very tolerant country towards its new arrivals but worries about integration in the future. “I don’t think Ireland is thinking about a real strategy to deal with immigration. I have a feeling they see us as people who are staying here as guests. But we are not guests, we are here to live. For me, as an outsider, I see Ireland as a new country building itself up over the past 10 or 20 years. In 10 years time there will be a lot more foreigners and with the crisis of house prices going up they need a strategy so as not to allow problems to be created in the future.”

Like most people who live abroad, Zghidi has had to deal with the loss of loved ones with the comfort and support of her immediate family. “The worst experience I’ve lived through here was when my first uncle passed away. It was one of the most panicky moments in my entire life. I was obviously really sad about my uncle but my first thought was what would happen if they told me one of my parents had passed away. I’ve lost four of my uncles here and it’s been really hard. But at some point you need to continue with your life, you need to move forward. You don’t get the time to be sad, that’s the worst thing about being abroad.”

After four years in this country, Zghidi feels relatively settled here. However, she’s not sure where she and her husband will end up in the future. “It’s great living in Ireland and my life is here now, but a part of me is still in Tunisia. It’s always like that for people who don’t live in their homelands. When I go to Tunisia I miss Ireland and when I’m in Ireland I miss Tunisia. It’s very confusing.”

Sorcha Pollak’s book based on this series, New to the Parish: Stories of Love War and Adventure from Ireland’s Immigrants, is out now