‘It hurts when my mum is reduced to the colour of her skin in Ireland’

New to the Parish: Sara Abraham arrived from India in 2006

Phoeba Vallomkot and her mother Sara Abraham in Portobello, Dublin. Photograph: Laura Hutton /The Irish Times

Phoeba Vallomkot and her mother Sara Abraham in Portobello, Dublin. Photograph: Laura Hutton /The Irish Times

 

When Sara Abraham boarded her flight to Dublin in January 2006, she was deeply apprehensive about starting a new job halfway around the world as well as feeling desperately sad at leaving her family behind in India. Not only was she moving thousands of miles away from her husband and children, but she would no longer be able to help look after her teenage son Phoenix, who had cerebral palsy.

“We had a lot of financial problems and with the cost of his treatment we needed to earn more money. I had an interview in New Delhi and was selected to come and work in the Coombe hospital. Phoenix was well at that time: he was walking and playing, and his health was not that bad. He always needed help, of course, but he seemed much better.

“I was thinking of bringing Phoenix to be here but then it turned out he wasn’t able to travel; finding that out was difficult. I was here to send the money back home and ease our financial burdens, and I went home every six months to see the family.”

 

Abraham also struggled being so far from her daughter Phoeba Vallomkot, who was 10 when her mother left for Ireland. Now in her mid-20s and a final-year business, economics and social studies student at Trinity College, Vallomkot sits by her mother’s side as we chat over Zoom, holding her hand as Abraham recalls the heartbreak she suffered after her son died in 2010.

“I took leave to be there with him. Luckily I was there with him when it all happened,” says Abraham, her voice trailing off. “It’s so difficult speaking about it.”

“He actually passed away in her arms,” adds Vallomkot after a moment’s silence.

Abraham was working as a nurse with the Indian military service when Phoenix was born in Kerala, her home state, in 1991. The first member of her family to work in healthcare, she had left home aged 20 to undergo four years of nursing and midwifery in the military.

He wrote to me every day for five years and after that we got married

After completing her training, she was posted to different parts of India but always returned home to visit her family during holidays.

It was on one of these 48-hour long train trips south that she met John, her future husband. “He asked for my address and came looking for me a few days later,” she says with a smile. “He wrote to me every day for five years and after that we got married.”

Abraham continued her work with the military – which included setting up the army hospital’s first neonatal unit in Delhi – for five years after her son was born. “My work was four days a week but we had a maid at home so he was always cared for. He had to go to hospital a lot but we didn’t want to send him anywhere. In the beginning we didn’t know there was a problem, but slowly we realised his left side and then his eyesight was affected.”

The couple had not planned to have a second child but doctors advised that a younger sibling might help Phoenix with his development. “They told us he wasn’t seeing any other children, that he might improve. And we did see improvements; it did help.”

Eventually, in 2006, the couple made the difficult decision for Abraham to seek better paid work abroad. Nearly a decade later, and five years after losing Phoenix, Vallomkot and her father packed up their life and followed Abraham to Ireland. “I was the happiest I could ever be when they arrived,” says Abraham. “It was the best decision we ever made.”

Abraham admits that she had to work to rebuild the relationship with her daughter after living abroad for so long. “Phoeba was closer to her daddy when she arrived. She said I missed those 10 years so we have to make it up. But we’re best friends now.”

“When she left I was a kid and when we came here I was a so-called adult, so it was quite a transition,” adds Vallomkot. “The first two years we used to fight a lot, but I love her to bits.”

Phoeba Vallomkot with her mother Sara Abraham in Dublin. Photograph: Laura Hutton /The Irish Times
Phoeba Vallomkot with her mother Sara Abraham in Dublin. Photograph: Laura Hutton /The Irish Times

Having visited her mother in Ireland a number of times, Vallomkot was keen to study at Trinity College. However, even though Abraham had been naturalised as an Irish citizen, she had to pay international fees for Vallomkot to attend university, which was a huge financial strain on the family.Vallomkot is now in her final year of undergraduate studies, having taken time out for sick leave after being diagnosed with depression. She says studying in Dublin was “a whole new world” and found it difficult to build friendships with her Irish peers.

“Irish people can get very cliquey, so my group of friends are from lots of different countries. People gave us the name ‘the international student group’, which I’m not sure about. You have to deal with people’s stereotypes and those little micro-aggressions.”

She also hates that her mother is still sometimes treated as an outsider in Ireland with people asking ‘how do you speak such good English’ or repeatedly misspelling her name. “It honestly hurts me when my mum gets reduced to the colour of her skin and being a woman from India. My mum is grateful about being here, and I find it insulting that she has to prove it quite often.”

It takes a lot of strength, especially as a woman of colour, to do what she’s done

Despite some struggles to fit in, Vallomkot says she loves living in Ireland. “The people are so easy-going, and I love that I can joke around with people. It’s really helped me come out of my shell.”

She is also extremely proud of her parents, “especially my mum and who she is as a person. It takes a lot of strength, especially as a woman of colour, to do what she’s done. First of all being a woman in India is a challenge in itself. She’s so inspiring.”

After 15 years working in Irish maternity care, Abraham still really enjoys working at the Coombe and plans to stay in Ireland after retirement. “It’s a very happy place to work. I do sometimes work with miscarriages, that is more difficult. But working in the maternity, the mums are happy and that makes me happy.”

She is frequently asked by patients whether she has children of her own. “I never say I only have one child. I always say I have two and then I tell them about Phoenix.”

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