New to the Parish: ‘I didn’t know I was black until I came to Ireland’

All the Lonely People: After her mother died, Zeenie Summers moved to Ireland to stay with her father, but she fell into depression and homelessness before finding a new kind of family

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All the lonely peopleZeenie Summers: arrived from Nigeria, 2010

The day Zeenie Summers discovered her mother had died, sadness was not what she felt. She was overcome with anger that she hadn’t stopped her mother stepping on the boat. She was petrified by the enormous responsibility she now had to care for her younger siblings. Years would pass before she could acknowledge what she had really felt was a deep sense of loneliness.

“Like depression, loneliness where I am from is not acknowledged. It’s seen as boredom and expected to pass in a while. So I thought my pain would pass until I realised it had eaten deep into the core of my being.”

She was 19 when her mother drowned after the ferry she was travelling on capsized along the Nigerian coast. The night before it happened, Summers remembers dreaming her mother was in a car crash.

“I should have told her not to go. It felt like it was something we could have avoided.”


After her mother’s funeral, she and her two siblings were sent to live with their grandmother. They were used to living in an air-conditioned apartment in Lagos with running water, yet suddenly they were taking showers in a tiny outdoor cubicle.

The family waited expectantly to hear from their father, who had moved to Ireland in 2000 and was due to return to Nigeria to be with his family.

“He was only meant to go to Ireland for a year, but then one year turned into 10 years. We just kept waiting and waiting. He never visited but kept in touch by phone. Every year was a tomorrow that never came.”

During his decade-long absence, it had emerged that her father had two children with his new partner in Galway. After her mother's death, Summers's father applied for his children to join him in Ireland. She was studying French and international relations and was not prepared to leave her life in Lagos to move to a tiny island she knew nothing about.

“I told my dad I didn’t want to come here. It had got to the stage, because my dad never came home, I failed to believe Ireland even existed.”

Life in Ireland

Her father eventually convinced her to try life in Ireland. The three siblings arrived on St Valentine’s Day in 2010, when they met their father’s “other family”.

“We thought we were the family until we came here and found we were not really that important. I expected to come here, join my father after losing my mum and be secure, have a life and be happy again.”

She discovered that without a Leaving Cert qualification she was unable to study at an Irish university. She decided to move to Dublin to enrol in a Fetac Level 5 journalism course in Dún Laoghaire. Having studied music and theatre in Nigeria, the first thing she did was look for a choir to join.

“If it hadn’t been for Discovery Gospel Choir I wouldn’t have given Ireland a chance. They became my family. They cared about me and my welfare, and even my brother and sister.”

After an internship with a news publication, Summers ended up back in Galway, where she worked in a clothes shop. She struggled living with her father and his new family and quickly moved out. She wanted to move back to Dublin but didn't even have enough money to pay for accommodation in Galway. She ended up registering as homeless with Galway City Council and moved to the YMCA in Dublin.

“I could have gone back home to my father’s house but I felt worse than alone there. In his home, for me there was no love, no emotional or moral support, no hope and no future. It was toxic, so I was better off out of there and on my own.”

Being homeless was the “lowest point” of her life, and she became depressed. Finally, three years after her mother’s death, she began to acknowledge the pain, fear and loneliness of living in a world without her mother.

“The pain of the feeling that nobody was ever going to watch out for me like my mother did. The thought of not wanting to work towards anything for the future because it wouldn’t matter in the end. Because I didn’t matter. The thought of not living in this world again. That was how loneliness felt for me.”

She believes the inner resources she developed as a child at boarding school in Nigeria and the bullying she experienced as a young teen helped her through this darkest period of her life. She also had to learn what it meant to be a black woman in a predominantly white community.

“I didn’t know I was black until I came here. I didn’t know I was limited, I didn’t know people got things according to their colour; it didn’t occur to me.

“The first year in Ireland I didn’t consider myself black, I didn’t even consider myself Nigerian, I just considered myself Zeenie.”

With the help of a social worker she signed up for welfare benefits and applied for financial support to go back into third-level education. She discovered that her love of sewing and fashion design helped to clear her mind.

“I can’t take a break from sewing, pattern drafting and designing for too long. Whenever I do I always come back to unbearable pain of regret and dissatisfaction.”

In 2013 she met her boyfriend, David. “It’s good to have a best friend in a country that’s not your own. Having a best friend makes life much more fun and far more bearable.”

Summers still sings with Discovery Gospel Choir and will begin her second year of studies in business, marketing and law at Rathmines College in Dublin this month. She plans to develop her dress-making skills and run a custom dress-making service.

“I am now in a good place, My life picture is now clearer. I have my goals back and they now seem achievable. And that gives me something to live for.”

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Sorcha Pollak

Sorcha Pollak

Sorcha Pollak is an Irish Times reporter and cohost of the In the News podcast