New to the Parish: ‘It took me a couple of years to accept the move to Ireland’

It was love at first sight for a Swiss former professional footballer when he met an Irish woman on holiday. It took longer for him to come around to a move to Dublin

Said Hadjami with his wife, Niamh, and their children, Neasa and Ashling, at home in Harold’s Cross, Dublin. Photograph: Dara Mac Dónaill

Said Hadjami with his wife, Niamh, and their children, Neasa and Ashling, at home in Harold’s Cross, Dublin. Photograph: Dara Mac Dónaill

 

When Said Hadjami went to Sydney in 1992, his plan was to take a break from football and learn English. He did not expect to fall in love with an Irish woman.

“Sometimes you shouldn’t plan too much,” says the former professional soccer player. “The only plan I had in my life was to play soccer. I actually ended up moving to Sydney to learn English, meeting someone, having kids and moving to Ireland. ”

Hadjami decided when he was seven that he wanted to play soccer professionally. Unlike most other boys, he succeeded in fulfilling his dream. By 16 he was being paid to play, and in 1989 he joined the Swiss soccer team Servette in Geneva.

Professional soccer was a different world in the early 1990s, he says. “You didn’t really have an agent working for you, trying to find clubs and networking. I won’t lie, it was great fun. But I do have friends who weren’t able to keep their head on their shoulders. Some of them ended up facing really difficult times after their careers ended.”

A reality check came in the form of an injury and surgery on his ankle. “I didn’t get much attention from my teammates; not many of them came to visit me. Then I realised that everything can end quickly, and if you don’t have a plan B it can be difficult.”

He began to work as an accountant as he continued to play soccer at a semi-professional level. After a few years he decided to take a break and travel to Australia. While in Sydney he received a call from his brother asking if he could host the brother’s Irish ex-girlfriend and her sister.

“When they arrived at the door I saw the sister and just fell in love,” says Hadjami as he describes the moment he first saw Niamh, who is now his wife. “I was quite shy, and she is a reserved person, so we had to make our way through things before being able to tell each other our feelings.”

Organising trips

After a brief period together in Australia, Niamh continued her travels with her sister. The couple stayed in touch and picked up their relationship after Hadjami returned to Geneva, where Niamh was also working. Through a connection at his English-language school in Sydney, Hadjami set up a business organising trips for Swiss people to learn English abroad.

As their relationship progressed, Hadjami joined his girlfriend on trips to Ireland to get to know her family in Dublin. It became clear that his new love interest held a deep connection with her homeland and was determined to return to Ireland one day.

“On one of the first dates we had, a long time ago, she asked me if I was happy to live in Geneva and whether I would ever contemplate moving abroad. I remember saying, ‘I don’t think I’m going to move abroad. Geneva is my city and I’m happy here.’ Niamh was a bit off after that. I was like, ‘What did I say?’

“It was later I realised that whatever she was doing with her life, the feeling of moving back to Ireland was always there. She was not going to live in Geneva forever. Ireland was where she wanted to be.”

The couple got married in 2005, shortly after the birth of their first daughter, Neasa. After their second daughter, Ashling, was born they began to consider moving to Ireland.

“Around 2007 the idea to make the move to Ireland was seriously in the air. It took me a couple of years to accept it and get along with the idea.”

Hadjami was nervous about leaving his parents in Geneva and separating them from their only grandchildren. He is the son of a Muslim Algerian father and a Catholic Italian mother, and it was important to Hadjami that his daughters have an understanding and appreciation for their diverse heritage.

“Realistically I didn’t mind moving. My only problem was I felt I was taking the grandkids away from my parents, and that was heartbreaking for me. I still remember my mum’s face as we left and went through airport security.”

The couple agreed they would spend holidays in Geneva while the girls were growing up. “Compared to other people living abroad who don’t have the chance to go back home on a regular basis, I have to say I feel privileged to be able to travel to Switzerland three to four times a year.”

Soon after the family arrived in Dublin in 2009, Hadjami found a job in finance with the UN Refugee Agency.

“If I look back now I would have made the move earlier. I love it so much here, the spirit of the country and the spirit of the people.

“In my own country it’s all about how big is your car, how big is your watch, how expensive is your shirt? I think Irish people have such good values. They’re down to earth and respectful and they don’t live above their means.”

Making noise

Ireland is a great place to bring up two daughters, says Hadjami. “If you want a break for the weekend in the country, you can go to the hotel with a lot of kids and you never have any problems with kids making noise or being in a restaurant.”

Next month Hadjami’s youngest daughter will travel to Venice to celebrate her 10th birthday with her grandmother. He is eager for his daughters to maintain a strong bond with their family in Switzerland.

“My dad is 86 now. He’s had two strokes and has been really weak. But since my kids were born he’s a new man. He gets so much energy through the kids. I bring them over as much as I can.

“It’s important for me to make them understand that they have to cherish time with their grandparents.

“My two girls now feel Swiss and they feel Irish. I want them to keep the Arabic side from my dad, and they definitely have a close connection with my mum. Family is something you have to take care of. It doesn’t last forever.”

  • 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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