‘There were times I went a week and didn’t speak with another human being’

New to the Parish: Aminata Seilloh Conteh arrived from Sierra Leone in 2020

Aminata Conteh moved to Ireland last September on an Irish Aid scholarship to study development at UCD. Photograph: Damien Eagers

Aminata Conteh moved to Ireland last September on an Irish Aid scholarship to study development at UCD. Photograph: Damien Eagers

 

Aminata Seilloh Conteh was in her third year of university when her father died in a car crash. The young student from Sierra Leone immediately fell into a dark place, struggling to keep going in a world where she had lost someone she loved so dearly. 

What’s more, the restrictions introduced because of the country’s Ebola epidemic, which was at its height when her father died in 2015, meant the family were unable to hold a proper funeral ceremony to mark his passing.

Six years on, and living in a foreign country during a worldwide pandemic, Conteh still reflects on this time with difficulty. 

“I come from a family of four – it’s just me, my mum, my dad and my younger brother. So losing my dad was like losing everything. It was difficult for me to regain my strength and it took a lot of support from family. It was a very tough time.”

During this period of grief and subsequent depression, Conteh discovered how few mental health supports were available. “I just felt that one of the things we really don’t talk about, especially in Sierra Leone, is mental health awareness. And as much as we try to empower women and girls, you have to be sure they are living in a proper mental state to be able to access or use the opportunities presented to them. Because if you’re down, you can’t even recognise an opportunity when you see one.”

After graduating with an undergraduate degree in social work in 2017, Conteh secured an internship with Sierra Leone’s ministry of foreign affairs and international co-operation. 

That same year she established the Glowing Embers Network – an organisation to support women and girls’ education, leadership and social and economic empowerment in Sierra Leone’s rural communities. The network also included a series of events focusing on women’s mental health. 

“It was really fulfilling for me. As much as I loved my job at the foreign ministry, going back home every day and thinking about my dad was tough. So instead of going home to cry, I was going back to plan and help other girls. With time, I cried less and helped more. Just hearing other people’s stories gave me strength and reminded me I wasn’t alone. I wanted to give that hope to young women. Up until today, it’s one of the best things I’ve ever done.”

After a short stint in Ghana, where Conteh took part in a course with other young female leaders from different African countries, she applied for an Irish Aid scholarship to study abroad, which she had heard about through her work at the foreign ministry. 

In March 2020, following a series of applications, an English language proficiency exam and an interview, Conteh was offered a place to study for a master’s in international development at UCD. 

Six months later she boarded a flight to Dublin. “We only found out at the end of August it was actually happening. Our airport had been shut down for so long because of Covid, we were blessed that we had a window when we could get out.”

After two weeks of quarantine in a Dublin hotel, Conteh moved into her student accommodation on the UCD campus. “As soon as I arrived, I put down my suitcases, locked my room and went out to find the lake that had brought me here. Because aside from UCD’s academic excellence, one of the reasons I came here was the lake I saw on the website. It became the place I would go to sit and think.”

During her first semester, Conteh kept praying Covid-19 case numbers would drop low enough for in-person classes to resume after Christmas. 

“I kept that hope in my head. I didn’t plan for a whole year of stress, just for the first semester. But then cases got really bad and lockdown measures were so strict. There were times when I would go a whole week and wouldn’t speak physically with another human being. Somehow, you just adjust to the situation but it was really tough.”

Shortly before Christmas 2020, Conteh received the devastating news that her cousin, who she considers a sister, had died unexpectedly. “I was in the middle of a presentation on a Zoom class when I got the news. I screamed and logged straight out of that class. I wanted to go home then, I wanted to be with my family. But my lecturer was really helpful and my classmates called and sent messages to check on me. UCD was helpful too.”

Eight months on, Conteh is in the final stages of completing an internship with the Sierra Leone permanent mission to the United Nations. Under normal circumstances she would have travelled to Geneva for the summer internship, but Covid restrictions made that impossible and she stayed in Dublin working remotely. 

As part of her scholarship agreement, Conteh must return to Sierra Leone in September. However, she has secured a volunteer position with an Irish development education charity, which she will carry out remotely for the next six months. 

Conteh has regularly thought about her dad during her year studying at UCD. “When he died it felt like my whole world had crashed. He was my teacher, my best friend. I had told him I wanted to study international development and last Christmas, when I was alone in my room, I realised I’m doing the course we talked about as a full-time scholarship student. That made me grateful for the here and now.”

In the future, Conteh hopes to work in diplomacy while also supporting young women like herself to progress in their careers. “Whatever I do, I try not to forget that another young woman might be looking up to me and thinking, ‘If Aminata can do this, I can do this’.”

Asked whether she’d like to return to Ireland in the future, Conteh says she plans to “just take one day at a time for now”. 

“No matter where I am in the world I want to do something that is of benefit to other people. One thing I’ve learned from being in Ireland is I’m stronger than I ever imagined. It took a lot of mental strength to drag myself through this whole year.

“I will miss Dublin, but the good thing is I can always come back. Ireland is just a flight away.” 

We would like to hear from people who have moved to Ireland in the past 10 years. To get involved, email newtotheparish@irishtimes.com. @newtotheparish