The first months in Ireland were a learning experience. It was a bit of hell

New to the Parish: Sebastian Antem and his family arrived from Hungary in 2018

Sebastian Antem and his wife, Erika Melicher, and their daughter, Zoe (7). Photograph: Tom Honan

Sebastian Antem had been living in Hungary for more than five years when he; his wife, Erica; and their daughter, Zoe, moved to Ireland. The teacher and university liaison officer had spent months researching opportunities in various EU countries when his wife was offered the chance to transfer her job to Dublin.

“We always wanted to leave Hungary and we had two countries that became our focal point,” Antem says via Zoom from his home in Balbriggan. “They were small, good, wealthy countries with an open society. But English was also spoken here and I had two cousins living in Ireland. We knew it was the right choice.”

In Hungary they call them cappuccino, which means mixed race. Everybody loves them when they're small and beautiful

Having experienced years of racism and discrimination in Budapest, Antem was also determined that his young daughter would not face the same rejection he had endured in his central European home. “In Hungary they call them cappuccino, which means mixed race. Everybody loves them when they’re small and beautiful, and Erica is very beautiful. But when they grow up, they start being told ‘You’re black, not white’. I worried about Zoe reaching this stage. That is one of the reasons why we moved to Ireland – to get to an open society.”

Antem was born and brought up in the coastal city of Limbe in southwest Cameroon. He studied geography at university before returning to his former secondary school, where he taught geography. A member of the country’s minority English-speaking community (about 80 per cent of Cameroonians speak French), he struggled to develop his career, so started looking for opportunities abroad. “I felt marginalised like every Cameroonian from the English-speaking side does. I was inspired by my friends who had travelled; they gave me that boost to believe that maybe if I went abroad I’d have better opportunities and a better life.”


In February 2013, Antem flew to Budapest to take part in a six-month study programme. He still recalls the shock of stepping into the freezing Hungarian winter temperatures for the first time. “I was immediately driven back inside by the cold. It was a shock. But I learned to adapt because I had to, no matter the situation I faced.”

Not long after his arrival, he met and quickly fell in love with Erica. He extended his visa to stay and study for a master’s degree so the couple could spend more time together. The following year they were married. In 2015, Zoe was born.

“I was overwhelmed with joy when she was born,” he says. “She is still such a blessing to us.”

However, living in a country with a strong anti-immigrant sentiment, led by the right-wing administration of Victor Orban, was not easy for Antem. He worked as a liaison officer for international students coming from African and Asian countries and was acutely aware, through personal experience, of the racism they would face in Hungary.

“I felt like I was not welcomed but because of my wife and family, they helped me build a home there. I faced lots of racism but at least when I went home I had someone to comfort me.

“Racism is everywhere, it’s just something that will never stop. I used to play soccer, and there were many times on the field they called us monkeys. The best thing you can do is to keep quiet and show I can do better.”

There were leakages in the kitchen. Most of the people smoked around our little girl. We went through very difficult times when we first arrived

When Erica, who worked in HR, was offered a transfer to her company’s Dublin office, the family packed their belongings into their car and drove over three days across central and western Europe to their new home.

They arrived in July 2018 and stayed in a Travelodge hotel until they found an affordable living option in a seven-bedroom flat share in Ratoath, Co Meath. They spent the following five months sharing the house with about 15 other people while Sebastian studied for QQI courses to become a home carer.

“Those five months really were a learning experience; it was a bit of hell. Erica was working but I didn’t have a job yet and we needed to pay the rent. There were leakages in the kitchen. Most of the people smoked around our little girl. We went through very difficult times when we first arrived. But we said, ‘Let’s keep going and see what happens.’ ”

Caring for sister

The family eventually found a house by taking on the lease for a three-bedroom house where Antem’s cousin had been living in Balbriggan. Antem also found a job with the Kare Plan homecare company after completing his training courses and securing permission to work. While he had never formally cared for sick or elderly people before this training, he had looked after his older sister when she became terminally ill.

“My sister died in 2005 when she was 25, and we looked after her 24 hours a day when she was in hospital. She needed a lot of care and attention. So that was my first training.”

He quickly settled into his care role, building strong relationships with his clients around Skerries. He became particularly close to an elderly man named Joe, who died last December. “He was like my Irish teacher; he taught me phrases and he also taught me Shakespearean phrases. I learned so much through that man. Helping him was a part of my life and it brought me joy.

“I’ve lost a lot of clients but Joe was the second one that I became very close to. I shed tears like he was my own.”

Antem likes the company he works with, but he has decided to further his skills by studying for a degree in nursing. “Helping people is a blessing, that’s how I look at it. Going to work with my clients, especially the elderly ones, that’s a good thing for me. I’m someone who wants to keep learning, I see learning as a continuous process.

Ireland is a great country. The future is bright here. We're hoping to save money and buy a flat for ourselves

After nearly four years in Ireland, he is happy to see his daughter happy and at ease in her Irish home. “Zoe’s English is just wonderful now. She speaks and reads so well. Erica makes sure she just speaks Hungarian at home.”

The family regularly visit loved ones in Hungary, and Antem recently travelled back to Cameroon for the first time since before the pandemic to visit his father.

Despite the financial and housing challenges the family encountered during their first few months in the country, Antem firmly believes they made the right decision by coming to Ireland. “Ireland is a great country. The future is bright here. We’re hoping to save money and buy a flat for ourselves. I’ve not seen any racism here. We’re happy we came.”