‘We don’t know how long we’ll wait for asylum but we have hope now’
Gaby Patiño and Max Martínez arrived from Venezuela in 2016
Gaby Patiño and Max Martínez who came to Ireland from Venezuela last year. Photograph: Michael Mac Sweeney/Provision
When Gaby Patiño and Max Martínez arrived in Ireland in August 2016 they expected to be working within a month. The Venezuelan university graduates had spent a year saving and preparing for their move to Ireland and were eager to move away from the growing unrest and violence in their home country.
“Things had become increasingly worse over the past 10 years,” says Martínez. “We used to live in a safe country but in recent years, the situation has changed. Innocent people go out to discos and end up dead. Gangs would just start shooting, they didn’t care who was around them. In Venezuela people don’t pay for their crimes. And no one wants to speak up. If they do, they could be next. That constant sense of fear is normal for Venezuelans.”
The couple, who met 12 years ago, began discussing moving abroad towards the end of their university studies. Patiño had already completed her degree in psychology and Martínez was in his final year of commercial administration when a family member suggested they try Ireland.
“I have a cousin living in Dublin who always had good things to say about Ireland. She told us we could study English here, that the people were really friendly and that most importantly, it was safe.”
The couple knew it would be difficult to secure Irish student visas as the Venezuelan government had implemented measures to try and reduce the high number of educated young people leaving the country to study and find work abroad. Martínez’s father suggested they contact an Irish man he had met through work who claimed to be able to sort out their visas within three months.
He promised us we would find work easily in Ireland once we had visas
“He didn’t work directly with my father but they had met so we got in touch with him. He explained he could get us student visas but that it would cost $5,000 (€4.2k). He promised us we would find work easily in Ireland once we had visas.”
With violence levels consistently on the rise in Venezuela, the couple decided to accept the offer and sold all their belongings to pay for the visas and flights to Ireland. Their contact explained they would arrive in Ireland on regular tourist visas and that he would make the arrangements to convert these into student visas.
“We believed he was some kind of visa agent. He said we would come and stay in his house and within three months we would either have a student visa or a Stamp 4,” says Martínez. “He told us he worked for the government.”
The couple were in Ireland less than a week when they realised they had been tricked. “We had to stay in the house and help him to cook and clean. He was drinking three bottles of wine a day and vomiting around the house. It was a total disaster,” says Martínez. “We kept asking for an update on the visas and he replied that he was working on it.”
“He suffered from psychotic episodes and one night he made us leave the house at 3am and said someone was coming to murder us all. We ended up sitting with him outside a bus station until 7am.”
“He basically wanted to keep us there as slaves,” says Patiño, adding that the couple’s parents kept calling to find out how the visa process was going. “We said we were okay, we didn’t want to worry them.”
After spending two months in the man’s home in Tralee, the couple packed up their belongings and walked to the local Garda station where they reported everything to the authorities. They spent two nights in a homeless shelter while they waited for Patiño’s cousin to send the money for their bus fare to Dublin. After a month staying with her cousin, the landlord asked them to leave. “We were already illegal in Ireland at that point,” says Martínez. “I sold my mobile phone so we could pay to meet a lawyer and get advice on what to do next.”
“We just wanted to find out if we could still get a visa,” says Patiño. “The plan was never to come to Ireland illegally. The idea was to be productive, not come here and do nothing.”
The couple eventually approached the Irish Refugee Council who recommended they apply for asylum. They spent one month living in the Balseskin direct provision centre before being transferred to a centre in east Cork shortly before Christmas 2016.
Our mothers can also feel calm now in the knowledge that at least we have a roof over our heads
The couple have spent the past few months volunteering in Cork city centre and also helping organise activities in the hostel where they live. Martínez brings a group of teens from the centre to the local rowing club while Patiño ran a summer camp for babies and kids. “We don’t know how long we will have to wait for asylum but at least we have hope now,” says Martínez. “Our mothers can also feel calm now in the knowledge that at least we have a roof over our heads, we have food and that we’re safe.”
“I feel fortunate because in my country it’s difficult to find food these days,” says Patiño. “Even before we left there were queues that went on for days to buy food and medicine. People are dying in hospitals because there isn’t enough medicine in Venezuela.”
“Since the beginning all we wanted was to come to Ireland to study and work, to grow as people, and at the same time to send some money home to our mothers. We can’t go back to Venezuela because of the instability over there. The most difficult thing is we’re both only children. I know my mum wants to see me, I want to see her and we speak every day. But she always tells me you can’t come back here, things are too bad. It’s horrible to hear that.”
“The feeling of safety we have in Ireland is invaluable,” says Martínez. “It would be great to finally get permission to remain here and then maybe we could start a family. We don’t want to get married and have children until we have a base and know what will happen with our lives.”
“We don’t need everything to be perfect, we just want some stability,” adds Patiño. “We just want to get through this period and be able to say, ‘everything is okay’.”