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‘I wouldn’t say I feel excluded in Ireland, but I can feel that I am foreign’

New to the Parish: Dr Senem Donatan Mohan moved from Turkey in March 2019

Storyteller Dr Senem Donatan Mohan moved to south Co Dublin, from Turkey in March 2019 with her husband, Peter Mohan, after their wedding, and has lived there since.

Growing up in Istanbul, she was always drawn to art, and originally wanted to go into acting.

However, she was good at science, and her parents were both engineers, so she was encouraged to focus on that by both her parents and teachers.

“I ended up studying chemical engineering at Istanbul Technical University, and at college I was involved in the theatre club, so my life was divided into two. During the day I was studying science and at night generally I was on stage acting,” says Donatan Mohan.

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Regardless, she did a master’s and PhD in natural science and continued with performing arts simultaneously.

But aged 33, she came to a crossroads in her life.

“Although I was more qualified in science, I followed the passion of my heart and decided to earn my keep as an artist and for a few years I struggled very much,” she says.

She then came across storytelling, allowing her to be herself on stage and have an “intimate and genuine connection with the audience and listeners”.

She and two friends then opened the first storytelling institution in Turkey and, in 2017, she joined a personal storytelling workshop in Crete, Greece, where she met Irish man Peter Mohan. That year she was also invited to Ireland twice to perform in festivals.

“And when I came to Ireland, I again met with Peter,” she says. “In the beginning we were really good friends, but in one of our meetings he gave me the Book of Blessings by John O’Donoghue as a gift, and that book was a catalyst in our relationship,” she says.

“It ignited the flame of intimacy and love because we were exchanging texts referring to the book ... I loved every word in that book. Then a romantic relationship developed and, in 2019, we got married.”

Her first year in Ireland was spent settling in, and then the pandemic hit.

“Thankfully, Irish land helped me during the pandemic because you might remember the walks at the beach and the walks in the woods were the safest attractions and I did that a lot and ... the raw and untamed nature of Irish land really became an inspiration for me and also became a container for me, so I could go more inward and I could go to the depths of my soul,” she says.

“I can say that I gave birth to myself as an artist here. A new self has emerged thanks to Irish land and thanks to Irish culture, and I’m deeply grateful for that.”

“I like the unpredictable quality of Irish weather, and it’s really healthy to create new concepts where I could merge storytelling with science,” she says, adding that she runs a six-month online storytelling workshop inspired by Irish land and Irish weather and that she would love to move to the west of Ireland “for more rain”.

I like beech trees, and beech is non-native. They’re really beautiful and they belong here now, and that’s what I feel. I also feel a belonging

It was all not smooth sailing, though, she says. “I struggled, to be honest, to adapt to the health system. Being an immigrant you need to get these visas and residency permissions and there was a struggle in the beginning but I met with really helpful people, and I was really blessed in that aspect.”

Because of Covid, she says, she did not make as many connections as she would have liked in Ireland for a long time. “I wouldn’t say I feel excluded, but I can feel that I am foreign, like I did not grow up in this culture ... Still I don’t feel a bitter taste. It’s just something different. I’m different,” she says.

“I did a course recently, camping on the land for a long time, and we were talking about native species, for example, oak, ash, native species to Ireland, and I like beech trees, and beech is non-native. But everywhere is beech, and they are beautiful.

“Especially now, like with the yellow, and orange, red colours, they’re really beautiful and they belong here now, although they are not native, and that’s what I feel. I also feel a belonging,” she adds.

She goes back to Istanbul once a year, but thought she would be going back more often when she first moved. Now when she returns to Dublin she feels she is back home.

Another thing about Irish life the storyteller loves is the “natural connection with art. Irish people are inherently connected with poetry, storytelling and with music, like everyone knows how to play an instrument and I believe, every people in the world, they are storytellers”, she says.

“But here it’s very common in daily language and daily life, you know these little stories that pop up and everybody will tell them really well,” whereas in Turkey, she says, people are more connected with food than their ancient storytelling and music traditions.

Irish people are generally friendly, but not as open as people in Turkey, she adds, about sexuality, and women’s sexuality in particular. “They just get tense, like they don’t know what to do” when it is brought up, she says, laughing.

“Another observation is there is an inclination of doing a bit of superficial talk, for example, ‘It’s grand’, you get along with it, and I’m a person who loves conversations in depth. That sometimes becomes a struggle, but not for my friends circle, only for people I newly meet.”

At the moment she is working on a book, but also runs workshops and performs storytelling both online and in person.

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