Appeals for women to be let return to their children
Four children left behind when their mothers were deported are in hiding, writes Alison Healy.
There was a sombre mood among the Nigerian community in Athlone as its members flocked to their Easter Sunday Pentecostal Church service.
Two families were missing from the 160-strong gathering and Pastor Peter Amujo prayed for their safe return. Elizabeth Odunsi and Iyabo Nwanze were deported with two of their youngest children almost two weeks ago, leaving four more children behind. Those are aged between eight and 18 and are still missing, presumably in hiding to avoid deportation.
Ms Odunsi's eldest daughter Mabajoye (18) was the target of a controversial Garda search of Our Lady's Bower secondary school which led the deputy principal to complain that gardaí had behaved in an aggressive and threatening manner. Mabajoye's two brothers, Oluwaseun (14) and Oluwasegun (11), are also missing as is Ms Nwanze's son, Emmanuel (8).
Yesterday locals said there was no visible sign that immigration authorities were still searching for the four missing children.
A Garda spokesman said the children were not officially classified as missing persons and did not feature on the missing persons section of the Garda website.
After the Easter Sunday service, Pastor Peter said he believed that God would intervene to help the two families. He said the two women were "so active, so helpful and so wonderful in the house of God", and he appealed to the Government to return the women to Ireland.
"For the sake of God and mankind, please let them come back," he said. The pastor spoke to the women by telephone yesterday and said: "They are just dying over there. They want to be with their children here."
It's not just the Nigerian community that has been affected by the deportations. Local parent Catherine Hanevy said her son Padraigh (10) kept asking her why the children's mothers were sent away.
"I tell him 'that's the law, Padraigh, but the law is not necessarily always right and it is up to the people to show that the law is wrong and should be changed'."
Both deported women were doing adult education courses in a local Vocational Training Opportunities Scheme.
Their fellow student Claire Martin found them to be "very nice Christian women. They were very friendly, never a bother on them", she said.
"Like many people I personally thought that these people were all spongers, getting free cars and tax and insurance. But then I got to know them and I said this and they cracked up. They thought it was hilarious. But it's no laughing matter."
She said both women had fled very difficult situations in Nigeria. "I can tell you, they didn't leave their country for a holiday in the sun in Ireland." Hearing about the children going into hiding reminded her of Nazi Germany, she said.
One of Ms Nwanze's closest friends was in tears yesterday as she recalled the deportation from the Willow Park estate on March 14th. The friend, "Beatrice", asked to remain anonymous in case it affected her application for residency. She was in the house as Ms Nwanze packed under the supervision of a female garda.
"I went up to talk to her but I was told I shouldn't do that," she said. Ms Nwanze's youngest child, Israel (5), was put on a bus with her and when the immigration officers failed to locate her other child, Emmanuel, they left the estate.
Another friend and neighbour "Lizzie" said the officials barged into her house when she opened the door, saying they were looking for Emmanuel. "They asked a three-year-old child 'is Emmanuel here?'" Lizzie said an immigration officer brought Elizabeth's youngest son, Boluwatife (5), around the estate, asking him if he could see the other missing children. "We were all crying. Everybody was crying."
Asked if anyone knew where the missing children were, Lizzie said: "I don't know. You don't want to ask too many questions. You don't want to keep saying, 'have you heard from Elizabeth, have you heard from Iyabo?' We don't really want to talk about it." She said the children were particularly upset by the deportations. One woman's five-year-old boy told her that he was afraid that she would be taken to Nigeria and he would be left behind alone. Another said he did not want to go to school anymore in case he was taken away.
"I know the immigration people have to do their work but they should try as much as possible to be civil," Beatrice said. "It would be different if people were here for just three months and then sent home, but if people are allowed to stay for four years, then they are hopeful but their hopes are shattered. That is very bad."
The newly formed Athlone Against Racism is trying to harness public support by holding a meeting at 6.30pm on Tuesday at the Siptu office in Athlone. "Things are really snowballing now," said the group's spokesman, Frank Young.
"We started with five members. Then it jumped to 25. We collected more than 4,000 signatures in just 24 hours in a petition against the deportation. We are appealing to the Minister for Justice to listen to the people of Athlone and bring these women home to their children."