From Lagos to Laois council

 

A New Life: Rotimi Adebari from Nigeria has excelled in embracing the Irish culture, writes Sylvia Thompson

Nigerian-born Rotimi Adebari (40) tells the story of how three years ago he was walking down the street of the Co Laois town of Rathdowney when a man in his 60s stopped to shake his hand.

"He said he was privileged to shake a black man's hand. He had never seen a black person face to face before. His closest contact had been on TV or in the movies.

"He told me how he used to think black people were from another planet."

This gentle encounter is a touching example of how ignorance can be transformed into acceptance which on a bigger scale is also what happened when Adebari was elected as a public representative on Portlaoise Town Council earlier this month.

Ironically, Adebari probably wouldn't still be in Ireland if the Citizenship Referendum had been passed before the birth of his third son, Ireayo, three and a half years ago.

Adebari came to Ireland with his wife, Ronke and their two sons, Damilare (12) and Opeayo (7), four years ago, fleeing religious persecution in their homeland. Their application for asylum was rejected in 2003 but meanwhile their son was born which gave them residency rights with an option to apply for citizenship at a later stage.

Adebari is reticent to speak in detail about why he moved to Ireland, saying only that he had faced personal threats and had been attacked on one occasion. "I was coping for quite some time and then, I just couldn't cope any more. An Irish person in Nigeria said we would be able to live our lives to the full in Ireland."

So without further planning, the Adebari family took a flight from Lagos to Dublin via Paris. Following an application for asylum and a few weeks in Dublin, the family moved to Portlaoise. "I wanted to be away from the hustle and bustle of a city and bring up my family in a smaller place," he says.

With a degree in economics from Benin University in Nigeria and almost 10 years' experience working in sales and marketing for the Ogun State television station, Adebari set about looking for a job. Two years later, he still hadn't found one although during this time, he had become involved in several organisations as a volunteer and returned to playing tennis (he was the all-Nigeria Higher Institutions Tennis Champion in 1984) by joining the Abbeyleix Tennis Club.

"I made efforts to integrate into the local community and set up a support group for the unemployed in Co Laois," he explains. At around this time, Adebari also decided that since he couldn't get a job, he would begin working as a self-employed training consultant on inter-cultural and anti-racism issues.

"The idea to do this work came from a talk I gave at my eldest son's school. When he first started at that school in 2000, he was the only black boy in the school. Now, there are 17 students from countries all over the world in his school."

At one point during his student years, Adebari was the president of the Kegites Club, an organisation promoting African culture throughout West Africa. "That was a brilliant experience for me which gave me leadership and management skills as well as tolerance and understanding of where people are coming from," he says.

So now, Adebari divides his time between giving talks to job clubs, citizen information centres, secondary and third level colleges, running SUIL (Supporting Unemployed in Laois) and completing a Masters in Intercutural Studies at Dublin City University. Added to this will be his new responsibilities as a town councillor.

Of this he says: "I didn't see myself as an immigrant's candidate. I am a black man who is representing issues which cut across black and white people. I will be looking for better services for the elderly and for activities which will challenge and engage young people, things like a sports arena and a skateboard park."

When asked what has been the most significant factor in adapting to life in Ireland, Adebari says without hesitation: "The only way to excel in a new country is to make efforts to reach out to the host country and take on board the norms and values of that culture. But it does take two to tango and everyone has to make an effort."

Rotimi Adebari can be contacted on tel: 086 3010262 or email atoptimumpoint@hotmail.com