Thérése Guei (not her real name) is from the Republic of Cote d‘Ivoire. When I met her, she was sitting with an adorable three-year-old girl dressed in pink, ribbons tied in her plaited hair. Thérése escaped to Ireland to save her baby’s life. The father of her child wanted her to abort. As we chatted, Fabrice hopped off her mother’s knee to play with some toys, which she occasionally brought over to show to me. (The children’s names have also been changed.)
I come from the Cote d’Ivoire, from the west of the Ivory Coast. My village is Toulepleu. Guéré is my language. I did my primary school there, and my secondary school in Abidjan, the capital city. After that, my parents didn’t have enough money to pay for my course at college. So I got a shop, a boutique. I sold children’s clothes and women’s clothes. That’s what I did before I came here.
My father had three wives. He is not Muslim, but in my country, they like to take another wife when the first woman becomes old and can’t work. I am the first daughter of the first wife. We are five siblings, including me. My mother is 57 now. I am 44. So she was young when they married.
Was she angry or upset when he took another wife?
No, she was happy. She said, ‘first time you marry. Good.’
So he had girlfriends before that?
Yes. Marriage is better.
How many children did he have altogether?
The other wives have five altogether. So he has ten. My father did not have a job, but he had land. My mum sold fruit, and tomatoes in the market in Toulepleu, like the other wives. Our village was about 2 000 people. It’s inland, not near the sea. We had a happy life. There was no war. Life was beautiful. But after some years, in 2002, the war started. The rebels they don’t like the president. They want another president. Now the situation is, after much fighting, Ivory Coast is divided in two. The rebels, they are in the north, and the president and his supporters are in the south. They want to have elections, but the rebels don’t want the president to control the elections. They want new people to control the election. The rebels are a different tribe. My parents had to move because of the fighting. But then they moved back home later.
I am from the west. The people from the north came to the west to kill plenty of people. My mother and father moved to Abidjan. I don’t like politics. I don’t like to say my tribe. When you say one side, the other side come and fight you. So I say nothing.
My boutique was nice, really nice, but I had a family problem and I had to move. I separated from the father of my children. He’s from the east. We met, but our parents were not happy, and in the end we separated. We had three children by then.
Then when I got my boutique, I met another man and got pregnant. He was Muslim. He didn’t like it that I was pregnant. He was not happy, because he’s the first of his family. He says the mother of his child has to be Muslim. I told him that I don’t want to be Muslim. He says, ‘OK if you want to be like that, I don’t want you to have the child’. So he started to fight with me. He wanted me to have an abortion. I say, ‘I can’t have an abortion, I am already three months’ pregnant.’ He beat me, started to fight, fight, fight. He really didn’t want me to have his child.
He also wanted to take my boutique from me. He took some young men to go and smash it up and steal all the stock. I had to move. I went back to my village – this is before the war – and stayed there. He came there, said, ‘sorry, I won’t do that again’. So I went back with him.
Later there was more trouble, and I had to move again. Find somewhere to go. If I stayed in the country, he could get me; he could find out where I was. So, I came here. And I have my baby today.
How did you get here?
A man took some money from me. He gave me a passport. I don’t know if it belonged to his girlfriend or something like that. I think he was from Congo. He told me if the people ask, just show them the passport. They collected me and put me on a boat, and we travelled, and travelled. We come here, but I was not OK. Because I fought too much with the father of my child, so my stomach was not OK. I was five months pregnant, and the journey took fifteen days, I think. We stopped at other countries on the way, and stayed one or two days. I didn’t know which ones because I did not go outside. I stayed inside.
When I came here, I knew nothing about Ireland. I wanted to get out in France. But then I met this lady on the boat, and she said to me, ‘no, you know, France is too full. Ireland is not a big country, but it’s OK.’ She said her friend in Waterford told her that it’s good here. ‘France’, she said, ‘is a big country, and many, many people from our country, from Africa go there, and it’s not easy’. I said, ‘but they speak French, which is good’. She say, ‘but there are many difficulties. Let’s go to a small country. There’s more of a chance there’. So I said OK.
I knew nothing about Ireland, except what she said.
The lady said, ‘let’s go and see my friend in Waterford first, before we do immigration. We can learn how it works here.’ So we went to Waterford first, before we went to immigration. The second day, I don’t know if somebody told them where I was, the police came in the morning. We had to show the passports. The man took the passport and asked for documents. I don’t have any documents. I said, ’I’ve come to Ireland to be a refugee. I am an asylum seeker.’ They said OK, but they have to take me to prison.
I went to prison for one week, in my pregnant state. They brought me first for three days to the prison in Dublin; I don’t know the name. But after the three days, they brought me to Limerick prison for four days. When I went to prison, my stomach, my baby, was not easy. In prison, they gave me medicine. Someone came to me and gave me his name. He was a lawyer. And the lawyer said if I want to be free, I have to bring my ID from my country. So I said, ‘OK, I’ll call my friend.’ She can send a fax of my ID to my lawyer. I told him I want to be an asylum seeker. So I need to go to Dublin.
After that, I went to Dublin, to immigration. I registered. They sent me to a hostel, near the airport. They brought me there, and I stayed there for one month. We were three in the room. The other two were from Nigeria. It wasn’t too bad. They were very nice. The hostel was OK too. Then after one month, they brought me to Cork. They didn’t ask me, they just did their list, and they brought me here.
I asked for English lessons. I went to an English language school. I was looking for a house in Cork, but I couldn’t find one. So I went to Waterford. I found a house in Waterford, a holiday house near the sea. I stayed there six months, then after that I came back to Cork, because I like Cork! Now I’m in Douglas. I have my own house. I have my children and my husband.
I met Gerard (not his real name) here. He is from Togo. I met him at the Kinsale hostel. He was very sick. He had an infection. You know, the food in the hostel wasn’t good for him. So when I got my house, I cooked for him. Then we got married. He’s OK now, but not better. He is in pain sometimes. The doctor says maybe it’s cancer. They have to take blood, and do many tests. They are checking the stomach and liver. They are not sure yet. Now they check, check. We’re wait for the results.
How were you treated at the hospital?
One day we went to Emergency at the hospital. We had to wait, I don’t know how many hours. But it was OK, because when you are not in your own country, you don’t criticise too much. If they give you something to eat or something for your health, it’s good. Whatever you get, it’s good. That’s it.
How have your children adjusted to you having a new husband?
My first son is 17 years. He’s a big boy. Sometimes it’s difficult for him with another man, but well, it’s OK. The other two manage OK too.
My younger son is 12 year old. He is very good at football. Maybe one day he’ll play for Ireland! (Laughs). He’s going to be 13 in April. They are very happy. In Ivory Coast they were very good at football. He has his father’s surname, not my name. A woman can change her name if she wants, but I have kept mine. My youngest daughter has my name.
What differences have you noticed here?
I don’t see negative things about Ireland. I would say it’s not easy to accept somebody who is not from your country. In Ivory Coast you can do that too. They know you are not like them. They are like that. It’s not easy.
Here sometimes, they don’t like you, maybe because you are black, or something like that. The problem in Ivory Coast is religious, Muslim, Catholic, or sometimes if you don’t speak my language, something like that. So, it’s the same here, but now it’s because of colour also.
But here at least, they accept you, give you food to eat, a place to sleep. I think that is a big thing.
Have you experienced direct racism?
Not like that, but, well, it’s true, like, when I finished my course they ask me to go and get work experience. My friend in the school got a job in a shop in the city. Then after that she said she wanted to change, she wanted to get a job in another place. And she said to me, ‘OK Thérése, go there, because I have my new job. That’s the name of the manager, tell her that I’m not able to work there any more’.
When I went there, the woman said no she can’t take me for work experience. And before, she took my friend. But because it’s me now, she says she doesn’t take people for work experience. Maybe it was my colour. Maybe it was because my English is not good.
So you must be happy that you live somewhere, you can sleep, you eat. I think, it’s OK. Don’t expect more.
I thank God for everything, for people like you, like Nasc, where I volunteer now, because they don’t like discrimination, you know. But some people, they don’t accept black people.
My wish is just to find work, and to take care of my family.
The children are learning English; later, maybe they will Irish. I would like to learn Irish too. You know why? When you live somewhere, you have to adapt to everything. I am not in the Ivory Coast now, I am here. So I have to attach myself to this place, to everything here.
Do you have friends? A social life?
I remember last year, two years ago, a lady who worked for a charity for the Ivory Coast group, invited me to some meetings, and also Nasc invited me to a women’s group last year. I did some things with women’s groups in my school. So that is how I met people. Now I have this job. It’s good, because it’s difficult for me to get a job when I can’t speak English like you. Irish people cannot speak French like I speak French though! I am 44, so it is difficult, but I am trying. It’s not easy.
Are you happy to be living here?
Yes - we thank God there is no war here. There are no people to steal your wallet. There are no people to smash your boutique. I think it’s a better place. Because in the Ivory Coast you walk on the street like this (demonstrates) you talk on your mobile phone like this, and they come and take it like this. Or sometimes you have your necklace, and they come and break it off your neck, just take it. Or your bag, they push you, take your bag. Crime is very, very, very bad there.
The weather is very good there though. In the Ivory Coast, the weather is 35 degrees centigrade, 40, 31. And if it’s cold, it’s maybe 25! I travelled here in June, and arrived here in July, but it was still cold. It’s too cold here. I do miss the weather. And my Mum, and my daughter. I miss them too much. I have four children, but one is left in my country. She is 20. I would like to bring her here, but she is over 18, so it’s not possible to bring her here under the family reunification programme. I miss her too much. I have been here three years. First I came alone, and then three of my children came.
I don’t know what to do. It’s not easy. You have to get some money. She has to get a visa. It’s not easy for her.
Have the children settled into school OK?
Yes! They are very happy. Last year my son did drama. And he spoke French. And all the teachers when they saw me, said, ‘ah, you’re Michel’s mum! Ah, he is a good boy!’ He’s in Douglas Community School. They speak English more than me now. And Nathan is playing hurling and Gaelic football and soccer too. They don’t miss the Ivory Coast. Before, when they were not with me, they missed me, but now they are with me. They were two years without me. Then I sent for them. They flew here one year ago, in October.
My eldest daughter is going to college in the Ivory Coast. I don’t know the place. I need to bring her here. I miss her too much. Sometimes I can’t eat. Sometimes I sit down like this, 4 o’clock, 3 o’clock in the morning. We speak on the phone. (Cries.)
I don’t know how long we have to wait for the appeal.
Maybe she can apply as a separate individual?
Yes, maybe. I don’t know. If I can get her a student visa for St John’s College maybe.
What is your dream?
My first dream is my children’s future. To have my daughter here. For my children to go to school, get good jobs. That’s my first dream. If my children get that, for myself, I don’t really think I need anything. You know, you are old, maybe I will be lucky and get work, maybe later I will be able to see my Mum again, my family back home, then I will be happy.
Dominated by the French culture, and with a multinational population, Cote d’Ivoire is a mélange of the traditional African lifestyle with an overlay of modern Western influences. Located in West Africa, with a coastline along the North Atlantic Ocean, Cote d’Ivoire is flanked by Ghana and Liberia, other border countries including Burkina Faso, Liberia and Mali. Since independence in 1960, Cote d’Ivoire has maintained close ties with France, and that, together with cocoa production for export and foreign investment, made Cote d’Ivoire one of the most economically successful states in the region.
Unfortunately, the country has been destabilised by political turmoil. A military coup on 25 December 1999 overthrew the government, and the Junta leader blatantly rigged the subsequent elections in 2000, excluding the most prominent opposition leader. In 2002, rebel forces took over the northern part of the country. A peace accord was signed, granting the rebels ministerial positions in a unity government, but issues that sparked the civil war, such as land reform and grounds for nationality, remain unresolved and disputes continue.
One of the world’s largest producers of cocoa beans, coffee and palm oil, Cote d’Ivoire is vulnerable to the fluctuations in international prices for these products. Roughly 68% of the population are employed in agriculture, despite the government’s attempts to diversify, which also makes the country’s economy dependent on the weather,
A political crisis occurred when in November 2004. President Gbagbo’s troops attacked and killed nine French peacekeeping forces, which resulted in the UN imposing an arms embargo. Foreign investment shrivelled, businessmen fled and trafficking in weapons and diamonds increased. Ethnic fighting has driven out foreign cocoa workers, while the government has accused Burkina Faso and Liberia of supporting Ivorian rebels.
The population is over 17 million with almost 72 000 Liberian refugees documented. Since 2002, 500 000 people have been internally displaced, according to a 2004 census.
Source: CIA World Factbook