BEFORE Lesly Martinez’s life came to a standstill at a Direct Provision centre in Killarney, she was an active photojournalist in her home country of Venezuela.
On a cold, wintery day in 2017, Lesly, then 33, was transferred to the refugee accommodation centre from Cork. While walking toward the building, the young woman, who’d always enjoyed visiting Killarney as a student living in Cork city, found the town’s winter impossibly cruel and devastating.
“The winter felt like death,” she recalls. “I was sad, but happy too, because I needed a place to live, but mostly sad because that meant that I was fully doing this.”
Lesly’s photojournalism highlighted life under the tyranny of things some Venezuelans can’t control, from paralysing poverty to misfortunes that linger.
In one photo, she has merged a picture of Miss Venezuela with that of a ragged old woman, coupling the overwhelming isolation of impoverished old age with the glossiness of a televised, short-lived glory.
In another of her images, young rag pickers are busy scouring a landfill alongside large, black birds — Lesly says she always took the notion of portraying unpleasant facts seriously.
Once when she was trying to interview and photograph a group of people, she was “aggressively” stopped.
The young woman recalls being told that she would get hurt if she refused to leave.
“They said ‘You have to leave,’ and I was so p**sed off because I was doing my job, I had to take the pictures, I had to do my job,” Lesly insists.
“But they said, ‘You have to leave or we don’t know what’s going to happen to you’.”
Although well-accustomed to practising journalism under draconian censorship, the young woman was finally forced to leave her country.
Venezuela, a Latin American country in surging political turmoil at the moment, ranks 143 on Reporters without Borders’ Press Freedom Index for 2018, followed by South Sudan and Malaysia.
Her photographs are now the only things left of Venezuela for Lesly; she moved to Cork city in 2014. Not knowing a word of English, the new expatriate enrolled in an English college for two years, working part-time as a cleaner in a hotel to pay her fees as her student visa allowed it.
“It’s the hardest job, it’s very physical; I don’t know how to say it in stones, but I lost a great many kilos working there,” Lesly says.
When legal immigration proved too expensive, and a work permit seemed far out of her reach, she was forced to seek asylum to remain in the country.
Legal immigrants from non-EU countries are finding it increasingly difficult to acquire work permits, compelling those who are fleeing danger to enter an already crowded queue of asylum-seekers in limbo.
In 2017, Fine Gael Senator Neale Richmond urged the Government to relax the country’s work permit laws for non-EU nationals by expanding the list of occupations for which the Department of Business issues work permits. The current list is primarily focused on highly skilled, high wage professions, ranging from engineering to medicine.
Lesly says “all the other women and staff in Direct Provision were lovely” to her, but she felt useless and found coping with idleness maddeningly difficult.
While waiting to receive a provisional work permit, she sometimes travelled to Cork on her €21 allowance and started doing stand-up comedy to lift her spirits.
She has now become a familiar name in the Leeside comedy scene, but success was not seamlessly achieved.
To prepare for her first gig, Lesly wrote her jokes in Spanish and spent some time translating them into English, but the audience got lost in translation and didn’t find her funny.
“I found out that my [translated] monologue wasn’t working, so I went to CoCo Club and saw the guys,” she recalls.
“I said, if they are doing it, I can do it better,” she says, laughing cheekily. The comic now writes all her monologues in English.
Lesly has been recently granted “refugee status” and a temporary work permit that has allowed her to work full-time at a coffee chain in Cork. She has also managed to rent a place to stay in the city.
Lesly, who’s lately broken her leg falling from a staircase, says that she misses the opportunity of influencing change that journalism can occasionally afford, but “doesn’t feel inspired” to renew her past trade in her adopted country.
Nevertheless, she appreciates Cork as a welcoming haven she fell in love with “immediately”.
The 35-year-old wants to pursue comedy as a full-time occupation once she finally receives her legal documents.
“I like to share my culture with people in Cork, if there’s anything I want to share with someone, it’s my culture,” she says.
Asked if she has ever felt that people have deemed her unfunny, even before seeing her act, merely because she is a female, foreign comedian, Lesly, who is just back from a long work shift when we meet, rolls her weary, green eyes and laughs.
“I won’t think about it; I’m not going to go and do [comedy] thinking that because I’m a woman they’re not going to think I’m funny,” she says.
“I tell myself that I’m going to do this to show people that women can be funny.”
Lesly worries about her parents back in Venezuela and says hearing pro-Venezuelan Government sentiments from some political activists in Cork “boils her blood”.
“I wish I was better at English so I could argue with them that they’re wrong, they don’t know anything about Venezuela,” she says.
“How could they? They’ve never lived there.”