A CANADIAN woman who has made Cork her home for almost 17 years says she has been saddled with thousands in debt in her battle to remain in the country and will need to come up with over €8,000 to pay for legal fees and a citizenship application.
Gabriella Mastromatteo, originally from Montreal but now settled in Ballintemple, first came to Ireland in the early part of the last decade and quickly became enamoured with the Irish way of life.
She married an Irish citizen after working and studying in the country for a number of years and made her life in Cork. However, after the marriage ended, Gabriella briefly went to Australia in 2014 for a year to work to save money in order to open her health food business back in Ireland.
Upon her return to the country in 2015, she was told she would have to renew her Irish visa yearly. She undertook the process but was made to wait a year and nine months before a visa was granted.
The application alone is a costly process. The registration certificate is €300 and a two-year work permit costs €1,000. In this time, Gabriella was not allowed to work, claim unemployment benefits or apply for a medical card. Many people asked her why she did not just return home, but it was a tragic event that touched Gabriella on a deep emotional level that drew her back to Ireland on a regular basis.
“I have a huge group of friends in Ireland, about 50 people wrote letters for me to Immigration Ireland to help me stay. When I first came over it was with my best friend Alisha. Three years after that I had moved to Amsterdam and she had stayed here,” said Gabriella.
“She contracted meningitis and then passed away. It was really tough for all my friends. I was only 21, I had just lost my father as well and it brought us all much closer. That made it hard to leave all these people because we had gone through so much and had grown up together in our twenties.
“I couldn’t really leave the country after that. It has always kept calling me back. It’s the people here that I love. They always say to me ‘you come from Canada, it’s such an amazing country, why would you want to be in Ireland?’. For me, it’s the people and the way of life, the ease of the country compared to Canada,” she added.
Once her temporary visa was granted last year, Gabriella felt a weight lifted from her shoulders but she will have to go through the costly visa process once a year, every year, unless she applies for citizenship.
The debt she accrued in the year and nine months she was left in unemployment limbo means she is now finding it difficult to move on from her ordeal.
“I want to apply for citizenship but I’m waiting to pay my lawyers fees. Everything I saved and worked hard for to open my business is gone,” she said.
“Everything was ready to go. I had a business plan. I had menus, I just needed a premises - which I had found - but had to say no to because I was waiting for my visa.
“I had qualifications from Ireland, I had paid tax here, but in one year and nine months, all the rent that I paid and all the money that I spent never came back in. I had to survive and pay my bills and I had to eat and go to the doctor - the same things that everyone else has to do but you have no money coming in and it just dwindled.
“I was a nobody to the Government. That was my feeling - I was in limbo,” she added.
During the time that Gabriella was not allowed to work, her work ethic never left her. She turned to volunteering to fill her days and worked with Meals on Wheels delivering food to the neediest and most marginalised people in society. She also campaigned for the right for gay people to be allowed to marry during 2015’s equality referendum.
“The whole time I was waiting I researched direct provision and I attended a lot of rallies to do with that. I looked into other people’s hardships when it came to immigration cases and I was trying to volunteer to help asylum seekers,” said Gabriella.
“Volunteering was the only thing that kept me sane. All my friends were working and getting on with their lives and following their dreams but I was just stuck. For a long time, it felt like I was trying to live my life but there was a hand on my chest holding me back. My friends helped me a lot,” she added.
Despite coming from a country that is built on its immigrant society and several different nationalities, races and ethnicities, it is in Ireland where Gabriella became most aware of her lineage and how it feels to be part of a minority.
“Every refugee, asylum seeker and immigrant has hopes and dreams. We mustn’t forget that or box them into a category of humans. We are all individuals with the same needs to be around our families, be social, to work, study and to reach our life goals,” she said.
“Every time the system ignores a human’s right to be free they force their spirit to fight, to waste time and energy on the wrong cause, you force the spirit into invisible chains, you force them into dark places, you force them to wish they came from a different country. They are forced to be a servant to someone else’s decision. Hidden not so deep in all of our DNA, we are all immigrants.
“Somewhere in all our histories, our families would have had to move across invisible lines that supposedly make a country what it is. You also have the blood of an asylum seeker pulsing through your veins,” she added.
Despite her issues with immigration services in Ireland, Gabriella now regards Ireland as her home. She loves the country and will press ahead with plans to apply for citizenship.
Opening her own health food restaurant, juice bar and wellness centre - Botanica & Co - is Gabriella’s dream and despite losing the majority of her savings to her imposed unemployment, she has not let go of her ambition. “I have certain freedom now, but at the same time, everything that I worked for in order to open my business kind of got crushed. Even though I have a sense of freedom that I can be in the country, I have to start from scratch. The money that I had to open a restaurant is gone,” she said.
“I’m between freedom and starting from scratch. Now I’m working away and saving and I’ve decided to put the business on hold for a year and just put the head down and save and try to make my dream come true.
She has set up a gofundme page in the hope the Irish people that she has become so fond of will help her clear her legal fees and get back on her feet.
Having been put through a lot, it has not sullied her view of the country and she believes it was a mere case of bureaucratic red tape.
“You can’t stop someone’s life like that, someone who has paid tax, worked and studied in this country. I’ve never asked for one penny, everything I had went straight back into the Irish economy. I’ve never claimed benefits and never been able to get a medical card,” she said.
“I just want to be a normal person again. I want to be able to afford a car and drive to the beach and enjoy the country that I’ve worked so hard to live in,” she added.
You can donate to Gabriella’s gofundme page here: www.gofundme.com/gabiis-immigration-ireland-battle.