Zeenie Summers came to Galway from Nigeria in 2010 after t he tragic death of her mother. She made the journey to live with her father in Ireland, only to discover he had a new family there, with a new partner.
Zeenie Summers dreamt about her mother the night before she died. In the dream, her mother had been in a road accident but Zeenie was unable to visit her in hospital. She spent the dream walking around the hospital corridors desperately searching for her mother’s room but never found it.
She woke up the following morning feeling very shaken and immediately told her mother what she had seen.
Her mother was getting ready for a cousin’s wedding on Lagos Island that afternoon and Zeenie helped by ironing her clothes and packing her bag.
Her mother dropped Zeenie’s younger brother and sister over to their grandparents’ house before catching a ferry to the wedding.
“I think I told her she looked beautiful just before she left.”
A short time later Zeenie’s aunt called the house and asked that she come join her siblings in her grandparents” house.
“When I got to the house there were loads of people inside. I knew something was up but they wouldn’t tell me. I was seventeen at the time and when they see you as a kid they won’t tell you anything.”
Zeenie eventually found out from her younger sister that there had been a problem with the boat crossing to the wedding. That evening her older cousin took her aside.
“He didn’t tell me my mum had died but said I would need to look after my younger siblings now. He told me not to be scared and that this was the time to be strong. My life took a complete turn that day.”
The following morning, Zeenie was told the bad news. Her mother had drowned along with nearly forty others in the ferry accident. Her body was brought to the family’s home and Zeenie was told to say goodbye.
“They had laid my mum on my bed but there was no privacy for us to be with her. She didn’t look dead; she just looked like she had been cleaned. She looked like herself, almost as if she was smiling.”
After the funeral, Zeenie and her siblings were sent to live with their grandmother. They were used to living in an apartment in Lagos with running water and a generator, yet suddenly they were in a different part of the city taking showers in a tiny outdoor cubicle. The family waited to hear from Zeenie’s father who had moved to Ireland in 2000. For years Zeenie had been hoping for his return, dreaming of the day her father would come back to his family in Nigeria.
“He was only meant to go to Ireland for a year but then one year turned into a decade. We just kept waiting and waiting. He never visited but kept in touch by phone. Every year was a tomorrow that never came. We were waiting for him to come back to Nigeria or we would join him. But my dad liked Ireland too much and decided to start a new life here.”
When Zeenie’s father called after the ferry accident to say he had applied to the Irish government for his children to join him in Ireland, Zeenie told him she wasn’t leaving.
She was studying Literature and Mass Communication at university in Lagos and was not prepared to leave her life and move to an island she knew nothing about.
Zeenie’s father eventually convinced his daughter to try life in Ireland. The three siblings arrived on Valentine’s Day 2010 where they finally met their father’s ‘other family’.
They knew he now had two children with his partner in Ireland but believed he was living separately from them. On arrival, they discovered they would all live in a house together.
“I expected to come here and join my father after losing my mum. I was looking forward to feeling secure and being happy again. Coming from the disappointment of my mother’s death, my whole life fell upside-down after the move to Galway. I felt so alone.”
Zeenie also discovered that, without a Leaving Cert qualification, she was unable to study at a university.
Her father was eager for his daughter to go back to school, sit her Leaving Cert and study medicine. However, Zeenie made other plans.
She moved to Dublin and enrolled in a Level 5 journalism course in Dún Laoghaire. Having taken classes in music and theatre in Nigeria, the first thing she did when she arrived in the capital was to look for a choir to join.
“I found the choir in January 2011. If it hadn’t been for Discovery Gospel Choir I wouldn’t have given Ireland a chance, I would have moved away. But they became my family.”
After an internship with a news publication, Zeenie ended up back in Galway working in the Next clothing store. She tried moving back in with her father and his new family but struggled to adjust.
She wanted to go back to Dublin but didn’t even have enough money to pay for accommodation in Galway. She ended up registering as homeless with Galway City Council and moved to the YMCA in Dublin.
“I could have gone back home to my father’s house but I felt worse than alone there. There was no love for me in his home; no emotional or moral support, no hope and no future.”
Zeenie stayed in the YMCA for three months and with the help of a social worker she signed up for welfare benefits and applied for financial support to go back into third level education. She found that her love of sewing and fashion design helped clear her mind.
As she gradually settled into life in Ireland, she grew accustomed to the feeling of being different and having black skin in a predominantly white community.
“I didn’t know I was black until I came here. I didn’t know I was limited, I didn’t know people got things according to their colour, it didn’t occur to me. The first year in Ireland I didn’t consider myself black, I didn’t even consider myself Nigerian, I just considered myself Zeenie.”
In 2013 Zeenie met her boyfriend David. Building a strong relationship with another person helped her to finally put some roots down in her Irish home.
“It’s good to have a best friend in a country that’s not your own. Having a person like him makes life much more fun and far more bearable.”
Eight years on from her death, Zeenie is coming to terms with her mother’s absence.
“It took me a long time to look at myself and say I am who I am because of my mother. I thought she just brought us up and rubbed off on us but the more I go through life’s challenges and think about my life choices, the more I realise how similar we are.”
Zeenie is now a singer-songwriter and fashion designer who runs her own online business making custom-made clothes for customers across Ireland.
“I’ve sold clothing across Ireland in Limerick, Cork, Galway and the Aran Islands and also in the UK and the Netherlands. I’m not making as much as I would like but it’s not as little as I would have feared either. I think if it became too much more I would be overwhelmed.”
She has completed a diploma in Business and Law at Rathmines College and gigs with a number of bands around Ireland. She also joined The Waterboys as a backing singer on a two-month tour around Europe.
“When I got the request to go on tour the first person I thought to call was mum. In the past, the realisation that my mum isn’t around anymore would be a shock. But it’s been eight years now so I’m getting used to it. There are times when I do want to ring her, I still have her phone number in my phone.”
She remains in contact with her father and visits him in Galway occasionally. “He’s older now and you can’t keep beating someone for their mistakes. As I’ve grown up here I’ve realised he has to live with the consequences of his decisions. I don’t need to forgive him and he doesn’t owe me anything anymore.
“Obviously it would have been better if my mother had stayed alive but if she hadn’t died, I wouldn’t be where I am today. I would have had no reason to come to Ireland and would probably have gone down a different route in life. But everything that has happened in my life has led from that and I’m very thankful for that.”
In 2017 Zeenie became an Irish citizen. She was not planning to apply for citizenship but was tired of paying the high cost of visas for trips abroad. However, on the day of the ceremony she was surprised by the happiness she felt.
“The sense of pride on the day was because I’m happy that I’m now a part of Ireland and not a part of Nigeria. Nigeria did not provide anything for me, it was always my mother who provided for me. And when I was bold and tough enough to go out on my own here and fight for something to better myself, the Irish government supported me. They gave me access to education courses.
“Ireland has done so much more for me than Nigeria.”
■ New to the Parish: Stories of Love, War and Adventure from Ireland’s Immigrants is written by Sorcha Pollak. The book is an inspiring chronological timeline of personal stories of migration – from Cameroon to Myanmar, Poland to New York, Nigeria to Venezuela, Iraq to Syria – and back home again. Published by New Ireland Books, it is available in all good bookstores now.