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Election candidate reveals personal tragedy that drove her to enter political life


From this week's Galway City Tribune

From this week's Galway City Tribune

Election candidate reveals personal tragedy that drove her to enter political life Election candidate reveals personal tragedy that drove her to enter political life

When Helen Ogbu arrived in Galway as a refugee in 2005, running for election was not on top of her list of priorities. But politics has shaped the life of the Nigerian-born local election candidate whose husband was brutally murdered in his pursuit for political change back home.

Despite this personal tragedy, Helen, who is the Labour candidate for Galway City East in June’s elections, says nothing could change her view that affecting change requires putting your name on the ballot paper.

The now 51-year-old arrived in Ireland as a refugee in the early-2000s, fleeing threats faced by her and her husband for his political activity.

Following the birth of her daughter, she returned to Nigeria, but the threats persisted. She and her daughter came back to Ireland and it was then that her three-year stay at the Eglinton Direct Provision Centre in Salthill began.

Having been forced to leave behind a coveted job in Nigerian diplomatic circles and facing little recognition for her qualifications or experience here, she returned to education and immersed herself in various volunteering roles that she credits with setting her on a path to electoral politics.

“Every day when I dropped my daughter to school, I would go out volunteering,” says Helen, who now works with the Galway Volunteer Centre, having been a long-time volunteer for countless groups including ARD Family Resource Centre and Galway Rape Crisis Centre.

“After that, I started studying. I started from scratch. I had a master’s degree before I came to Ireland, but I started a PLC course because I wanted to understand how it works here.

“While I was in my first year was when my husband died and that’s something that pushed me – he was a politician as well. I just told myself to remember the reason I came to this country,” recalls Helen.

“I said if I was to go to this country, I am here to do something and I thank God for community development work because it has given me the foundation for entry into politics. Being a councillor is being a community development worker with the extra privilege of the resources to do the work for the communities,” she continues.

Helen has worked for the Galway Volunteer Centre for 15 years, has completed an MA in Family Support at NUIG, and is currently working on a PhD.

Living in Rahoon, she says she’s running on the east side of the city because that’s where her community work has been focused for more than a decade.

If elected, she says she will be a voice for the migrant community but sees the same issues affecting more than just one sector.

Nonetheless, she says it is important that migrant voices are heard in politics and across society, particularly as anti-migrant sentiment appears to be on the rise.

“Recently, we were canvassing and somebody walked up to us. We thought the person wanted to engage with us but they asked, ‘where are you from?’ They said, ‘go back to your country – you are a traitor’,” she says.

“I see a lot of it on my social media page and I have a thick skin, but no matter how thick your skin is, it is relentless. Then there is a good side of it when you meet people who understand and who are welcoming. I think [the racism] comes from a small group of people, all born out of misinformation.”

“Sometimes, people [with racist views] will engage with you and you can change their mind. One gentleman engaged with me and I said, ‘who are migrants? You are saying migrants are here and feeding off the welfare state’. If you go to the care sector, it’s migrants and you are being hateful towards someone who would care for your mother, care for your grandmother.

“Migrants are contributing to the economy of the State and to the economy of Galway in so many sectors,” she says.

If elected, she would become the first person of colour elected to City Hall – in an area of Galway City which has been identified as one of the most diverse in the country.

She is running for a party that has been on the decline since its last term in Government from 2011 to 2016, so why Labour?

“Organisations make mistakes but you need to say where did we go wrong, because your mistakes are what build you. I think the Labour Party today is a dynamic party that is focused on changing things. It’s not the Labour Party of 10 years ago,” she says.

Helen credits President Michael D Higgins, too, who served as Labour TD for Galway West prior to his running for the Áras.

“He is a symbol for migrants. He still sends Christmas cards to migrants who are still on his contact list today.

“The values of the party are things I relate to. They are at the forefront of workers’ rights . . . they are also pro-women, pro-migrant. I support their health agenda and the leader of the party now, Ivana Bacik – not only is she a woman but she is of a migrant background as well,” she says.

She is critical of society’s failure to address issues facing young people, particularly in housing but also in engagement with the political system.

“They feel disenfranchised because they feel they are not considered in decisions. When people talk about young people, they talk about anti-social behaviour.

“But what is causing anti-social behaviour? Where is it coming from? Do we have the indoor facilities we need to get them off the streets?” asks Helen.

“I foster kids – 32 since 2008. During the holidays, you find a certain age group has nothing to do. Another group is young people from 25 to 35. They tell me, ‘not all of us want to go to the pub’. They’re working from home and want somewhere to go after work – somewhere to go for a coffee and hang out. Why can’t we have something like that in Galway City?” asks Helen.

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