I first met Jijo Sebastian more than two years ago in a coffee shop in central Dublin. A friend had recommended I speak about the decade he had spent living in Ireland for the weekly series I write for the Irish Times about new arrivals to our shores. About halfway into our conversation, Jijo, who is from the southern Indian state of Kerala, casually mentioned that he and his wife were just one of many couples who had come to Ireland to work as nurses. In fact, he claimed that the vast majority of Indians in Ireland actually came form a small number of towns and villages in Kerala. A few days after we met, Jijo emailed me a couple of articles about the migration of nurses from Kerala overseas. Busy with a number of other projects at the time, I saved and filed the documents, planning to come back to them at a later date.
Nearly two years passed before I actually had the opportunity to properly follow up on Jijo’s claims about Ireland’s Keralite population. Having been awarded funding by Simon Cumbers to travel to Kerala and investigate why so many nurses were moving overseas – including the implications on families left behind and the State’s health service – I started contacting a number of nurses already living in Ireland. I was eager to speak to a wide range of people – going back to those who had been in the country nearly 20 years but also meeting with more recent arrivals who were just settling into their lives in Ireland.
I discovered from the 2016 census that nearly 21,000 Indian-born nationals were living in Ireland, half of whom spoke Malayalam which is Kerala’s principal language. I then spoke to the Nursing and Midwifery Board who told me that in 2018, some 6,304 Indian nationals were registered as nurses, making up 9% of the total number of nurses registered with the board in Ireland. I learned that the number of Indian nurses working in Irish hospitals and care homes has steadily risen since 2000, when Ireland began actively recruiting nurses internationally. More recently, the number of nurses recruited from India had risen sharply, jumping from 79 successful visa applications in 2014 to 753 in 2017.
Unfortunately there was no formal data available on where in India these nurses were born. However, the more I spoke to Indians in Ireland, the more apparent it became that Jijo was right in saying the majority of nurses working in Irish hospitals came from his home state.
Shortly before my trip to Kerala I visited Jijo, his wife Smitha and their children Tia and Josh at their home in Ongar in West Dublin. Smitha told me that out of her class of 30 at nursing college in Kerala, 18 had moved to Ireland for work. Others went to America and Australia. They left seeking job security and better payment, she said, echoing the sentiments of all the Indian nurses I spoke to both before leaving Ireland and while in India.
In Kerala, Smitha worked six days a week. In Ireland she could spend more time with her children. “You get more respect here as a nurse and you have dignity. And as a woman you have more freedom. Back home you have to be very obedient to others even though you are the earner in the family.”
The couple used to visit India every year but since the children were born their trips have become less frequent. Her son Josh often complains about making the long journey to Kerala. “Every time we go he makes sure it’s just for the holidays. He says ‘don’t ask me to stay in Kerala’. The kids ask why can’t we go other places on holidays? We can’t blame them because they were never exposed to our culture.”
When the conversation turned to Smitha’s parents, her voice became unsteady. They speak on WhatsApp every day but she hates the distance that separates them. “My parents sacrificed everything for us but now, at the time when they’re getting old, we can’t really do anything for them,” she says, her face now streaked with tears. “We can just give them money. But what they really need is our help. Sometimes I think they never lived for themselves, they lived for us.”
A few weeks later, and more than 8,500km away, I sat in the parlour of Smitha’s family home in the suburb of Angamaly on the outskirts of Kochi. Baby Paul and her husband Paul Poulouse sat side by side under a large portrait of their children and grandchildren. Like most Keralans who move abroad for work Smitha and her brother, who lives in New Zealand, regularly send money home to their parents. These funds were used to refurbish and extend the family home. However, without the children, and grandchildren, the family’s gleaming white abode feels empty and quiet.
Speaking through a translator, Baby Paul explains that she always knew her daughter would end up abroad. Working as a nurse in Kerala meant long hours and minimal pay and she wanted a better life for her daughter. More than 13 years have now passed since Smitha left Angamaly. Baby misses her two children desperately but accepts that, like nearly every family in her home state of Kerala, emigration is the norm.
“Moving abroad is a trend that is happening because we are paid less here,” she told me. “With the money you earn you can’t save anything.” But what about the brain drain of young people from Kerala, asked the translator on my behalf. “We can’t do anything about that, parents are left alone here.”
Not far from Angamaly, in the village of Manjapra, Bindu Jojo lives with her mother Mary Poulouse and her three children, Joel (9), Emmanuel (3) and Christeena (7 months). Bindu’s husband moved to Ireland two years ago, following in the footsteps of her brother and sister who have both spent more than a decade working here. She applied for family visa to join her husband last summer but when we meet she has not yet received a response.
“It’s very difficult to bring up three children without their dad,” Bindu told me. “It’s the hope that we can leave soon that keeps me going. My oldest son keeps asking what’s going on, when are we going to Ireland?”
Bindu’s mother Mary was also anxiously awaiting news on the visa. Once her youngest daughter leaves she will be alone in Kerala. Mary’s husband died eight years ago and while her children visit India when they can, she admitted that she often feels lonely. “They have to leave and look after their own lives,” she said, her voice faltering slightly as tears fill her eyes. “Thinking about my future I’m feeling a bit scared. When I imagine myself being left alone here, that haunts me. I miss them but it’s their life.”
Mary has visited Ireland on four occasions to help look after her grandchildren. However, asked if she would consider moving over permanently she said no. “When I go to Ireland I miss the set up here where I have friends, lots of space and lots of things I can do independently. There I’m stuck. Early in the morning here I can go to church and pray but there it’s too cold. I’m happy when I’m with my family but I’d miss all of this.”
Over the following week, I met a number of parents who, like Baby and Paul, have children working as nurses in Ireland. Some have been separated from their children for decades, others only a few months. All agree that life in Europe is a better option for their offspring than staying in Kerala. Many now live in beautiful homes paid for using Irish nursing salaries. Most of these houses are filled with photographs of Irish grandchildren, many who don’t speak Malayalam. However, asked if they would like to join their loved ones in Ireland, all parents answer the same way. Their home is in Kerala.