DEBORAH SOMORIN tells JUSTINE CARBERY how despite a TRAUMATIC CHILDHOOD, supportive adults helped her to turn things around and ACHIEVE HER DREAM JOB. Now she is driven to help single parents get into college …
My childhood ended when I was eleven.
Before that, I had a home, a family, friends and relations. I grouched about going to school like any other kid, squabbled with my siblings, did my homework, played with my toys. Every day was the same. Safe. Predictable. Normal. I had been born in London and spent my childhood travelling back and forward between Nigeria and the UK.
Then everything changed. My mother moved my siblings and me from Nigeria to Naas and we had to start from scratch, get used to a new place, a new culture, a new education system. It was hard for us all to make new friends. There weren’t too many people of African descent in the locality, and at that age all you want is to be exactly the same as everyone else. Eventually we settled into our new life but unbeknownst to me, my mother was suffering from debilitating depression. Isolated from her usual support system, she quickly deteriorated. As did our relationship. As the eldest child, I bore the brunt of her struggle and violent mood swings, until one night I was taken into emergency care. Things had become too dangerous for me. I knew this, but still. To lose everything in the dead of night was so difficult; my mom, my siblings, my school, my new friends.
For two years I was placed in a series of foster homes and residential care homes but these were frequently far away from my old school (one in Cork), with no provisions made for me to continue my education. It was chaotic. My life was chaotic. But I just had to get by. At 13 they had run out of options for me and I was placed in an emergency homeless shelter in Dublin city centre. Yes, those homeless shelters you hear all about on the news. I was terrified. That first homeless hostel had only a bare bed in a bare room where they had to lock me in to keep me safe. It seemed like prison. I was so scared of what was on the other side of that door, I lay awake every night, listening to noises on the outside, shaking and petrified on the inside. And I was just a kid. A kid who wanted safety and security like any other kid.
One of the problems with putting children into these hostels is that they are on a night-by-night basis. I never actually knew if I would have somewhere to sleep the following night. Each morning I was turned out onto the streets by 9am and had to be back at 5pm to try to secure a room for the night. So stressful and so lonely. This is the sad reality for so many Irish children, as young as twelve, even today. Can you just imagine if that was your 13-year-old daughter? Exposing them to the dangers on the streets, to drug addicts, alcohol abuse and criminality. And nothing to do all day except hang around. That’s the irony of kids in care. There is so little care.
But I got lucky. Someone from Focus Ireland took pity on me and they made an exception, allowing me to sit in their offices all day, until it was time to go back to the hostel each evening for the cycle to begin again. They even bribed me with the promise of lip gloss or mascara if I managed to attend school regularly for three months, then another three. I remember those days as long and sad. I had nothing, not even a coat. No-one to care for me, no-one to tell me things would be okay. I would see other families in town; shopping in the Jervis Street Centre, having lunch, chatting and laughing. I craved these things too and the pain of not having them was almost physical. Those times I felt so cut off from normal life. So isolated. So alone. Like I was always on the outside looking in. It was hard to see a future, to envisage things turning around. What would my future hold, if I had no education, no permanent place to live?
But then came another lucky break. I got a place in a private residential care home, Dún na N-Óg, owned by Ciara Marjoram and Paddy Hassett, managed by Alan Buckley. An ordinary room in an ordinary house in Drumcondra but to me it was Disneyland. I got a place in the local secondary school, had regular meals and returned to the life of homework, projects and Christmas tests etc. Although Ciara and Alan were amazing, it took a while for me to settle in, to accept that these people were not going to be suddenly ripped out of my life. But they did everything to help and care for me, to reassure me they were in it for the long haul.
When I was 14, my life took another turn. Desperate for love and affection, I latched onto the first boy who showed any interest in me. I thought myself so grown up, having a boyfriend, but in reality, I was clueless. A typical teenager, only in my case I was more vulnerable than most I suppose. A few weeks before my Junior Cert I was feeling really tired, and started feeling nauseous in the mornings. It didn’t dawn on me until my boyfriend actually mentioned it was a possibility that I could be pregnant. As I said, clueless. Then doubt turned to certainty. Fear turned to panic. I was pregnant. During my first Junior Cert exam, English Paper One, I had to keep running out to the bathroom and the girls realised what was going on. My secret was out. I nearly died. I was so mortified, so embarrassed that I couldn’t face returning to school. On top of that I lived in fear of being removed from my new home. Had I blown my chances? Was I going to be out on the street again?
But once again, Ciara and Alan did everything to make things work for me. They set up a Mother and Baby unit to enable me to have the child and to stay with them. Importantly, Ciara ensured that I had as normal a pregnancy as any other woman would have. She took me baby-clothes shopping and let me pick out a pram. I did pregnancy yoga, ante-natal classes, decorated a nursery. She got me all the usual baby books and we talked and talked about what was happening to my body and how the baby was progressing. Her sharing that joy and excitement was such a gift. For the first time ever, I could hope that all would be well.
When Liam was born, it was like all the pieces slotted into place. I had so much love and support around me that I took to motherhood instantly. I was fiercely independent and surprised myself at how much I wanted and could do for myself. Liam and I shared so much beautiful mother-and-baby time together and I felt so secure in the support around me that soon I felt ready to return to school and finish my education. Sure, it was tricky at times, heading home from a long day at school to feed, bathe, and play with my little boy but it was worth every minute. I was so determined to give Liam the security and stability that I had lacked. Everything I did now was with Liam in mind. While the other girls were focusing on getting dolled up to go to parties and nightclubs, I was changing nappies, reading bedtime stories, singing lullabies.
Tragically my mother took her own life when I was 16 and although our relationship had fractured, I felt immensely sad. But having a little human being to focus on and tend to helped me get through that difficult time. For him, I needed to look to the future, not the past.
Some kids dream about becoming air hostesses, or princesses or famous film stars. Me, I always wanted to be an accountant! And I set my mind to it. I worked hard for my Leaving Cert and got a place in DCU. But I was really worried about how I would manage. Who would mind Liam? Where would we live? But I was determined, for him and for me. I had to make a better life for myself and my son. Education was going to be my path. I was worried what would happen when I turned 18. In many cases, literally on your 18th birthday, you go from having a home and being supported by a team of carers, to being dropped off at a homeless hostel, looking for houses on Daft by yourself and trying to figure out your new confusing world. It’s a very lonely experience. And it happens so fast. One day you’re in care. The next, you’re out on your own again. This is how Focus Ireland came into my life again, through their Aftercare initiative. Aftercare supports young people as they move from State care into independence at 18. For me, it became a vital support and something I relied on. My case worker was called Emma and she was always on the end of the phone. As well as advice and guidance, she gave me emotional support. With her help, I secured a long-term home for me and my son, and obtained the help I needed to go to college. On my first day as I walked through the gates of DCU I couldn’t believe I was really there, that I’d actually made it. For so long it had been a pipe dream, something so far out of reach. Yet here I was.
College was brilliant for me. For the first time ever, I felt like I was on a level playing field. We were all in this together. I made an amazing bunch of friends and they’re still my close friends today. To them I was just another student, though they knew I couldn’t go to Twisted Tuesday every week! I wasn’t that problem child, the homeless one, the child in care. I was a student with essays to write and exams to sit. And all made possible by having childcare and accommodation sorted.
So that is why I am now so engaged with this issue. I had the drive and the ambition to succeed but if I hadn’t received the right support I might never have made it to college. Now, instead of being a drain on State resources, I have my dream job and I am contributing to society in every way. I’ve passed my chartered accountant exams and am training as a senior associate in PwC. My little boy is a happy nine-year-old, who loves school, maths, playing with his friends and I’m so proud of him. So proud of how far we have come.
The lack of childcare and supported accommodation for single parents is a huge barrier to going to college. It makes it so much harder to contemplate the prospect if you have no-one to mind your child and no money for rent. Even if you had the money, imagine queuing up to look at a flat, a student, with a kid by the hand and a Housing Assistance cheque. Who is the landlord going to take? Me or the financially independent person with cash in hand?
So I’ve decided to open student accommodation for young disadvantaged parents (fathers and mothers aged 17-26) in third-level education. Since I appeared on First Dates Ireland and on The Late Late Show I have received so many offers of support that I decided to capitalise on that feeling of goodwill and make this project happen. The accommodation will be similar to normal student accommodation, with each family having their own mini apartment. It will also have a crèche downstairs for the children in the home to make sure students have access to affordable childcare. I see us offering mentoring services and access to counselling too, to provide emotional and professional support.
This initiative should also act as a motivator for young parents still in school who might feel college is an impossible option for them. With the knowledge that childcare and accommodation will be available, third-level education becomes a realisable goal, not a fantasy.
The momentum for achieving this plan is growing. Several key figures and benefactors are coming on board and, at a meeting in March, I presented my proposal and business plan, with a view of opening the first location in Dublin in September 2020.
These days I haven’t a moment. My work day is full and varied, my home time spent with Liam or catching up with friends, and now this project. It is so important to me. I only have to think back to those empty sad days roaming the streets of Dublin and the long terrifying nights in the hostel, and I force myself to forge ahead. I’ve come so far. But I don’t want to be the only one. I want to help make it happen for others. And you can help too. We can all make a difference and help break the homeless cycle for many children for generations to come.
To find out more about The Hope Ireland Project visit Deborah Somorin’s website,
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