“For six and a half years, I was an asylum seeker. They gave me the papers about two years ago to let me stay here.” Saidi Mohamedi is a gently spoken yet affable conversationalist. He is one of many people who now call Limerick home, but it’s not his first home.
He has lived in four different countries, but there are two constants for Saidi: religion and tailoring. As we sit and chat in his Limerick city centre apartment, the latter is very much evident.
At the bottom of his bed, a sewing machine sits on a table. Various pattern books are arranged on top of a shelving unit. Smart coats hang from the back of the bedroom door.
Growing up in Malawi in South-Eastern Africa, he was brought up in Islam by his parents. “Of all the things in the world, number one, I love God. I love God more than my mother, more than my father, more than anything! He is the one who created me.”
Saidi moved from the town of Salima, about 60km from Malawi’s capital Lilongwe, to Zambia in 1964, where he settled in the Copperbelt province for more than three decades. He moved for love, marrying a Zambian woman. “In Zambia I was doing this job,” he says, tapping on his well-used sewing machine. “Sewing, tailoring.”
In the 1990s, they moved to Durban in South Africa. “There, I was Imam, I was a pastor in the Grey Street Mosque.”
“I’m a full-time Muslim,” he says, accentuating the ‘full-time’. “It means nobody could get me to change my religion. Maybe God himself can change me, but not any human being!”
The arrival of Jacob Zuma to power in South Africa in 2009 made Durban unsafe for those not originally from there, according to Saidi. This led to many people from Nigeria, Malawi and Mozambique fleeing. “There were a lot of people dead there. There were what you could call phobia attack[s] if you were a foreigner”.
This led to him making the decision to move his family back to Zambia and to go to Europe on his own. Saidi was not a young man at this stage of his life, and to move thousands of miles away from home when in his mid-sixties must have been daunting. However, Saidi was undeterred thanks to an encounter with a well-travelled friend who recommended Ireland.
“My friend said that if you want to go to Europe, choose Ireland.,” he recalls. “I asked him ‘why Ireland?’; he said that the Irish were the best people of all the European countries.”
This was on his mind when he stepped off the plane in Dublin and went to the immigration officer. His first words were
“I’ve come here to have a better future, a better life.”
For two years, Saidi resided in a hostel in Galway, before coming to Limerick, where he was housed at what was the former Hanratty’s Hotel on Glentworth Street. For those who have not experienced it, direct provision sounds like a regimented and monotonous life; even the meals were the same, week-in, week-out.
“They didn’t allow us to cook ourselves. We had a canteen there to eat,” explains Saidi. Nonetheless, he seems quite grateful for his accommodation and to those who worked there, and his ability to sew quickly made him the go-to person in the hostel for clothing alterations. “Somebody would say ‘will you cut my trousers?’ or ‘narrow my trousers’ or ‘put a zip in my trousers’,” he recalls.
However, his love of sewing was also a point of conflict with some of his roommates. “Some didn’t like me to sew in the room; I liked to sew, and they liked to sleep!”
Saidi also found solace in a familiar space. “When I come here, the first thing I do is ask ‘where is the mosque?’, and started going there to pray and I made friends there.” Soon, he became the deputy pastor at the nearby Al-Furqan Mosque on Windmill Street.
Just over two years ago, Saidi finally got his wish when the decision was made to grant him asylum. He can remember the day he got the news. “I felt the greatest in my life. In Africa, people are always suffering there. When we get a chance to come to a European country, we make thanks to God because we are free to stay here.”
Those in the know locally will tell you that Saidi is a gifted and versatile tailor, but he is too modest to say so himself. “Even now, some people come and bring material here. Me? I’ll do any style of dress, jacket, trousers, especially ladies or clothes for Nigerian people. Anything, I’ll do it,” he says enthusiastically.
In February of this year, Saidi went back to Africa for six weeks. It was his first-time home since he took that plane to Dublin. His family is now spread between Zambia and South Africa.
He tells me that he can even get food sent from home via courier by his nephew, but the only thing that is absent from his life are those close to him – his five children, 35 grandchildren, and four great-grandchildren. His voice is understandably tinged with sadness as he says, “I miss my family”.
Saidi turned 75 in August of this year, and hopes to be able to bring two of his grandchildren to live with him in Ireland at some stage.
As our conversation comes to an end, and we walk down Mallow Street, he is greeted by different people passing by who know him. He may not be native to here, but Saidi Mohamedi is truly settled in the city: “I like it in Limerick. I can’t complain.”