Lily Luzan from Belarus pictured in her new shop, Nostalgie, at Newtown, Castlebar.

How Lily Luzan found a better life for her family in Mayo

LILY Luzan is a citizen of two countries, writes Jemima Burke.

A Belarusian, she came to Ireland in 2008 with her husband Mikhail. They wanted a better life for their children, Paulina (15) and Nikolai (6). 

Both Lily and Mikhail grew up in Belarus, a country which borders the Ukraine – and the city of Chernobyl, a place synonymous with disaster. 

When Lily was five years old, in April 1986, a nuclear reactor exploded in Chernobyl, spreading radioactive isotopes throughout the surrounding area and over into Europe. The world has watched in horror as thousands have died as direct and indirect results of the explosion. 

Radiation is invisible and although Lily’s parents could not see it, they soon began to recognise medical problems in their family. One year on from Chernobyl, a hospital check-up showed Lily’s kidneys, stomach, liver and heart to be in bad shape. It would mean tablets, check-ups and medicine for the remainder of her life and her children’s lives – if they stayed in Belarus. 

So Lily and Mikhail decided to uproot. 

“We did it because of our children,” she said. “We wanted them to grow in the fresh air, not to be sick. Our daughter Paulina was very sick over there. She had a bad immune system. She was very thin. She had to see doctors all the time.” 

They moved to a small village in the heart of Mayo: Lahardane. It was a time of new beginnings. Lily gave birth to their son Nikolai and Paulina’s health changed for the better. Lily describes Lahardane as their “first Irish home.” 

By Nikolai’s third birthday it was time for a final move. Today the Luzan family live in Castlebar where Lily runs an Eastern-European grocery store Nostalgie on Newtown Street. She says that a love of food runs in her veins: 

“In Belarus, growing up, we had a restaurant. It was a family business. I was involved since I was a teenager.

"When we came to Castlebar I wanted to open a restaurant. I love cooking. I love when people eat and enjoy good times. But then I realised I’m on my own and my husband is working – so I went for this small shop.” 

Nostalgie means ‘home-sick’.

Lily has designed her shop in what she calls “the old style”: 

“This is the kind of shop that we had in years past. People come here from Latvian and Lithuanian villages. This is what shops look like over there. Raising a family, starting a business, settling down. Lily has worked hard to build a better life for her family along with her husband. But every road has ruts." 

“When we moved here it was hard for us,” Lily admits. “We looked at our daughter and we thought ‘it will be a new language, it will be a new everything’. But if someone says to me ‘go to Italy because wages are higher’ I will never do this because our children need a home place. They need to know that this is their home, this is their community.” 

While she acknowledges the differences between Belarus and Ireland Lily is keen to point out that both are what she calls ‘potato countries’: 

“We have a lot in common. We are both potato countries! I found my old book of recipes at my grandmother’s house while I was visiting back home. When I saw the exactly same recipes that my friend gave me in Ireland I was amazed!” 

Respect and gratitude are important words in the Luzan household and they have a family rule which Lily insists upon: “Whenever we leave the house we speak English only.” 

“I find it disrespectful [when people speak in their own language] … When you come here you have to respect traditions and language. You have to respect the local people. You have to make people feel safe. 

“I was in Dublin from ’96 to ‘97. I did the English course in the Centre for English Studies. I loved that. I loved the history, the museums. When I came back in 2007 I asked my Irish friend to bring me to the centre of Dublin but he told it was different there.” 

“I could remember walking down the Dublin streets with people smiling and asking me ‘how are you’.” 

“But when my friend brought me in 2007 I was shocked. I started to cry. People were passing by. You could hear different languages – Romanian, Latvian, Russian, and so on. No one was smiling anymore. Everyone was busy, busy, busy. Then I saw somebody selling drugs on the street and I just started crying. I said no. I don’t want this anymore. It’s not Dublin. It’s not the same Dublin I saw 10 years ago.” 

“It was only ten years and it had changed like that. It used to have a soul, a spirit. After that I got so confused. I felt it wasn’t safe anymore.” 

When identity is threatened by too many voices Lily has come to believe that holding on to the values of the past is critical. This partly explains why she is strict with her children when it comes to speaking English outside the home. She also insists that her children learn Irish. 

“Even though it was suggested by a teacher not to learn Irish, I said I want them to do this. Even if they don’t learn much, I’d like them to know how to greet someone and to learn a few simple phrases. If I had time I would learn Irish myself because I think you should know the language.” 

“When you lose your roots, you will get lost very easily. You should keep your roots and learn your own language. This is important.” 

The Luzans recently applied for Irish citizenship. They were successful. For Mikhail and Lily, it was an obvious decision to make. 

She explains: “Our children were born here. We have decided to stay here forever. I said, ‘Why not?’” 

“I don’t understand why people live here for years and don’t want Irish citizenship. They are living her, thinking they will go back. They came here to make some money, to send money home. It’s OK, it’s understandable. You think OK, maybe you want to do this. But then, don’t be claiming for social housing, don’t be claiming for all the benefits!” 

EU citizens working in Ireland who have children in their home countries are entitled to €140 a month for each child. Over the past three years, Ireland has paid out almost €40m in child welfare benefits to families living in other European Union countries. 

“If it’s one person it’s OK,” said Lilly. But when thousands of them are coming just to take this advantage this is what I don’t like. My husband doesn’t like it!” 

Lily Luzan is thankful for the welcome she has received in Ireland. She wants to give back as much as she has received of the kindness and hospitality of Irish people. Mayo is her home now. 

Her honest opinion is clearly put: “People are people all over the world. Ireland cannot insure itself against the bad coming in. If they break the law twice, it doesn’t matter what country they are from, they should be deported without a chance to come back. If they bring nothing bad with them, let them stay.” 

She is just one of thousands who have come to our shores in the past two decades. Some have left. Others have stayed. For some it has been a journey from a sad and wasted place, like Chernobyl, to a land of opportunity. 

Castlebar abounds with families like the Luzans who have come from every corner of the globe to start new lives in Ireland. Representing over 17 per cent of our population, they are the new Irish. 

For Lily Luzan, her husband Mikhail and their two children, there is no turning back. 
Says Lily: “I wouldn’t move for any other country in the world. I am quite the patriot!”