Feature

Former refugee and choir singer saved by Church
Dubbed the ‘refugee church’, Chai Brady talks to the Georgian Orthodox community
Natalia Tsadzikidze tells her story of becoming a naturalised Irish citizen after coming to Ireland as a refugee. The Georgian Orthodox Church helped her through dark times.

A former refugee on the precipice of suicide was saved by her Church and friends after escaping war and a direct provision centre.

Natalia Tsadzikidze, from Clondalkin in Dublin, escaped Georgia in Eastern Europe during a time of political tension and violence in the country. She is now a naturalised Irish citizen.

Mrs Tsadzikidze felt like Robinson Crusoe when she arrived on an island so vastly different from her homeland, and she faced many challenges.

“I hadn’t any English, and everything was so different, in lifestyle, in weather and everything. It was really hard to cope with the change. The Church saved me, my mind, and my life as well,” said Mrs Tsadzikidze.

Natalie is a member of the Georgian Orthodox Church in Ireland, which is a refugee Church in two senses: they have moved their place of worship numerous times; and many of the congregation were once refugees.

The amount of Christian Orthodox in Ireland has increased by almost 40% from the 2011 census to the 2016 census. Their numbers have grown to over 62,000, making it the fastest growing religion in Ireland.

Asylum seeker

Mrs Tsadzikidze left Georgia and received refugee status in 2004, however she was an asylum seeker in Ireland for one year and four months, and for three months she was in direct provision. Asylum seekers stay in direct provision while they wait for their application for refugee status to be processed. They can be deported if they don’t fit the criteria needed to be defined as a refugee. 

Some asylum seekers wait for many years for their applications to be processed, during which time they are not allowed to work.

“If I stayed in this direct provision house, I don’t know, maybe I would have finished it by suicide. If you are a normal person your mind works, your health allows you to work, but you are not allowed to do anything. They are keeping you, like an animal in a zoo,” Mrs Tsadzikidze told The Irish Catholic.

“If you’re in jail it’s because of something, but you haven’t done anything.”  She said it was one of the hardest times in her life. 

War broke out in Georgia in 2008 while she was waiting for her family to come to Ireland under the family reunification process. She was told it would take 18 months, but it took four years. “I hadn’t slept for four or five days and nights until the war stopped,” she said; luckily the war lasted just under two weeks. 

She sings in her church choir, and says “it is a miracle for me” as it has helped her deal with difficult times in her life.

Mrs Tsadzikidze grew up when Georgia was part of the Soviet Union, which was established by the communist Bolsehviks and existed from 1922-1991. Religion was severely discouraged under the communist regime, although never officially outlawed, the goal was to create an atheist society.

Church property was confiscated and many priests were persecuted at the beginning of the Bolsheviks rule.

 “Lots of people growing up, they don’t believe in God, they weren’t baptised, because their parents were communists. After the Soviet Union collapsed lots of people, even old ones, started to get baptised and they went to Church and had Church weddings as well,” she said.

However she said her mother was devout, describing her as a “real Christian” who always fasted during holy days.

When Mrs Tsadzikidze was younger she didn’t have a church or parish, but now there are hundreds of Georgian Orthodox churches in Georgia.

“Now Ireland is becoming like Georgia before. Here people aren’t attending the Churches, especially young people – if their parents are taking them that’s it,” she said.

Mrs Tsadizkidze’s family and children now live in Ireland, and were swiftly reunified after the 2008 war in Georgia.

The Georgian Orthodox priest in Ireland is Fr David Lonergan, who is also a special needs organiser at the National Council for Special Education.

He was originally ordained to the Antiochian Church, and soon after became a chaplain for the Georgian Orthodox community in Dublin.

“Our greatest problem has been the lack of a church in which to worship on a full time basis,” said Fr Lonergan. 

The community moved numerous times, and first worshipped in a Dominican Church on the Navan road, but as it was just a four-year agreement they had to move. A Carmelite church in Donnybrook was a “blessing” for the community but the Carmelites had to sell their monastery and church, making the Georgian Orthodox churchless once again.

 “I am usually good at sorting such problems but despite my very best efforts I could not find a church that was available, and one Sunday, in desperation, after the consecration I placed my head in my hands and asked the Lord from the very depths of my soul to help the community as I had failed,” said Fr Lonergan.

The next day he called the Inchicore VEC to see if he could rent classrooms for the Georgian Orthodox children, and through talking to the principal it came out that the community had no place to pray, and the principle offered them Goldenbridge convent church – which the school used for drama during the week.   

It serves well as a temporary place to meet and pray, but they can’t celebrate the majority of feasts throughout the year without their own church. The decoration of a Christian Orthodox church is also hugely important, as are the icons, but this can’t be done in their current place of worship.

The Archbishop of Dublin, Diarmuid Martin, received them with “great kindness” according to the priest.

As the parishioners are mainly refugees finances are minimal, and at times Fr Lonergan puts his own money in to the pay the bills.

“The Georgian parish of St Maximus the confessor are the salt of the earth, marvellous people who have had a hard journey through life and still retain their faith and their sense of community,” he added.

 

In the next part of the series we meet the Antiochian Orthodox.