By Graham Clifford
Eugenija Belokova – from Latvia
“You’re going to do what?” asked Gina’s GP in Mitchelstown with genuine puzzlement when she first heard of her plan to jump out of an aircraft.
“It was a dream of mine that I’ve always had since I was young growing up in Latvia. And so I thought I must do this before I get too old. So in 2014, I convinced my good friend, and karate instructor, Brian Toomey from Mitchelstown to jump with me and we leapt out of an aeroplane over the skies of Portlaoise,” explains Gina with a broad smile.
In many ways she’d spent much of her younger life supressing the daredevil within.
She worked hard in school, then spent over a decade in the Latvian Post Office system, worked in a poultry farm with 35,000 chickens and then a shop.
“Always working, working, working,” she recalls.
FIRST BIG LEAP
When her son Alexsz was born in 1979, Gina changed jobs to spend time looking after her baby and life was good.
“It was during communist times of course. Latvia was within the Soviet Union until 1993. The system worked well in Latvia. Healthcare, education, employment, everything was provided and we were happy. But people worked so hard. In Latvia there were so many manufacturing factories providing fabrics and textiles. When we gained independence so many jobs were lost and factories closed,” she says.
And so in 2000 Gina, whose mother was from the Russian city of St. Petersburg where she would spend summer holidays as a child, decided to leave. To take that first big leap.
“I felt I needed to see more of the world, to try new things,”
She waited for three years before interest was registered by a business in Ireland – a mushroom farm in Mitchelstown.
“When I was younger I read ‘Gone With The Wind’ and recall the character Scarlett O’Hara. I’m not sure how we got a copy of it but we did. It was the first time that I was introduced to Ireland and so when I found out that was where I would be, I was overjoyed,” says Gina.
But it was a daunting undertaking.
She knew no one initially when she arrived in 2003, spoke very little english and was away from her son (then 24-years-old), family and friends.
“I knew what I was leaving behind but thought if I do not take this opportunity now I will never leave. Latvia, back then, was harsh. Even still today it is very hard to find decent work outside of the capital Riga. It was my chance, I had to go,” she explains.
Once she completed six-months working on the Golden Mushroom farm, she started in a local pig farm where she’d remain for over seven-years.
But it wasn’t all plain sailing. Just four-years after moving to Ireland Gina contracted Lyme disease after being bitten by a tick.
“I was very ill and it contributed to lots of other health problems which I have to this day,” she tells me at her kitchen table in her cosy apartment in Mitchelstown.
From 2011 though Gina was on the work search again as her health slowly improved. She spent a year looking after the flowers and greenery in Mitchelstown with the Ballyhoura Development Association.
“I love growing things and working with my hands. It is my passion. I grow strawberries, gooseberries, blackberries, raspberries, courgettes, tomatoes and lots of other things in a garden I made in the town. I love it, it makes me so happy,”
And Gina makes crocheted blankets, chair warmers, pictures and greeting cards. She’s always making things, learning, developing and evolving.
Her arts and crafts will be for sale in this Saturday’s Christmas Market in the square in Mitchelstown at which Together Ireland will have two tables.
And while she misses her son and grandchildren back in Latvia, Nikita (8) and Erika (2), she says living in Ireland has given her the independence she always craved.
“I go back to Latvia each year and my son has been here three times, but I love it here. Irish people are different, I understand them, they are warm and welcoming.”