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An ordinary man from Mauritius ended up being the subject of an extraordinary story of hope, showing what is possible when people work together
Romi Ramtohul wanted to go home. It was early November 2019, and his pursuit of a new life in Ireland had come to an end.
For the longest time, it looked as if he may have been able to carve out something new for himself in this cold and wet country, a world away from the tropical climate of his native Mauritius.
But the dream had dissolved. Now he was living dangerously, on the streets and in the hostels where violence often lurked, where living was reduced to getting through the day.
“I want to go home,” Romi said one morning.
Jeanette O’Brien sat down beside him in the front room of the Alice Leahy Trust.
The organisation is a drop-in centre in Dublin where people who sleep on the streets or hostels can come during the day when they have nowhere else to go.
There are light refreshments on offer, or medical assistance for minor ailments, or some clothes, or help with filling out forms.
No questions are asked, no judgements passed. There are no rules beyond appropriate conduct.
Most of all, there is the warmth of other human beings in an environment where, unlike on the streets, they are no longer invisible.
Jeanette spoke to Alice. How were they going to manage this?
Romi was a non-person as far as officialdom was concerned. He had no papers, no PPS number, no passport. He didn’t even have a phone. He was without means.
He couldn’t just rock up to Dublin Airport and hop on a flight home. And there was also an issue about his suitability to fly.
Romi had suffered a brain injury a few years back that had in many ways sent his life spiralling down to its current station.
Physically, he was a tall man, wiry, with a shaven head. He had a tendency to wave his arms around as if he was directing an airplane on a runway. It was a feature of his personality that, if you didn’t know him, you might consider threatening.
Apart from anything else he might not be let onto a plane. How were they going to get Romi home?
Romi Ramtohul was 32 years of age when he arrived in Ireland in 2006.
His native Mauritius is a small island in the Indian Ocean with a population of 1.27m which is a favoured and expensive tourist destination.
Romi came from a stable family. His father was a pastor, a role that delivered a certain standing in a society where religion is widely practiced.
There were three siblings in the family, Romi, his twin brother and a sister. Romi’s brother would in time rise to a prominent role in the government of Mauritius.
As with Ireland from a different time, a tradition of emigration meant that leaving was always an option if things weren’t going well at home for whatever reason.
In 2006, he became another statistic in the great global migration from the underdeveloped south to the wealthy north.
Life in Ireland began well for him. He found work with little bother, mainly in catering. He worked as a chef in Dublin but spent time around the country, with an extended stay in Co Clare.
In the capital, he was employed for a long period in Kiely’s in Donnybrook, where he was a popular figure with locals and the rugby fraternity who used to frequent the hostelry.
Romi had his eccentricities; he didn’t conform to the strictures of society, preferring a somewhat nomadic existence.
He was one of those people who through constitution or character or some personal quirk was either beyond, or disinterested in, conforming to all the mores of “normal” society.
He first walked into the Alice Leahy Trust in 2014.
This was a time when homelessness was ramping up, the country economically battered with many unable to afford private rented accommodation. By then he had been sleeping rough, but he was still working.
Alice and her colleagues got to know him. He was always pleasant and engaging.
According to records he was a frequent visitor to the organisation over the following five years.
Sometimes he had a place in hostels, other times he slept rough. His eccentric behaviour probably, on occasion, lost him places in hostels.
In 2016, he was the victim of an assault. The exact circumstances are unclear, but violence is a constant danger for those on the streets.
Two years later he had a brain clot which may have been associated with the earlier assault. This time he was hospitalised for a period in Beaumont, which specialises in head injuries.
From that point, it appears as if Romi’s circumstances went into a downward spiral.
He was unable to work as a result of the latest incident and that saw him spending more time on the streets with next to or no resources.
He made the newspapers in February 2019 about a minor incident for which he was prosecuted. Dublin District Court was told that Romi had been working as a chef but had had a fall and suffered seizures and had not worked since.
He was in court for being drunk and a danger to traffic. The incident occurred on Parnell Square where gardaí observed him dodging in and out of traffic, causing motorists to brake suddenly.
His solicitor told the judge that Romi was “living on his wits”, and that he drank too much at times and his mental health “was not where it should be”.
Romi is not, the solicitor said, a violent person. The judge fined him €200.
The court report provided a window into the world of people like Romi, who find themselves thrust onto the margins of society.
He had, as the court was told, mental health difficulties. He was also drinking to excess, common among those who are homeless.
Alcohol may be used as a painkiller for life or it may be that addiction was the agent that sent an individual on a downward spiral.
The drinking is done in public, not behind closed doors so any resultant fall-out is also very public and frequently leads to conflict with the law for minor infringements.
Society’s response to such an individual in this instance was, through the court, to impose a fine on him.
He was a man without means. Yet the only way the court saw to deal with him was to tell him to pay a fine which he was unlikely to ever be in a position to do.
And if the process was followed through to its legal conclusion, the homeless, damaged individual, unable to pay his debt to society, would be imprisoned.
By then Romi was in the kind of rut from which it is difficult to extract oneself.
He had lived the big adventure, the shot at a new life.
He had made a good fist of it for the best part of a decade. But there would be no route back to those days of relative stability.
A new dream began to foment in his imagination. He could try again. He could go back to familiarity and family.
Home was where he wanted to be.
Alice and Jeanette have over the decades tackled all sorts of problems on behalf of the people who frequent the trust. Finding a way to get Romi home though would be beyond them.
“We wouldn’t have known where to start,” Alice says.
So they enlisted two men who might well know how to put together a man’s identity and organise to get him home.
Damien McCarthy and Alan O’Dowd are members of An Garda Síochána, based in Pearse St station in Dublin city centre.
The Alice Leahy Trust has had many contacts with the gardaí in Pearse St over the years.
Alice contacted Damien and he and Alan agreed to help out in their spare time. They arranged to meet with Romi.
“This wasn’t just a question of organising an appointment that suits all parties,” Damien McCarthy says.
“Romi was living an itinerant lifestyle, moving around. He might show up in the [Alice Leahy] trust one morning and not be seen again for a week.”
Basic organisation of his personal life was not a priority.
They met as they would so often over the months to follow. Romi would show up at the trust, Jeanette would ring one of gardaí and if they weren’t busy they could pop in for a minute.
“You could see straight away that he needed help,” Damien remembers.
“There was a want in him. We had been briefed by Alice about how complex his needs were and we got the rest of the story from himself.”
First stop on the road back to Mauritius was the International Organisation for Migration (IOM).
Romi told the two gardaí that he had been directed towards the IOM but he wasn’t making much progress there.
The IOM has offices in over 100 countries and is “dedicated to promoting humane and orderly migration for all”, including those interested in “voluntary return” to their homeland.
Damien and Alan accompanied Romi to the organisation’s well-appointed office in Baggot St, where they didn’t detect an open arm welcome for the immigrant who wanted to go home.
Despite having already attended there himself, it would appear that things hadn’t even moved off first base in Romi’s case. The two gardaí were told that the organisation would require a passport photo.
Off they went to get Romi’s photo taken at a shop on Grafton St. At the entrance to the shop, Damien could see that the man inside was eyeing them warily. Romi was all excited, his arms going like the clappers.
Damien approached the man and set his mind at ease, told him they were gardaí and what they were about.
Romi posed for his photo, his face alight with glee, attending as if he were a child on safari.
He liked the attention but he also knew this was the first sign of real progress in realising his dream.
The photos were delivered. A few days later, Damien and Alan returned to the IOM to see how things were moving along. Not well. The woman told them Romi had been in and he wasn’t taking medicine that had been prescribed him.
He would require certification from a doctor to be allowed on any plane. No problem, the men said, and set about tracking down Romi again, this time with a view to setting up an appointment with a doctor.
This would require more work as it meant having to organise Romi to turn up at a specified time.
They managed to do that and an appointment was made with Dr Austin O’Carroll for the Granby Centre in Parnell Square.
Austin O’Carroll has a well-earned reputation for putting his services at the disposal of those most in need.
Following the examination, he recommended that Romi get the all-clear also from a psychiatrist, Kevin Kilbride. Another appointment was made.
Fit to fly
Dr Kilbride assessed him and determined that Romi was fit to fly.
The two gardaí learned later that when he was alone with the psychiatrist, Romi stood up on a chair and waved his hands around, talking about how Alice and Jeanette had helped him and how he was proud that Damien and Alan were his friends.
Once again, his unique character was on display.
The wheel turned slowly. The two gardaí dropped back to the IOM to see how things were progressing.
“We were told that they had been having problems with Romi, that he came in and he was violent,” Damien says.
“I told them that if anybody was violent on their premises the thing to do was ring 999, but nobody did that.”
We got the impression that they weren’t too interested in dealing with Romi maybe because of his personality. They weren’t putting much time into getting to know him.
In a statement to the, the IOM confirmed that it had dealt with Romi’s case.
“IOM strove to apply duty of care with Mr Ramtohul. Unfortunately, we were not able to fully assist Mr Ramtohul as not all applicable procedural requirements necessary to ensure a safe and dignified return were possible, particularly with regard to health and psychosocial assessments and ensuring a tailored, needs-based approach.”
Again, Romi’s physical presence may have been unsettling but to describe him as violent was wrong.
Damien and Alan noticed that others who did get to know him always enjoyed his presence.
On occasion, he’d call into Pearse St station and if one of the pair were available they might bring him around the corner to the Spar shop for a bite to eat.
“He loved the breakfast roll,” Alan says. “The woman behind the counter in there had great time for him.”
There were repeated trips to the IOM for updates but nothing appeared to be moving.
“We were at our wits’ end,” says Damien.
Back and forth to them and it just didn’t seem to be going anywhere. It was very disheartening.
In early 2020, Alice came up with an idea. After consulting with the board of the Alice Leahy Trust she asked Damien and Alan would they organise to get Romi home. The trust would pay the cost and they would try to do it directly.
The two gardaí quickly established that Mauritius didn’t have an embassy in Ireland so it would have to be done through the country’s high commission in London.
They downloaded the passport application and corresponded with the London office.
Then Covid hit. Everything came to a halt.
The trust, like the rest of society, was forced to close the doors of its centre.
Romi’s prospects of a quick return home began to fade. All involved did their best to keep in contact with him.
Alan and Damien were driving to meet him one day and they nearly passed him going in the opposite direction.
On another occasion, they got word that he was in Brother Kevin’s, the Capuchin centre, where food is distributed, and they hightailed it over there before he’d be out the door and swallowed up by the city again.
Romi goes missing
At one point there was no sign of Romi for weeks. Alice and Jeannette made inquiries of the clients of trust.
Has anybody seen him? Had he, as can often happen, disappeared, left the city and went wandering, or worse? Death occurs frequently on the street.
Then he walked back into the trust one day, a sheepish smile playing at the corner of his mouth.
Romi had gotten into a scrape, he had been arrested for a public order offence and sentenced to two weeks in prison.
One positive about the stint was that he had put on a bit of weight.
Sometime after that Romi contracted TB, a constant hazard for those who live on the streets.
Damien and Alan got word from the public health nurse who saw Romi occasionally and with whom they had liaised.
She told them that he was on a course of medication and would have to continue it for a few months before he would be fit to travel.
On his recovery from TB, it turned out that Romi was entitled to a one-off social welfare payment of €208. He was given a receipt for the payment which was cashable through the post office.
At the GPO in O’Connell Street, there was a scene, most likely down to miscommunication and Romi’s unsettling mannerisms.
He was asked to leave so he rushed over to Pearse St station to tell his friends.
Damien came over and had a chat with the head of security, straightened things out.
The security guy explained to the teller that Romi was OK, this was a garda who was here to vouch for him.
Romi got his money and bolted for the door like a man who had just come into a fortune. Outside he wanted to repay Damien for the price of a breakfast roll, but Damien wasn’t having it.
Romi relayed all he was going to do with the money, get a proper feed, buy a radio, check out some new clothes.
By the time his list was exhausted, he’d spent €2,000 rather than €200.
As they were standing on O’Connell St, Romi listing off what he would do with his newfound wealth, a man who knew Romi from the streets approached and asked him whether he had the price of a newspaper.
Romi obliged with all the delight of a child spreading around his communion money.
“That all gave him a boost,” Damien says.
“He was in great form. He’d be popping into us in Pearse St from time to time, never giving any trouble and he began to open up about his father. And we organised to ring his father, whom I spoke to.”
His father just wanted to know how his son was.
One thing he did buy with the money was a phone, which would be vital in the time ahead as the day of his departure drew closer and he would have to be contactable at short notice.
By July 2021, the country was opening up again and Romi’s date of departure was drawing close.
When the travel documents finally arrived he was straight into Pearse St station again.
“This was what he wanted,” Damien says.
“A real sign of progress, something he could literally get his hands on.”
Preparations were made. Damien and Alan brought him to an Oxfam shop where he got kitted out with a few T-shirts, trousers, and a shirt that he said he would need for dining in the hotel where they would have to isolate on arrival.
In keeping with a tradition of preparation, he was taken for a haircut at a barber’s near Pearse St.
Damien decided to get his cut also and the pair of them trotted off, like young men about to go on their holidays.
At the Alice Leahy Trust, everybody made sure he had all he needed in terms of toiletries, underwear, socks.
Everybody was making a big deal about a man who in different circumstances would be a shadow on the street, whom people pass by with a fleeting thought of sympathy or guilt.
In the week before the flight, Damien did a dry run out to Dublin Airport with Romi, just to familiarise him with what was involved, concentrate his mind.
Then on the Friday, two days before the scheduled departure, Damien got a call from the travel agent. There was a problem.
The hotel was refusing the booking because Romi was a criminal and he was being deported by the two Irish policemen. There would have to be police officers at the hotel in Mauritius to guard him and they didn’t have that facility.
Damien was floored. Romi, a criminal? How did the hotel know that he and Alan were policemen? What exactly was going on?
He got onto London once more and explained patiently that he and Alan were helping out in getting this man home, that the Alice Leahy Trust was paying for it because Romi wanted to return to his family.
The people in the embassy appeared to take this on board, but Damien was sceptical.
Arrangements were made to take another run at it in a week’s time on the next flight. The two gardaí had to reschedule their own work and home lives.
Everything was put back by a week. Something was not right.
Why was some of the state apparatus of Mauritius making it difficult for one of their citizens to return?
They checked on whether they should just go. The one possibility where issues could arise would be in Paris where they would transfer to the direct flight to Mauritius.
They got an updated medical report and another PCR test for all three to certify that they were Covid free.
Romi had to get a new T-shirt. The one he had bought in which he was going to present himself on arrival was no longer fresh and clean.
He now also had a Leinster rugby jersey, which had been donated to the Alice Leahy Trust.
A new medical cert would be required for Romi. They got in touch with Dr Kilbride once more who facilitated them that very morning.
By then, Romi’s phone was damaged so a new one was bought for him. Communication would be vital in the 48 hours before departure.
Departure from Dublin Airport
Despite the trepidation, the three men managed to get on the flight the following Sunday.
Romi turned up on appointment, excited and nervous and wearing with pride his Leinster jersey as he walked through Dublin Airport, departing the country that had been home for so long.
Everything went smoothly. There was a five-hour stopover at Paris where their papers were checked and they recorded the name of the hotel they were bound for.
If there was going to be a problem it would have occurred here. It didn’t, and then they were in the air again, southbound, with a man on the way back home.
On arrival at Mauritius Airport, it was obvious that the trio was expected. They were taken aside in arrivals and brought to their hotel.
Within 24 hours of their arrival, Romi’s father and sister showed up at the hotel.
Because of the restricted Covid conditions, they were not allowed in and spoke to their long lost son and brother through a gate at the perimeter of the complex.
“That was when we saw how there had been a lot of confusion,” Damien says. “I realised it through talking to his sister.
“They had thought first of all that he was dead because they hadn’t heard from him for a long period and then his father said that once they heard he was coming home they thought he had embarked on a life of crime and was being deported with two policemen.”
That fed into what appeared to be the reluctance among the embassy to facilitate him returning home.
“Myself and Alan put them straight on that and after a while, they could fully appreciate that there had been big misunderstandings. All ended well on that front.”
The quarantine in the hotel lasted a week.
During that time, Romi was in his element, constantly happy, always with his headphones on, listening to music. And what was his musical taste now that he was back in his country of origin?
“I asked him at one point what he was listening to and he unplugged the headphones,” Damien says.
“It was Christy Moore, a singer it turned out Romi was mad about. He was listening to one of his favourites, ‘Ordinary Man’.”
Reunited with family
Within days, he was out the gap, released from quarantine, reunited fully with his family, and ready to set out again on the big adventure of life, saved from the streets of a faraway country where he would, in all likelihood, have become another statistic.
Alice Leahy says she and her colleagues in the trust were grateful that they were in a position to help Romi get home.
“The signposts were ahead,” she says.
“Prison, psychiatric hospitals, assault and possibly even death on the streets of our capital city — a world away from the place he called home.
“We have met so many people coming from other lands dreaming of a better future.”
Like our own people a generation ago, some coped and others didn’t.
“A life of homelessness, sleeping in parks and doorways, sustained on cheap alcohol and other drugs.
“This kind of life for many leads to a loosening of contact with family who are often unaware of the kind of life a loved one has slipped into.
“We want to share this great story to show what is possible when people work together outside their own little box and look beyond the label,” she says.