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From Russia with love


ON DUTY Natalya Pestova is pictured with Michael Ring, TD, former Minister for Rural and Community Development at the South West Mayo Development company’s office in Balla with Elzbieta Giziska from Mayo Intercultural Action back in 2017. Pic: Keith Heneghan/Phocus

Áine Ryan

HER native city of Kirov in Russia could be in another universe for Castlebar resident Natalya Pestova. She has lived in Co Mayo since 2002, and has worked with Mayo Intercultural Action (MIA), now under the remit of South-West Mayo Development Company, for nearly a decade.
Due to the Covid-19 pandemic travel restrictions, her brother’s planned first visit to Co Mayo had to be deferred this summer as well as her own plans to go on holidays to Crimea.  
“My brother and his wife planned to visit me in Ireland for the first time, hoping to make it to the Uefa Euro tournament 2020, which was postponed by 12 months. That was disappointing, but we are hoping that 2021 will be the end of Covid. I was hoping to visit Crimea this summer, but it did not happen either.
“And I am going to miss Russia this winter. I love skiing and snow, and our New Year celebrations. Last summer I went home for a family bereavement at a very short notice, but this year it would be difficult to do so,” she says.
“Like Ireland, Russia is going through a second wave of the coronavirus pandemic,”
Pestova tells The Mayo News: “There is a requirement to wear masks, but it is not followed up. My cousin is a TV journalist in Kirov and he keeps me updated. He says people are tired of being scared. They choose to work instead of panic. Everything is open including public services. There are no social benefits to live on and the economic concerns prevail over public health ones. The numbers of cases and deaths are likely understated. There is no Covid vaccine available, only trials, but flu vaccine became hugely popular this year.”
Whilst not having an extended family network in Ireland, Natalya has remained in contact with loved-ones through online communications which have provided comfort.
“In crisis we tend to connect with people who matter the most, whether we are separated two meters, or living continents apart. I started to build stronger links with extended family in Russia who live in Kirov, Siberia and Moscow. We set up a WhatsApp group to share news about the pandemic, the Russian presidential referendum and to get to know each other. We have even done a family tree during this time.”

Human rights
BEFORE moving to Ireland, Pestova worked as a young lawyer and university lecturer in Kirov. Her loved of academia has since culminated in a PhD in NUIG in International Human Rights on the subject of the responsibilities of local government in the provision of clean water for its communities.      
These days her priorities are working for the rights and needs of those in Direct Provision in Co Mayo, which, since last March, she mainly does from her home office in Castlebar.
“People in Direct Provision displayed remarkable resilience during the pandemic. Quite a number of women asylum seekers in Mayo are employed as healthcare assistants and intend to continue supporting Ireland through this tough time,” she explains, adding that the first wave of Covid-19 was tough for migrants and people in Direct Provision.
“Asylum cases, immigration permissions, family reunification – all procedures were postponed, which can badly affect some people. I am currently working with a man who has a family emergency abroad but is unable to do anything, as his status is not confirmed for almost a year,” she says.  
Dr Pestova observes that while the socially isolating restrictions and curbed freedoms of pandemic living can be remarkably difficult, many of Ireland’s newest residents have been living in such traumatic circumstances for years.
She cites the opinion of one asylum seeker: “During Covid I don’t feel any different. Ten years in Direct Provision I am in lockdown already – not allowed to work, to drive, to travel. The only difference to me is that people wear masks.”