Kamil Tomko was 16 when his parents told him his family was moving to Ireland. He was not surprised by their decision to leave Slovakia – the family had parents in Ireland and had regularly talked about moving abroad to build a better life. He tried to mentally prepare for the change, but was deeply concerned about leaving behind friends who truly understood him.
Born in the village of Markusovce, in central Slovakia, Tomko was sent from an early age to a specialized boarding school for visually impaired children. “My parents always knew I had vision problems, but they didn’t realize how serious it was until I went to school in my village. I was not able to read normally and had problems with letters.
Growing up in a Roma family, Tomko did not speak Slovak when he started at the special school in the city of Levoca and took additional courses to learn the language.
Despite this additional challenge, he quickly moved into the place that became “my second home”. He did homework on traditional Braille typewriters and enjoyed studying chemistry, geography, history and Slovak literature. His younger brother Maros, who also had a visual impairment, also attended school.
“I loved school so much and was actually very good at it. My teacher recognized that I had the knowledge to do more than special classes and placed me in regular school classes.
“They taught me a lot, thanks to them I learned to use a cane and to be independent in my personal life.”
Tomko was still two years away from school when his parents announced they were leaving Slovakia. The plan was to join an aunt at Co Longford who would act as a translator once they arrived. However, shortly before the move, the aunt died suddenly.
“I remember she used to say on the phone that she had these headaches. Then we got a message that she was in the hospital and it was getting worse and worse. “
“She had lived here for 13 years, she was the one who was going to help us find schools. She had a brother and he helped us find a school for my little brothers and sisters. But for me and my brother it was more complicated.
Arrived at Longford
The family arrived in Longford in September 2019. Tomko’s parents had no English and relied on family ties to start building a life in Ireland, while Tomko knew only a few sentences in English. Additionally, arriving in a new location without fully utilizing your sight made it extremely difficult to settle into life in Longford.
Tomko describes his vision as “complicated” and explains that he can see when he’s outside and the weather is nice, but it’s harder to see things inside. “In each situation, I see it differently. When I know a place, I can focus on the things around me and remember what it looks like in my memory. But when I don’t know the place it’s more difficult. When it’s bright and I’m outside I can see, but when it’s dark I always ask for help.
Tomko reflects on his first year in Ireland, which coincided with the outbreak of the pandemic, as a frustrating, lonely and boring time. He spent most of his time indoors with his family “while waiting”.
After a few months in Ireland, Tomko and his brother were assessed by a visually impaired visiting instructor who had been called in to see her younger sister, who also suffered from some minor vision problems.
The couple were referred to ChildVision in Dublin through the charity’s outreach services and in October 2020 they moved into the education centre’s fixed-term residential service and started attending school local community of Rosmini.
The brothers attend the center at no cost to their parents, as the services are covered by funding from the HSE, the Department of Education and through fundraising.
The year before he moved to Dublin, Tomko worked hard to learn English through YouTube videos and audio stories. “I watched movies in English but it was difficult because I couldn’t understand and I couldn’t read the subtitles. So I decided to listen to fairy tales for little kids instead.
On his first day at ChildVision, Tomko relied on the translation app on his phone to communicate with people. Fourteen months later, he speaks English effortlessly and with real confidence.
Tomko, who is now in fifth grade, says his teachers were instrumental in helping him improve his English, especially when schools were closed during Covid and he was working from home.
He uses the JAWS computer screen reading program for the visually impaired on his laptop and the Polaris Braillesense note taker for homework. He also learned more independence skills from adults at ChildVision, like using a washing machine and cooking simple meals.
He made new friends in central Dublin, but he still misses his classmates in Slovakia. He also admits to being jealous to see these friends move on to the third level when he was held back for a few years in school to catch up with the Irish education system. Going from first-class status in Slovakia to low grades in Ireland is frustrating, he adds.
Tomko spends weekends with his family in Longford but struggles to hang out with his younger siblings who don’t understand that their older brother has eyesight issues. He developed a love for horseback riding in Ireland through ChildVision’s equestrian programs, but misses the boxing and athletics he practiced in Slovakia.
However, the 18-year-old is optimistic about the future and has determined that his vision will not hold him back and impact his potential. “I would love to work in IT with a company like Google,” he says with a smile. “I want a lot for my life. I would also like to teach geography or history to children with eye problems.
When asked what he thinks of Ireland, Tomko answers honestly. “When you ask me what I like about Ireland, all I know about this country is ChildVision, the Rosmini school and a few shops in Longford. So how can I tell you if I really like Dublin or Ireland?
“I know Slovakia well because I was there until I was 16. Maybe in a few years I can talk about Ireland that way. But I’m not one of those people who will just say, “Ireland is great”. I’m still honest and don’t know yet, I’m only here for a short time.