Health and Fitness

‘When it’s bright outside I’m able to see. When it’s dark I always ask for help’

Kamil Tomko was 16 years old when his parents told him his family was moving to Ireland. He wasn’t surprised by their decision to leave Slovakia – the family had relatives in Ireland and had regularly spoken about moving abroad to build a better life. He tried to prepare himself mentally for the change but felt deeply apprehensive about leaving behind the friends who really understood him.

Born in the village of Markusovce in central Slovakia, Tomko was sent to a specialist boarding school for children with visual impairments from an early age. “My parents always knew I had vision problems but didn’t realise how bad it was before I went to school in my village. I wasn’t able to read normally and had trouble with letters.”

Growing up in a Roma household, Tomko did not speak Slovak when he started at the specialist school in the town of Levoca and took extra classes to learn the language.

Despite this additional challenge, he settled quickly into the place that became “my second home”. He did assignments on traditional Braille typewriters and loved studying chemistry, geography, history and Slovak literature. His younger brother Maros, who also had a visual impairment, attended the school too.

“I liked school so much and I was actually very good at it. My teacher recognised that I had the knowledge to do more than the special classes and put me in the ordinary school classes.

“They taught me a lot, because of them I learned how to use a cane and how to be independent in my personal life.”

Tomko had two more years of school left when his parents announced they were leaving Slovakia. The plan was to join an aunt in Co Longford who would act as a translator once they arrived. However, shortly before the move, the aunt died unexpectedly.

“I remember she used to say on the phone she was getting these headaches. Then we got a message that she was in hospital and it got worse and worse.”

“She had lived here for 13 years, she was the one who was going to help us find schools. She had one 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 in Longford

The family arrived in Longford in September 2019. Tomko’s parents had no English and relied on family connections to start building a life in Ireland, while Tomko knew only a couple of English phrases. What’s more, arriving in a new place without the full use of his sight made settling into life in Longford extremely difficult.

Tomko describes his vision as “complicated” and explains that he can see when he’s outdoors and the weather is bright, but that seeing things indoors is more difficult. “In every situation I can see differently. When I know a place, I can concentrate on 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’m able to 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 family “just waiting”.

After a few months in Ireland, Tomko and his brother were assessed by a visiting teacher for the visually impaired who had been called to see his younger sister, who also suffers from some minor sight issues.

The pair were referred to ChildVision in Dublin through the charity’s outreach services and in October 2020, they moved into the education centre’s term-time residential service and started attending the local Rosmini Community School.

The brothers attend the centre at no cost to their parents as services are covered through funding from the HSE, the Department of Education and through fundraising.

In the year before he moved to Dublin, Tomko worked hard to learn English through YouTube videos and audio stories. “I watched some English movies but it was difficult because I did not understand and was not able to read the subtitles. So I decided to listen to fairytales for small children instead.”

On his first day at ChildVision, Tomko relied on the translation app on his phone to communicate with people. Fourteen months on, he speaks English effortlessly and with real confidence.

Teachers help

Tomko, who is now in fifth year, says his school teachers have been instrumental in helping him improve his English, particularly when schools were closed during Covid and he was working from home.

He uses the JAWS computer screen reader programme for people with visual impairments on his laptop and the Braillesense Polaris notetaker to do his schoolwork. He has also learned more adult independence skills at ChildVision such as using a washing machine and cooking some simple dishes.

He has made friends at the centre in Dublin but still misses his classmates from Slovakia. He also admits feeling jealous seeing these friends progress to third level while he was held back a few years in school to catch up with the Irish education system. Coming from being top of the class in Slovakia to scoring low school marks in Ireland, is frustrating, he adds.

Tomko spends the weekends with his family in Longford but finds it difficult to be around his younger siblings who do not understand their eldest brother has trouble with his eyesight. He’s developed a love for horse-riding in Ireland through equine programmes at ChildVision but misses the boxing and athletics he did in Slovakia.

However, the 18-year-old is positive about the future and determined that his vision will not hold him back or impact his potential. “I’d like to work in computers 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.”

Asked how he feels about Ireland, Tomko answers honestly. “When you ask me what I like about Ireland, all I know in this country is ChildVision, 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 till I was 16. Maybe in a few years I can talk about Ireland in that way. But I’m not one of those people who will just say, ‘Ireland is great’. I’m always honest and I don’t know yet, I’m only here a short time.”

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