The story of William, an undocumented migrant, ending up in Ireland, a country he had barely heard of, hiding from immigration and finally building one of the most diverse companies in the region.
William Silva had never been on a plane before he left Brazil on the first of three flights that took him and his mom to Ireland in 2007. His dad had arrived in the country some months before and immediately began working to pay their airfare.
More and more excited with each successive flight, the pair were “over the moon” by the time they touched down in Dublin.
“Obviously, Ireland is very, very different from Brazil,” remembers William. “Everything’s so green. The day we arrived was very cold. It was frosty all over and it was a bit wet, like the beginning of spring. So, it was bad weather, but we loved it.”
Reunited with his dad, William and his mom drove from Dublin to their new home in Gort, County Galway. They couldn’t believe how green the countryside was.
“Everything was so gorgeous,” says William. “Looking at the fields, everything so green. We loved it. I remember it as if it was today.”
Anywhere but Brazil
William says that the life-changing journey he and his mom made back then wasn’t so much about Ireland as it was just getting away from Brazil.
“We wanted a different life,” says William of his family’s time in Goiânia, a large city in the country’s central west. “Because in Brazil we didn’t really have much opportunity.”
“We were born very poor. And usually people born poor in Brazil, they keep poor for the rest of their life. They don’t get much chance.”
Although he arrived on a tourist visa, William was in Ireland to work, despite knowing very little about the place (he had to Google the country when his dad went over) and not speaking a word of English.
But he did know how to mix cement, push wheelbarrows and carry blocks.
“At the time, it was quite okay to get a job and immigration wouldn’t bother you. Now these days, it’s different,” says William, before adding with just a hint of an Irish brogue. “But at the time it was grand.”
Thanks to the help of the Brazilian community in Gort, William got the documentation to work in construction, access public services etc. He also “really got stuck into” studying English.
“I said, if I want to live here, I need to know how to speak, how to understand people. I got into books and studying every day.”
William says it had an immediate positive effect:
“I was able to study for my driving license, pass the test, and things start to happen. Knowing the language, it makes you go further.”
Although it was hard work, within two or three years, William spoke English well enough to start his own business.
“I was able to approach people and hand out little cards and said, look, I’m able to do painting and gardening, I’m able to clean your shed or do maintenance.”
“They could see the effort that I was putting in,” he adds. “It was not my country. It was not my mother tongue. They appreciated that and give me the work.”
It was around this time that William met Danna, another Brazilian ex-pat already living in Ireland. William’s three-month tourist visa had run out long before but, as everyone told him, “if you don’t bother immigration, they don’t bother you”.
It seemed that it was unlikely the couple would be deported if they’d been settled in Ireland for more than five years, and they resolved to bide their time.
“What we had to do was literally hide, you know, work quietly, get your money, go home, don’t party, don’t go out, you know, avoid trouble. And that’s what we did.”
After 10 years, having had their first child, William and Danna applied for permission to remain in Ireland. It took another seven years for a decision on their status, and last March the family learned that they can stay in the country for another five years – and apply for full citizenship one year after that.
The beauty of difference
Wary of complications – increased tax, documentation and red tape – William and Danna were always careful to keep their team small, but the last couple of years has seen significant expansion.
William pinpoints his unrepentantly perfectionist outlook as key to this:
“That’s how we built our company and our name. Doing everything so perfect, so good that people wouldn’t complain, that people wouldn’t talk bad about us.
“The opportunity knocked on the door. And I said, OK, we’re going to give it a try. Let’s see how it goes. And we got so much work this year that we had to hire more people.”
Although the couple are very hands-on – William is described as Head Painter on their website and Danna manages the office and acts as in-house color consultant – the company’s headcount has grown to 17, including five women.
William says that he and Danna simply look for staff with “good manners, who get along with people. That’s the most important thing because the job itself, we can train them. Anything that you teach a man to do, the women can do exactly the same.”
“When I walk into people’s house, you can see their smile. You can see their face changing when I come in with one or two women beside me and say, look, we’re all painters.”
“I mean, there’s no difference. I’m a black person. I have a colored skin. I married a white woman. She’s blonde. And in our team, we’re men, women, gays and lesbians. So what? We treat everybody equally.
“There’s no difference. And they’re all good workers.”
Home is where the heart is
They may be a long way from where they were born, but William and Danna feel at home in Ireland.
In Galway City, says William, you will find people from all over the world – Chinese, Japanese, Korean people and Brazilians, as well as Irish people. “And it kind of feels like we are in the right place.