Ronald Vellem: A tireless passion for helping others
RONALD Vellem was a big man with a huge heart and a passion for helping people.
He used his own experiences as a refugee fleeing persecution to support many others in the often lonely and complicated path of seeking asylum.
Ronald identified with people on the most human level and was dedicated to defending their rights.
Having had to leave behind a career in teaching in Zimbabwe, he studied law while juggling work and family to ensure he could perform his new role to the best of his ability.
His impact has been felt by countless other families who have made their home in Northern Ireland and all who worked alongside him and benefited from his wit and gentle wisdom.
Ronald grew up 5,000 miles from Belfast in a small farming town called Trelawney, about 60 miles from Zimbabwe’s capital Harare.
He was the eldest of two boys and five girls and his father Nicholas was headteacher of the local primary school.
After high school he decided to follow in his footsteps, attending teacher training college where he met his future wife Lilian. They married in 1994 and had two children, Kudzai and Panashe.
Ronald loved his job teaching in a primary school and outside work indulged passions for reggae music and football – he was an avid Arsenal supporter. However, his life was soon to be turned upside down.
By the turn of the century, President Robert Mugabe had begun losing his iron grip on power and embarked a brutal clampdown on perceived dissent.
As an active member of the Zimbabwe Teachers Association, Ronald’s life came under threat and he decided to flee the country.
His brother Reginald had left a few months earlier and sought political asylum in Northern Ireland. Ronald followed him in October 2002 and the following February was granted refugee status.
His first priority was seeing his family again and, with the help of the Red Cross organisation, they were reunited in Belfast.
He and Lilian then decided to dedicate themselves to helping others in similar situations.
Having being a father figure for his own siblings following the death of his father in 1997, he would perform a similar role for hundreds of other asylum seekers over the next two decades.
He began by volunteering with the NI Council for Ethnic Minorities, then helped found the NI Community of Refugees and Asylum Seekers, a refugee-led organisation giving a voice to those going through the asylum process and offering practical support such as food and money.
Ronald then volunteered with the Law Centre’s legal support project and, after completing his law degree at the Open University, became a full-time adviser and representative.
Director Ursula O’Hare said he was a “perfect fit”.
“Ronald lived the values he held dear; his work was simply a professional expression of who he was and what he stood for. He was a trusted adviser to many and a great advocate for others working in the social security tribunals across Northern Ireland.
“Ronald knew how to build community and in his quiet, gentle and unassuming way, without fanfare or fuss, he understood that his contribution could change people’s lives and he never flagged in his determination to do just that.”
Liz Griffith of the centre’s Migration Justice Project said that despite his own traumatic experiences, Ronald never spoke ill of those who made him leave home or of anyone else he encountered.
“We were so blessed to have him. Ronald was calm and unflappable, gentle and with an infinite sense of wisdom. He was generous with his time and leaves an enormous hole.”
Ronald worked closely on many projects with the Corrymeela Community over the years, with integration of refugees into the community being close to his heart.
Recently, he had also fought hard to ensure people on asylum support were included in the £100 high street voucher scheme, a landmark achievement for the sector.
Ronald was fit and healthy and enjoyed his life in Belfast with this family, having recently moved out to Newtownwabbey.
However, after contracting Covid two months ago he required admission to hospital and tragically died from complications on February 12. He was just 56.
A celebration of his life took place at the Salvation Army’s Belfast Citadel and his mother Anna will travel from Zimbabwe for his funeral there on March 7.