They saved lives during the pandemic -- now they're facing deportation from Ireland

(CNN)Lily was taking her lunch break at the Dublin nursing home where she works when a friend called with the news that an official-looking letter had arrived for her. 

She asked the friend to open it and read it aloud.  
"You no longer have permission to remain in the State and you must now return voluntarily to your country of origin or be deported," the letter, from Ireland's Department of Justice and Equality said. It told her she had five days to inform the authorities of her decision. 
    A flood of emotions rushed up at her, through the layers of her protective equipment. Lily said she wanted to cry, but forced the tears back down inside. 
      "I had to stay strong for the residents," she said. "So, I put on a smile but deep down it was incredibly painful."
      Lily -- whose name has been changed for her safety -- said she fled anti-LGBTQ persecution in her native Zimbabwe and came to Ireland in 2016. 
      She wanted to help others, so studied to qualify as a healthcare assistant; she landed a job as a care worker at a nursing home last year, and hopes to study for her nursing degree in future. 
        She has worked at the care home throughout the coronavirus pandemic, taking only three weeks off when she contracted the virus herself in April. 
        Near the beginning of the pandemic, the Irish Nurses and Midwives Organization reported that Ireland had the highest rate of Covid-19 infection among healthcare workers anywhere in Europe.
        Once she had recovered, Lily returned to work. In the months that followed, she said she watched as the disease took the lives of some of the elderly residents she had cared for. 
        "There were so many people dying. It was unbearable," she said.
        Now, with deportation looming, Lily feels she's facing something akin to her own death sentence.
        "They are saying the frontline workers are the heroes ... but behind closed doors they are chasing us away and kicking us back [to the countries we fled]," she said.
        The Department of Justice's letter to Lily -- issued three weeks before the country entered a second national lockdown to curb a spike in infections and fatalities from the virus -- also rendered Lily's work permit invalid with immediate effect, though she has continued working. 

        They are saying the frontline workers are the heroes ... but behind closed doors they are chasing us away and kicking us back

        Healthcare worker Constance -- whose name has also been changed, as she fears speaking out could affect her case -- works in a different nursing home, but faces a similar situation.  
        In 2019, Constance's application to remain in Ireland, again based on the anti-LGBTQ discrimination she says she faced in Zimbabwe, was rejected. She said she was told her story didn't stack up because she didn't "seem bisexual."
        Ireland's Department of Justice told CNN in a statement that it was not their policy to comment on specific immigration cases.
        In another statement, the department said it follows the UNHCR guidance in "relation to claims for international protection based on sexual orientation and/or gender identity," and that training for caseworkers and interviewers "is very comprehensive and is conducted in conjunction with the UNHCR."
        The department said each case was examined on its individual merits, with decisions made as quickly as possible. 
        "This ensures that those who are found to be in need of our protection can receive it quickly and begin rebuilding their lives here with a sense of safety and security," it said. 
        After her application for permission to remain in Ireland was rejected, Constance appealed on "humanitarian grounds," a process which takes into account a person's character, their conduct and the nature of their connection to the State. 
        Given her longstanding dedication to Ireland's most vulnerable people -- both before and during the pandemic -- and a glowing reference from her employer, who said her work was essential, Constance said had she felt hopeful that her appeal would succeed. 
        Instead, she received a letter on October 28, calling for her deportation. She said she had been left heartbroken, her memories of Ireland's public show of solidarity for healthcare workers earlier in the pandemic now faded and tarnished.

        'A hundred thousand welcomes'

        Speaking in the Irish parliament in May, the then Minister for Health, Simon Harris, acknowledged the contributions of some 160 migrant healthcare workers living in "direct provision," the country's controversial system for asylum seekers
        Harris said he was extending a "céad míle fáilte" -- meaning "a hundred thousand welcomes" -- to those migrant healthcare workers.
        But for those facing deportation, like Lily and Constance, his welcome rings hollow.
        In its August report: "Powerless: Experiences of Direct Provision During the Covid-19 Pandemic,"