Belfast

Guest Post: belonging.

'I came to the UK in 1993 to marry my husband who is a British citizen.  Before I came we followed the rules and regulations.   We went the British High Commission to get my visa; I had an interview and showed letters my fiancé sent me and proof  that he could support me i.e. bank statements, deeds of his house, letter from his employers to prove he had a permanent job as well as proof we had met before.  Later when I came here I met others who had either come to the UK on tourist or other temporary visas and then got permission to stay here.

 

A woman I know was allowed to enter the UK after she married a man who had no permanent home or job and had several children for whom he was responsible financially, a few years later the man left her and went abroad, when she fell ill with cancer; at that time they had two very young children and this meant the state had to care for all of them.  Another lady married after coming here, and working illegally, so she could stay.  Because of these sorts of people those of us who are genuine are treated with suspicion.  I have no objection to anyone coming to this country but there cannot be different rules, immigrants must prove as I did they will not be a burden on the state.  When I arrived I was forced to undergo an X ray for TB but I have read that disease is growing in the UK because of migrants and I wonder why those entering from countries with high rates of TB are not scanned, my original country does not have high rates of that disease.

 

In 2005 I had a stroke and was given the carer's component of disability living allowance and the mobility component but after one year these were taken away but when I appealed the carer's component was restored.  Later I went before a panel about the mobility allowance and their response was quite obviously motivated by some degree of racial prejudice and was so unpleasant I was affected seriously both in body and mind. 

 

We have always paid our fair share of taxes and when my father in law died we were deprived of quite a large sum of money.  I have no objection to the state taking taxes but when I see how it is misdirected I get angry.  It seems those who contribute little or nothing get preference when there is anything to be given.  In my own case I experienced the revenue checking up on my small income just before one Christmas and they were demanding proof of every penny which spoiled the festive season for all of us; in the end after I had got copies of every document together they closed the case without looking at them because all they wanted to know was how I had bought a house.  I was told afterwards that was because my given name was obviously foreign. I have since added an English given name by deed poll.

 

This is nice country and after marrying I became a British citizen and am proud of my adopted country but I fear for the future of my children because the government does not care for those of us who are British but worries more about everyone else.  In my original country there was a policy of discrimination against outsiders and even those of us who were descendants of immigrants but here it is the reverse.  Too many migrants do not integrate, are too demanding, complain too much and still think of their homelands.'


Jessica (Poh Kian) was a participant in the Belonging Project. Her interview and portrait can be found here. If you have a story that you'd like to share, send it to internsbmc@gmail.com and we will publish it.

The Human Narrative of Belonging

 

BY: LAUREN RENFRO

I am by no means an expert in any of this. Feel free to comment and challenge what I've written

The dictionary defines belonging as the “fitting into a specified place or environment.” For most people, it is easy to belong -- to their family, to their community, to their city, to their country. It is that sense of security and familiarity with the conditions and lifestyle that allows one to feel like they truly belong to a place. Imagine then, for a moment, being stripped of that luxury. What happens when we no longer belong, when we no longer have a safe place to run to when we are frightened, when there is no home to belong to anymore? That gives at least a glimpse into the perpetual reality of a migrant.

 

There is an army of emotions that accompanies the journey of a migrant. Fear, loss, anxiety, depression, dread, and a small glimmer of hope that the new life will be better. These emotions are not unfounded. Moving to a place where everything is different -- the language, the culture, the dress, the food, the demographics, the expectations -- can be a massive shock to the system. It can derail people and cause feelings of rejection, of cultural alienation, or deculturation (the loss of a cultural identity). And local people can make the transition even more challenging if they harbour intense fears based in biases or stereotypes or prejudices that are most often utterly inaccurate. Fear mongering in the media and new sources create spurious attitudes that are damaging not only to the people on the receiving end of the hate, but the society as a whole in the long run. There has yet to be any truthful and sufficient proof showing that migrants have negative effects on the host countries. More often than not, migrants add to a country’s economy, boosting GDP and business efficiency. They bring new ideas and new practices into communities that allow for growth and development that would not have been possible previously.

 

So why is hate and discrimination so persistent?

 

The ironclad grasp of discrimination is self-perpetuating; the hate is passed down generation to generation until there is no longer a recognisable reason for said hate. It turns into the answer of, “oh, it’s just the way it has always been.” Which is also quite possibly the worst reason to hate someone. There is hope, however, for an end to the cycle. Thanks to globalisation and the ever-increasing use of technology, people are ever more connected and able to understand the stories of others. The younger generations are (mostly) more tolerant and compassionate towards people that are different from them, though there are always exceptions to the rule. On the whole, growing up in a technology-permeated society talking to people they may never see and hearing stories from the other side of the world has given this generation a leg up in the world. And if each generation continues to raise the next with not as “us versus them” mentality but one of understanding and compassion and humanity, then maybe there is hope for a world where belonging is no longer something to fear losing.

 

This is where the ‘Belonging’ Project comes in. It is our aim to create the potential for a more empathetic population. In the week that I have been in Belfast, every single person I have talked to has been warm and welcoming and more than happy to help. It did not matter race, religion, gender, sexuality, ability -- they were friendly and obliging. The people of this country have already been through so much horror, just listening to the history from tour guides and other people from many different perspectives and hearing about everything that happened, it is amazing to see how far Belfast in particular has come. I would be at loathe to see anyone welcomed less warmly than I was. We are all, ultimately, human and deserve respect and kindness. With the 'Belonging' Project, we hope to further address the biases by bringing the issues to a human level, one where people can connect to and see themselves in the stories of others. We are never too old nor too young to begin seeing the world differently, and if even one person’s life is changed for the better, then the work is not in vain because that one person’s life can go on to touch those of countless others.

 

These photos and stories and lives are more than separate accounts -- they are part of the human narrative that ties us all together.

 

More to the Stories

BY LAURENCE GIBSON

Having grown up in Belfast I am fascinated by the changing society, culture and landscape. I return regularly to both the North and South of Ireland to work on projects. Initially I was working with a journalist on a story on modern day slavery. On contacting the Migrant Centre of Northern Ireland I met with Jolena Flett. It became quickly apparent through our conversation that there was much more to migrants' stories than abusive working conditions although these are important to highlight. Jolena challenged me as to whether the story we were running was anything ‘new’ to the public’s front page. The phrase that kept on coming up in conversation was "these people are human beings", with the current crisis and migration from Syria, I think this is often forgotten.

Photograph by Allan Leonard for Northern Ireland Foundation

Photograph by Allan Leonard for Northern Ireland Foundation

After the meeting with Jolena I went away to think about how better to portray the lives of migrants coming to our country. Having grown up in Northern Ireland I have seen an enormous change in the population with new cultures coming in. It's fantastic. After some months I came up with the concept of the Belonging Project, which after a little discussion with Jolena we started. The main premise being to personalise the topic of migration, to remind the public that migrants are not a cohesive group aiming to invade the country and assimilate the population. These are fascinating individuals from cultures different from our own who can enrich our society, with new perspectives of the world.

The medium of the exhibition was to be still photographs and audio interviews. I had never done audio recordings before but I had seen this medium work fantastically in others work. This was to be a more reflective exhibition than video interviews. In audio interviews with still photographs you allow the viewer time to study the person visually, whilst experiencing them telling their own story in the audio track.

The project has been more successful than both I or the Migrant Centre of Northern Ireland had imagined. From very humble beginnings of five portraits in a makeshift gallery space in the Migrant Centre offices, we have gone to a touring exhibition round Northern Ireland and even being taken to the Southbank Centre in London as part of their Adopting Britain Exhibition. Libraries NI have provided a vital role in providing us with exhibition space in the community around Northern Ireland being the organisation to first discover us in our makeshift gallery night almost two years ago. We have been most helped by funding from a variety of sources without which the project could not have continued and grown. I am so pleased see the project continuing in a new and sustainable direction with the toolkit being launched as an educational resource to enlighten the public as to these valuable people who are joining our society.

The Project has achieved much more than I had ever hoped. Public education is obviously paramount to our mission, but there are many seemingly smaller effects that aren’t so obvious. The simple act of allowing these people to tell their stories and celebrate them in a public context is an enormous opportunity. Allowing them to speak with pride of their culture, and reflect openly on how their life has changed. There are many parts to different individuals stories which can be used to dispel misconceptions and stereotypes of ‘the migrant’, “I had a good life in my home country”, “I cried for the first two weeks”, “I was heavily pregnant with now way of communicating to the doctors and nurses that surrounded me”, “When I am in Portugal I miss Northern Ireland, when I am in Northern Ireland I miss Portugal”. These reflections are vital to humanising the individuals who choose to move to our country. Their reasons for moving are varied from fleeing conflict to simply looking for a better life for their family. Let's start treating these people as individuals not numbers on a government statistics table. We must be conscious to treat these people on an individual basis; just like our own society they are not all good and not all bad. But before we baton down the hatches let us find out who they really are.

Battling the Misconceptions of Migration

BY KEVIN BRISKIN

The United Nations made the matter clear in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights that "Everyone has the right to leave any country, including his own," and "Everyone has the right to seek and to enjoy in other countries asylum from persecution."  Europe is facing the daunting challenge of managing hundreds of thousands of refugees escaping the horrors of their homelands while upholding the human rights entrenched in the UN's declaration.  World leaders, charity organizations, activists, and everyday people moved by the images of displaced and deceased refugees have united behind the cause of housing and caring for refugees.  However, there are still holdouts who are skeptical of the need to take in refugees or the impact of allowing foreigners into their countries' borders.  Fortunately, according to experts those fears can be assuaged.

The Belonging Project seeks to exhibit new cultures and break down the walls between those born in Northern Ireland and those who come from somewhere else and bring their own unique identities.  Belonging shows that differences in culture, ethnicity, and country of origin are nothing to be feared or discriminate against.  But what about the issues beyond culture?  Are migrants and refugees to be feared for economic reasons?

We need them right now. We’ll need them even more in the coming years.
— Swedish Minister for Migration Morgan Johansson

According to a Queen's University report commissioned by the Centre for Democracy and Peace Building last year, the answer is a resounding "no".  In fact, migrants contributed £1.2 billion to the Northern Ireland economy from 2004 to 2008 the report says.  Looking at statistics on population, employment, benefits, healthcare, education, crime, and social cohesion Professor Peter Shirlow and Dr. Richard Montague claim that migrants actually provide more for Northern Ireland than is asked for in return.  Despite a disproportionate use of the NHS budget, migrants overall pay more in taxes than they cost in services.

The report was commissioned in response to racial hate crimes was supported by former Belfast Lord Mayor Nichola Mallon.  "The report provides a strong evidence base for Belfast as a city to be able to champion the positive social and economic benefits of diversity and to continue to promote Belfast as a welcoming city," Mallon declared.

Now, a year after the report was published, Europe is facing a crisis of migration and refugees.  Displaced people, largely from Syria, Eritrea, and Afghanistan, are attempting to find safety beyond their home borders.  According to Sweden's Minister for Migration Morgan Johansson, refugees in the current crisis can have the same positive impact on European countries as indicated in the 2014 report.  "In the long run it can be a benefit for a country," says Johansson.  "Just see that the Syrians who are coming to Sweden; one third of them, one third, have a higher education.  They have at least two years on a university level.  That's medical doctors, that's engineers, that's nurses, that's sometimes people that we know we really need in the Swedish economy.  We need them right now.  We'll need them even more in the coming years."

The economic activity of migrants often outpaces those born and raised in Northern Ireland, states the Belfast Telegraph.  The same article notes that migrants contribute in less tangible ways, such as having encouraging new ideas and improving efficiency.  Migrants "have helped our public services, particularly health and care services, to continue functioning and made a significant contribution to the cultural diversity and attractiveness of Northern Ireland."

Following the release of the Queen's University report in 2014, Professor Shirlow declared that "The report and its findings are profoundly important because they completely rebut the stereotypes that have plagued our migrant population in recent years.

"People need to be educated about the facts.

"We frequently hear claims that migrants take our jobs and use up our limited services. Migrants pose no threat to our society. This report will hopefully go some way towards changing the conversation about migrants in Northern Ireland."

The Belfast Telegraph articles concludes that "Our experience of immigration in Northern Ireland has been largely positive. People from other places have come here and played a valuable part in enriching our towns and cities. Refugees, given the chance, could do the same."

The Humanity That Unites Us

BY JASMINE McGHEE

Every human being on this planet deserves the right to mobility, the ability to leave ones home in search of a job, education, adventure, or simply a better life. I can personally speak to the importance of this right: I left my own home in the United States to travel across the ocean to Northern Ireland. I went for a six-month internship working as the new coordinator of the Belonging Project, an opportunity that would prove to be hugely impactful. But, my story is a comparatively easy one. I am privileged to attend a university that supports global education and world travel. I was able to come to the United Kingdom on a sponsored visa, which only required a little bit of paperwork and a copy of my fingerprints. I wasn’t fleeing my country because of persecution, violence, poverty, or unemployment. I had a safe, stable home to which I could return when my internship finished.  

On the other hand, many of the migrants whom I encountered as coordinator of the Belonging Project do not have such simple, straightforward stories. Some are mothers and fathers, leaving their home countries to obtain economic stability in order to create better lives for their children. Some are artists- authors, poets, and musicians, who are determined to share their stories of living as refugees or growing up during apartheid. And, many of these individuals are leaving war-torn countries, in the hopes of living safely somewhere else.

Jasmine (left-centre) with Belonging Project Photographer Laurence Gibson (left), Migrant Centre Advice and Advocacy Manager Jolena Flett (right-centre), and High Sheriff of Belfast Gareth McKee at Belfast City Hall.  (Photography credit: Allan Leonard)

Jasmine (left-centre) with Belonging Project Photographer Laurence Gibson (left), Migrant Centre Advice and Advocacy Manager Jolena Flett (right-centre), and High Sheriff of Belfast Gareth McKee at Belfast City Hall.  (Photography credit: Allan Leonard)

Unfortunately, the problems of these migrants often do not end once they find a new home. Migrants in Northern Ireland, and in countries across the world, face discrimination, hate crime, and racism. They are often treated as a singular, cohesive group, instead of as individual people from differing backgrounds. However, this perspective is so very wrong.

When I met Plamena, she expressed her desire to share Bulgarian culture with the people of Northern Ireland, through dance, food, and festivals. She glowed with pride when discussing her family business in Armagh, but even more so when recounting the academic success of her children. Vasundhara, a teacher and activist from India, told me about her political work in India, and her new passion for political work in Northern Ireland. Even though I couldn’t understand Luis’s Portuguese during his interview, I could see the joyous sparkle in his eyes and I could hear the enthusiasm in his voice as he recounted tales from his childhood. I was both overjoyed and surprised when Sangeetha, world traveler and loving mother, decided to sing a song in her own Tamil language during her interview. She was fearless and confident, proud of her music and her culture. Yes, these people are migrants, but they are foremostly human beings.

When I interviewed my first subject, a lovely young woman named Luminita from Moldova, I was nervous and anxious about how to connect with her. I remember sticking the microphone too close to her face, and awkwardly mumbling the questions. But, I soon learned that the best way to connect with my subjects was to let them take charge of the conversation, while I simply listened and reflected as they shared their stories. For anyone reading this blog post and learning about the Belonging Project for the first time, I recommend that you try the same technique. There is so much to learn from this project about the migrant experience, and the human experience, and I hope that more and more people take the time to listen and learn. I am so grateful to have contributed to and learned from the Belonging Project, and I am proud to watch as it grows and develops.