Northern Ireland

The Human Narrative of Belonging



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.


Love thy neighbour? Exploring prejudice against ethnic minority groups in a divided society: the case of Northern Ireland


This study was inspired by my personal history and experiences of Northern Ireland. I was born in London to Northern Irish parents and I frequently travel back to visit family there. I have long been intrigued by Northern Irish attitudes to both the sectarian divide and, more recently, towards their growing ethnic minority and migrant communities. More recently, my attention has been drawn to coverage in the Northern Irish media of growing hostility to minority communities there, expressed both as prejudice and outright violence. Although only a small minority of the Northern Irish population perpetrates the violence, it is clear that latent negative attitudes towards ethnic minorities are more widespread.

The Police Service of Northern Ireland report increasing numbers of racially motivated incidents and crimes since 2010, reversing a sustained fall in the previous decade. In 2013/2014 the number of racist incidents reported was 30.9% higher than a year earlier, even though reported sectarian incidents had fallen by 6.4% in the same period. These racially motivated incidents were predominantly concentrated in the capital, Belfast; similar trends are seen for those racially motivated incidents meeting the criteria to be considered criminal.

While Northern Ireland is not unique in experiencing considerable migration in recent years, what makes it different from the rest of the United Kingdom is that this is a recent phenomenon. Northern Ireland was, until relatively recently, ethnically homogenous. Geographical isolation and lack of employment opportunities excluded it from the post-war Commonwealth migration to Great Britain. Other than the small, long-established Jewish community, most migrants were Hong Kong Chinese, with a few doctors from the Indian sub-continent. The promise of peace after the Good Friday Agreement created better working conditions and this, coupled with EU expansion, brought a new wave of economic migrants into the region. Many were from Eastern Europe and initially they settled mainly in deprived, predominantly loyalist areas of Northern Ireland. This is in stark contrast to the post-war commonwealth migration to Great Britain in the mid-20th Century.

Northern Ireland is also different in terms of its weak political response to the changing nature of society and the emergence of racial tensions within its borders. The Race Relations Order was enacted only in 1997, 21 years after equivalent legislation was passed in Britain, and although modelled on it is widely perceived to be weaker and less strongly enforced. Added to this the Northern Ireland Assembly and Executive has shown little interest in this issue; a search for written questions containing the index term “race relations” in Hansard found only 109 written questions since its establishment in 1998.

My study looked at attitudes to ethnic minorities in Northern Ireland among the majority population. It employed a widely used scale which asks people how accepting they are of Eastern Europeans and Muslims as a tourist in Northern Ireland, a local resident, a colleague, a close friend or a relative by marriage. This avoids the biases associated with questions such as “are you prejudiced”. It found that tolerance has declined between 2010 and 2013.

I was also able to identify certain factors that influenced these attitudes. Protestants, but not Catholics, who were more accepting in general, were more accepting of Eastern Europeans if they had frequent contact with them. Contact with Muslims by all groups in the majority population is also associated with greater acceptance of them.

People who are against mixed marriages between Protestants and Catholics, an indicator of sectarianism, are also more prejudiced against Eastern Europeans, but sectarian attitudes were even more closely linked to rejection of Muslims. Consistent with earlier research, Catholics were more tolerant of both minorities than Protestants.

Finally those with higher education, GCSEs, A Levels or a degree were more accepting of Eastern Europeans than those without qualifications. Those who were long term unemployed or who had never worked were less accepting yet socio-economic factors did not affect attitudes towards Muslims. In contrast, older people were more prejudiced against Muslims but age made no difference to prejudice against Eastern Europeans.

Beyond the main finding, that there is decreasing acceptance of Muslims and Eastern Europeans in Northern Ireland, the most important finding is that, while there are a number of similarities in factors associated with attitudes towards these minority groups, there are also some differences. The need for a nuanced approach to race relations applies more generally to the UK, given the diversity of ethnic minority groups in many places, but it is especially important in Northern Ireland because of its unique experience with migration, with two relatively distinct stages.

These findings have potential implications for the Stormont government. First, within a framework of anti-discrimination policies, the experiences of each minority group should be considered separately. Second, policies should also address specifically the greater levels of prejudice in the Protestant community. Third, there may be benefits from community initiatives that bring people together with the aim of initiating contact and breaking down barriers between the different communities, although subject to further empirical evaluation.

I believe that the unique nature of migration to Northern Ireland, coupled with growing ethnic and religious tensions there, make the case for more research that can offer a better understanding of what is going on in Northern Ireland. Even now, most academics are focussing almost solely on sectarian divisions and, other than a small minority (Robbie McVeigh’s body of research is worth noting here) they have all but ignored the subject of racial prejudice. This study is motivated by the need to conduct a clear and concise study of attitudes towards minorities, using robust and objective measures to study publically available and representative data with the hope that it will bring more interest on this topic and ultimately facilitate better community relations for all in Northern Ireland. 

More to the Stories


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.

Changing Perceptions in Northern Ireland


Coming to Northern Ireland was definitely never on my bucket list. While I knew the region existed, I knew and cared very little about the rich history and background of the area that I was soon to call my home. Studying post-conflict society, the focus at the moment tends to be on the area of the Middle East or Southeast Asia. Little is said globally about the reconstruction efforts and the challenges that still face Belfast and Northern Ireland.  

Little is said globally about the reconstruction efforts and the challenges that still face Belfast and Northern Ireland.

Because of this, I moved to Northern Ireland with little preconceived notions and no defined expectations of what people should act like or any opinions on the Troubles. I was open to learning about the history of Northern Ireland from different people. It wasn't until a month after I arrived that I realized that I was letting people discover their own identities and opening up the door to discussions that would be impossible otherwise. My status as an outsider allowed them to explain the history and background of this region with less bias and pressure to defend their views against supposed attacks. Through this exercise, with few leading questions, people started to realize their own inherent biases and points of view even about ideas and areas of knowledge that they didn't feel strongly about.  

It's important for me to have a blank slate of perceptions of people, especially those who live in a post-conflict society where almost every action is a result of people's perceptions or a reaction to those. It's vital to approach from almost a research perspective, to listen with an open mind, and to not be affected by others' opinions about the same topic. It definitely takes restraint to respond to what you are directly interacting with, not what you have heard of or seen before.  

Going forward from the Peace Agreement, Belfast and the Northern Irish people have definitely become a more integrated society, but there is still so much work to do, both in shaping the conscious actions and addressing the unconscious stereotypes. Through the Belonging Project Workshop Toolkit, I have seen many opinions about equality and diversity that seemed so black and white, become more nuanced and varied as conversation is encouraged and developed. The key to changing opinions is good listening skills and not immediately judging others statements and views, no matter how ignorant and biased you make think them to be. By actively listening, asking relevant questions to help yourself and others to broaden your perspectives and points of view, slowly we can change society as a whole.  

Battling the Misconceptions of Migration


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 Beginning of Belonging


Migration is at the heart of the human experience. We know that throughout history, people have undertaken significant migrations that have shaped the world we now live in: journeys made in hope and exploration, as well as journeys made by force or as a last resort. Today, around the world, migration continues in its myriad forms, but the resistance many migrants encounter on arrival in a new place continues as well. The Belonging Project was created as an effort to shift public perception of migrant communities in Northern Ireland and generate opportunities for connection and acceptance amongst locals. While tensions between locals and migrants may arise for a variety of reasons, too often it is simply a lack of familiarity which gives rise to problematic stereotypes and misunderstanding between groups.

As Belonging’s first project coordinator, I witnessed its growth from three trial profiles to a collection of powerful stories, ready to take off as a traveling exhibition around the country. For Belonging’s early photo shoots, the staff reached out to our own networks, including many of the people who worked at or were affiliated with Migrant Centre NI (then the Belfast Migrant Centre). Once we had streamlined the photo shoot and interview process, we began working with community groups, including Women of the World in Fermanagh and the Belfast Friendship Club. We also reached out to English language courses at the University of Ulster and scheduled photo shoots during the classes. To generate further visibility around Belonging, we decided to give a preview exhibition of four portraits and their corresponding interviews during Northern Ireland Human Rights Week in December of 2013.

Looking back, the success of Belonging has come as less of a surprise and more of a reassuring affirmation of the human capacity for connection and empathy.

The preview exhibition connected Belonging to representatives from Libraries NI, who suggested a partnering to bring the exhibition to libraries around the region. Because libraries are spaces people naturally approach with open and curious minds, the partnership was an excellent fit. My tenure with Belonging ended just before the travelling exhibition began, but I did have the good fortune to return to Northern Ireland six months later and see the launch of Belonging at the Derry/Londonderry library. I was thrilled when I later heard the project would visit the Long Gallery at Stormont and the Belfast City Hall.

Looking back, the success of Belonging has come as less of a surprise and more of a reassuring affirmation of the human capacity for connection and empathy. At a time of heightened movement and desperation amongst international migrants, Belonging offers a heartening perspective on how migration can contribute to the formation of a society that is better because of its changes, not in spite of them. Belonging reminds us that our shared humanity actually lies in the rich diversity of our experiences, and that through embracing and exploring our differences, we can begin to find common ground. 

The Humanity That Unites Us


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.