Images of Incoming: exclusion and belonging in Northern Ireland
by Allan LEONARD
8 March 2023
To coincide with International Women’s Day, the Linen Hall Library hosted an event showcasing a Photovoice project that involved over 70 women from Northern Ireland and Canada, expressing their sense of inclusion and exclusion in their new countries. Dr Federica Ferrieri, the project coordinator, presented a selection of their images and expanded on their captions with themes and subthemes revealed through the work.
Ferrieri described the background and framework of the project, which was a partnership between Queen’s University Belfast’s Open Learning, the University of the Fraser Valley in British Columbia, and the University of Atypical. The main research question to examine was, “How can we create a postdigital, arts-based, co-research model which can offer migrant women a voice to articulate their resistance to negative stereotyping and exclusion and to reveal what belonging means?”
There were two types of participants: women migrants and women newcomers. All lived in rural areas. Identifying the participants was a challenge that was greatly facilitated by community facilitators, and Ferrieri listed several who assisted in the recruitment. The participants came from more than thirteen countries of origin, with a wide range of backgrounds and cultures, from Africa to China, to India and Europe and beyond.
The workshops were co-designed within Northern Ireland and Canada separately. For example, in Northern Ireland many of the sessions were conducted online during childcare-friendly times (mornings and evenings), while in Canada they were more in-person, with childcare, transportation, and food provided. Ferrieri reported on the excitement among all participants during the “exchange joint workshops”, which helped create solidarity among the women and enhance the international element of the project.
Two main themes emerged from the work: (1) how newcomer communities define exclusion and belonging to their own communities; to the new, host communities; and/or to a new “liminal identity”; and (2) how communities in Northern Ireland and Canada can learn from each other about policies of inclusion and exclusion, and feed back this knowledge to policymakers.
A recurring subtheme was navigating fractured identities, where you feel a sense of inclusion in a new place as well as exclusion in the place you’ve come from. Or the opposite if your nostalgia is stronger. Or both at the same time. For example, Ferrieri described this as being in possession of two identities, or being possessed by two identities. As one participant put it, “The heart is in multiple places… it’s like having two souls.” For some women, this was a source of inspiration (“I can be many people.”) or alternatively, a source of anxiety.
Ferrieri highlighted sample images and quotations, touching on the subjects of food, clothes, and language. Food could symbolise exclusion (in the case of the difficulty for a newcomer to find food important to their culture) or inclusion (being able to export one’s identity by sharing food with host communities). Likewise, clothes can be exclusionary if a newcomer has difficulty sourcing traditional clothes and feeling excluded when wearing them in public, but inclusive when amongst their own community. Language is a familiar barrier, but perhaps humorously more so when discussing the way people in Northern Ireland speak the common language of English; for example, one participant’s confusion about someone telling her they were staying in a “tar” (later translated to “tower”).
This project revealed overlapping intersections of obstacles and disadvantages for newcomers, put succinctly by one participant in Canada:
“I am a woman; I am a woman of colour; I practise a minority religion; I have temporary status; I cannot speak English well; I have children and so have difficulty getting an opportunity to study; I am poor; I have little access to the food and cultural objects that have meaning to me; I am harassed on public transport; I live in a rural area and do not have access to a lot of services or information.”
Some participants noted opportunities in studies, business, and volunteering. For example, one participant made an image of a library, where she was thankful that she was able to go, to study late. Others spoke of running businesses, while one expressed a feeling of inclusion through volunteering, measured by new friendships and positive experiences.
Images of nature were interpreted in several ways. For one participant, the changing seasons in Canada represented a sense of impermanence, where after bad times will come good times. Another felt a sense of freedom in the wilderness, but Ferrieri cautioned against escapism (“a place where hard conversations will not happen”). An image of a house overgrown by ivy summed up well one participant’s attitude:
“I planted a small pot of ivy in 1996. Now the house is covered in ivy… [with] so many families of birds. The picture symbolises how I am still myself, but I have adopted things from here. I have made lovely friends here. Northern Ireland has grown on me. I have grown on Northern Ireland, too, like they ivy.”
Ferrieri shared a personal story that resonates with many newcomers, even years after making their new place home. Folk in Northern Ireland, upon hearing a different accent, can promptly ask, “Where are you from? Where’s home?” Although probably intended as good-natured curiosity, Ferrieri now challenges this because it means the whole conversation is based on differences, rather than what unites. On one occasion, she was dreading the end of a phone conversation she was having in Italian while at a bus stop in south Belfast, noticing a man standing next to her. Ending the call, she awaited the inevitable probe. The man said to her, pointing, “Haven’t you seen the rainbow?” Ferrieri thought that was a clever way to start a conversation.
Ferrieri finished her presentation by circling back to the theme of International Women’s Day, showing an image of a woman with her back to us, standing in a garden. The participant’s caption was, “This is me walking in the garden, It symbolizes knowing what independence is, versus always being surrounded by family.” Ferrieri made the point that is important for women to know their own worth beyond family and those they care for.
Ferrieri revealed the Images of Incoming website, which has a selection of participants’ images and captions, as well as providing further information about the project. Indeed, the website was referenced in an answer to a question in the audience about what we as private citizens can do to support the community; the “Next Steps” section of the website lists a selection of participants’ desired actions.
Project director Professor Tess Maginess also informed the audience of other Queen’s University Belfast Open Learning programmes and courses, such as: an intercultural school — an online course for educators, delivered in association with the Education Authority — to help us understand cultural differences and how we deal with them in a just and kindly manner; a course on teaching volunteers who teach English to asylum seekers; and a course on the law and asylum seekers and refugees.