Widening our circles of compassion: Small Worlds refugee stories

Widening our circles of compassion: Small Worlds refugee stories
by Raleigh KUIPERS
17 June 2023 

In advance of this year’s UK Refugee Week (19–25 June), the Good Relations team at Ards and North Down Borough Council hosted a Small Worlds experiential workshop at Ards Art Centre in Newtownards. With a theme of compassion, participants joined those who have arrived in Northern Ireland — including asylum seekers, refugees, and migrants — for a cup of tea and an informal discussion about their lived experiences.

Mayor Jennifer GILMOUR (Ards and North Down Council). Small Worlds workshop, Refugee Week 2023. Ards Arts Centre, Conway Square, Newtownards, Northern Ireland. © Allan LEONARD @MrUlster

Mayor Jennifer Gilmour opened the event by thanking the four hosts — the new arrivals leading the discussions — and the participants for coming. She remarked: “Many of us probably can’t comprehend fully what the lived experiences [the hosts] have had to encounter to leave [their] home countries,” and offered the council’s assistance in improving the experiences of asylum seekers in the area.

Stephanie MITCHELL (NI Together CIC). Small Worlds workshop, Refugee Week 2023. Ards Arts Centre, Conway Square, Newtownards, Northern Ireland. © Allan LEONARD @MrUlster

Next, Stephanie Mitchell, founding director of Together CIC, explained that the club hosts safe, inclusive, and impartial spaces, where everyone is welcome, irrespective of their race, identity, gender, religion, or ethnicity. She introduced the hosts and told the participants: “Today you get the opportunity to travel around the world and to hear a little bit about the lived experiences of my friends who come from these different countries.” Mitchell encouraged the audience to be curious and to ask the hosts questions.

Mohamed from Iran. Small Worlds workshop, Refugee Week 2023. Ards Arts Centre, Conway Square, Newtownards, Northern Ireland. © Allan LEONARD @MrUlster

Mohamed, one of the hosts, was a primary school teacher in Iran, where he also ran two small businesses. He converted to Christianity after Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini ousted the Shah from power (in 1979). In response to the suppression of personal liberties and religious persecution under the succeeding Islamic Republic, he fled Iran, eventually reaching Northern Ireland. He described the secrecy with which Christians practiced their faith, the strict separation between men and women in public spaces, the poverty forcing children to work, and the 33 public lashings his brother received after he was caught drinking alcohol. Mohamed also emphasized the beauty of his home country and its culture, showing participants images of mosques, markets, and traditional foods. He reiterated that the current socio-political situation in Iran is “all about the government, not the people”.

The host from Ethiopia has been awaiting his asylum decision in Belfast for nearly a year. As a queer man, he described the pervasive homophobia present in his home country, recounting how he hid his sexuality from family members, medical professionals, and the community in general, for fear of being jailed or executed. In order to stay safe, he communicated with other LGBTQ+ individuals through his fake Facebook account. He, unable to trust anyone, pretended to be straight until seeking asylum in Northern Ireland. Though he shared photos and stories of ethnic cleansing and poverty in Ethiopia, he also proudly displayed the natural beauty and cultural diversity of his home country alongside news stories of pioneering African advocates for LGBTQ+ rights. When comparing photos of skyscrapers and slums in Addis Ababa, he remarked that “people here don’t realize what they have — their privilege.” While he has been relieved with the acceptance he has experienced as a queer individual in Belfast, he awaits his asylum decision — and with it, the opportunity for more private housing where he will feel safer.

The next host was a woman born in London who moved to Belfast as a child. Though she was not a refugee or asylum seeker like the other hosts, she spoke about her experience with racism in Northern Ireland as the only mixed-race individual in her school, where she faced relentless bullying from classmates, hypocrisy from teachers when she stood up for herself, and repeated violent attacks from adults in the community. As a result, she struggled with her mental health and from a lack of faith in humanity as a young adult. However, she described how encountering the Belfast Friendship Club a few years ago changed her trajectory by providing support from a diverse group of individuals. She described the Belfast Friendship Club as “like being in a family”, made up of individuals “who are my heroes and role models…who believe in you even when you don’t believe in yourself.” Over the years, she has seen a marked decrease in racism and xenophobia in Northern Ireland, though she emphasized that there is still progress to be made. With the tenacity of someone who has encountered crippling adversity and prevailed, she shared that she was inspired to share her story with the community because “maybe you can give one person the courage to stand up to their bully”.

Kuwait residences. Small Worlds workshop, Refugee Week 2023. Ards Arts Centre, Conway Square, Newtownards, Northern Ireland. © Allan LEONARD @MrUlster

The final host, Khaled, was born in Kuwait into a Bidoon family and is currently waiting to receive his asylum decision. The Bidoon people are a stateless community — they have no citizenship and no rights in Kuwait — that traditionally lived nomadically in the desert. However, as he described, the country industrialized in response to the global demand for oil, forcing many Bidoons into slums, where children and adults alike are forced to work illegally, cannot attend school, and are frequently the targets of police brutality when they protest for their rights. At one of these demonstrations, Khaled was arrested and only freed when his father’s friend — a Kuwaiti citizen — intervened with the police. The man helped Khaled to flee the country in order to prevent being imprisoned again. Khaled was illiterate, but no longer so, thanks to his incredible drive. He had never seen his name written down before arriving in Northern Ireland — Bidoons do not receive documents proving their identity — and excitedly remarked: “I feel like a human here. I have an ID card, a student card, and a bank account. I am so happy.” Though he spoke no English when he arrived in Belfast nearly a year ago, he was determined to learn; he spends his time attending English classes, volunteering, and watching videos in English.

After participants had spoken to all four hosts, Stephanie Mitchell offered a few closing remarks, reflecting on what “we take for granted in terms of our version of normality” and the value of friendships with diverse people. Lastly, she urged the participants to not make assumptions about what asylum seekers and refugees might want or need, to recognize the contributions they make to society and culture, and to be open to friendship.

A further Small Worlds workshop for Refugee Week will be on Friday 23rd June between 6-9pm at 1st Bangor Presbyterian Church; see further details.

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