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Belonging in Northern Ireland: portraits of the individual migrant

A new art project is challenging Belfast’s reputation as the ‘race hate capital of the UK’, revealing an important gap between the presentation of migrants as a political category and their own experience and identities, says Sonia Banaszczyk.

Peace-building through arts serves a unique need in Northern Ireland. Initiatives of this kind are not limited to sectarianism; increasingly, ‘Good Relations’ projects are working with interculturalism as a focal point, providing a public platform for migrant communities’ voices and a challenge to harmful cultural stereotypes through art and dialogue.

The Belonging Project, funded by the Arts Council NI and Belfast City Council, is one such initiative. Born of a partnership between the Belfast Migrant Centre and professional photographer Laurence Gibson in late 2013, Belonging combines audiovisual portrayals of migrants exhibited in free and accessible places with public workshops that engage the Northern Irish community in much-needed discussions about cultural diversity, identity, and equality.

On 22 May, a roundtable panel event about migration in Northern Ireland took place in Belfast as part of the Belonging Project. Panelists included Jolena Flett, manager of the Belfast Migrant Centre; Dr Gavan Titley, race and media researcher and Media Studies Lecturer at National University of Ireland Maynooth; Justin Kouame, Chair of the NI Community for Asylum Seekers and Refugees (NICRAS); and Belonging photographer Mr Gibson. The panel speakers and attendees engaged in a complex discussion about integration, what it means to ‘belong’, and how the public can help to dispel harmful myths perpetuated in the media and political sphere.

Migration and identity in Northern Ireland

The social landscape of Northern Ireland has changed dramatically in the past decade, particularly with the 2004 and 2007 Schengen expansions that brought waves of newcomers to a highly polarized but racially homogenous society. These incoming populations are offset by the high numbers of NI citizens emigrating out of the country, leading to an overall net increase of just 400 people between 2011 and 2012.

Yet openly xenophobic, racist, anti-immigrant rhetoric is gaining traction in increasingly higher rungs of the political sphere. This is evidenced by the number of far-right, anti-immigration parties like UKIP winning seats in the EU Parliament elections. We are also seeing a sharp increase in media coverage of racially motivated hate crimes in Northern Ireland - 156 race hate crimes were reported across the country between January and March 2014 alone, and Belfast has been dubbed the ‘race hate capital of the UK’. The typically sensationalist coverage leaves little room for nuance or for positive representations of migrants.

Consistent fear-mongering in media coverage and political rhetoric underline the urgent need for public engagement with these issues in environments that approach migration as a complex, nuanced topic. There are important questions to be asked about identity, belonging, and sustainable, multicultural community-building that are often omitted from mainstream discourse.

Good Relations projects like Belonging, that combine arts with community engagement, offer a space for such questions to be addressed - while keeping migrants’ own narratives in focus.

Portraits of the individual migrant

Central to the Belonging Project is a collection of portraits of individual migrants, each of whom holds a ‘memento’ that reminds them of their home country. Each portrait is accompanied by a recorded interview conducted with the participant about their journey to Northern Ireland and the significance of the chosen object.

Thanks to a partnership with Libraries NI, Belonging embarked on a traveling exhibition in March 2014, exhibiting at a different library (Falls Road; Ardoyne; Shankill; Derry) each month, with plans to move to Stormont Long Gallery this Fall. The exhibitions showcase both the portraits and recordings, offering a unique way for viewers to engage with a diverse array of migration stories, highlighting, first and foremost, that each migrant has an individual experience.

Roma Traveller/ Northern Ireland. ©Laurence Gibson Roma Traveller/ Northern Ireland. ©Laurence Gibson

One portrait features a dark-eyed five-year-old girl holding the hem of her bright yellow skirt in one hand. Her interview was conducted across three languages - English, Romanian, and a Romani dialect. Another shows a Filipina woman whose gaze rests on the memento in her lap. It’s an old cellphone, with messages and voicemails from her friends and family back home, including the last conversation she had with her father before he passed away.

Other participants include Pakistani teenagers with flawless Irish accents, Polish domestic workers, volunteers, students, asylum seekers. Grandparents, fiancés, mothers whose children are growing up half a world away.

When asked why they chose Northern Ireland, a surprising number of people respond with a chuckle, ‘I didn’t — Northern Ireland chose me.’ A majority arrive seeking work. Some move here to join their partner, some at an employer’s behest, some availing themselves of a friend’s promise of a room to stay in. Some explain they initially planned to stay for a year or less, and a decade later, they’re raising their young children here.

Kosovo/ Northern Ireland. ©Laurence Gibson Kosovo/ Northern Ireland. ©Laurence Gibson

Purpose of belonging

Belonging has always been more than an art project, Laurence Gibson explained during the migration panel.  One of the primary objectives of the project is to open up a place for discussion among the Northern Irish community - including locals and migrants alike.

A series of open workshops on diversity, identity, and inclusion takes place at each exhibition location, facilitated by the Belfast Migrant Centre staff. The Belonging exhibit is incorporated into each session, helping to illustrate the diversity of migrant experiences.

The project visually provides shades of nuance to the common narrative around ‘migrants’ as a monolithic group, and opens a safe space for people to ask questions they might be too shy to bring up elsewhere.

The combination of portraits, interviews and workshops allows for participants to contemplate how one’s sense of personal identity and belonging are tied up in cultural and national identity paradigms. How transnational space is navigated, how people integrate and how that differs from assimilation, how culture is transmitted, preserved, and modified across borders and generations. It’s also a way to present a visual/oral history that is as personal as it is reflective of shifting social, geopolitical, and economic patterns.

Migration and community relations

‘When we talk about migration, we’re talking about movement,’Dr Gavan Titley pointed out during the panel. ‘But when we talk about who is it’s not just a question of mobility, it’s a question of political category…When certain people cross borders, they’re treated and positioned in ways that are very different.’

The term ‘migrant’ is a loaded descriptor, used to group together people of divergent backgrounds and experiences. For those of more privileged status, both racially and economically, their geographic mobility is accepted, valued; many people in this group are not even considered to be migrants. Meanwhile, others, even the second- and third-generation offspring of diasporic communities, who are and feel themselves to be citizens, are still considered ‘foreign’. ‘Migrant’, then, is less a designation of a person who has crossed a state border than it is a category weighted with intimations about race and class, whose construction changes depending on political and economic circumstances.

How individual migrants view their own identity often clashes with how they are presented as a political category in the public sphere. One attempt to draw the public’s attention to this is through Belonging’s workshop exercises. Attendees engage in an exercise where they come up with core descriptors for their identity; usually, people combine demographic information, like gender, religious beliefs, or sexual orientation, with individual personality traits. This serves as a stepping stone to a discussion about how one’s group affiliations shape personal views and commitments. Highlighted most often by the workshop participants is the essential need to be able to define one’s identity for oneself.

As the demographics of the country shift, as borders dissolve for some and become more difficult to cross for others, and as migrants face disproportionately poor living and working conditions, there is a clear need for more opportunities for migrants and locals to interact and work on solutions together. Communities need to get to know their neighbors, need to start getting to know one another’s stories. The first, most important step is to begin the dialogue.

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