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Belfast is welcoming refugees with a radical new approach: speaking to them

We’re having different conversations about immigration, race and community. They are successful, and fun, and they could change the world.

In 2004, Belfast was rocked by a series of unprovoked racist attacks on its Filipino community, a significant proportion of whom worked in the city’s hospitals. At the time, misinformation about immigration, sensationalised by tabloids, was rife. In a population still reeling from decades of civil conflict, mistrust of minorities remained close to the surface. In response to these divisions, a large group of civil society organisations and charities gradually came together and, in 2009, started the Belfast Friendship Club, a safe space for people to meet and build relationships. It was aimed, primarily, at anyone new to the city for any reason, but also welcomed locals who now make up almost a quarter of the membership. And it has flourished ever since.

Belfast Friendship Club meets every Thursday evening, and over the months and years meaningful connections and friendships have been forged, irrespective of our backgrounds or identities. The club’s strength arises from an ethos of solidarity, equity, respect and the huge, loyal and expanding membership draws newcomers into its warm and welcoming space.

However, it became apparent that our ease with one another’s difference, so easily taken for granted, was not enjoyed in many other parts of the country, nor even the city. The Small Worlds workshops (profile in the film above) were a response to just this, taking a glimpse of who we are into settings wherever we were invited.

After nine years of witnessing the effect of these workshops first hand, the implicit message about the unity in diversity that we symbolise is the most powerful of all. We have a common bond with, an affection for, and support of, one another which speaks for itself—and we are the new face of Belfast.

In a country still wrestling with its history of intolerance and suspicion of the ‘other’, introducing the table hosts as my friends immediately sets the scene and makes way for connection on a basic, human level. As table hosts share their purely personal perspectives about how they’ve coped with their lives as migrant workers, asylum seekers or refugees, participants are prompted to wonder how they, too, might fare if placed in similar situations.

This, along with the freedom to ask questions, becomes the unifying element for participants. We are all sisters, brothers, daughters, sons, mothers and fathers after all and, although information changes nothing, real stories from real people about real lives allow us to compare notes on the experience of being human—with its moments of real connection and great fun.

You can’t unlearn what you’re exposed to at a typical Small Worlds workshop and the courage of the hosts to talk about themselves and their lives so openly, truthfully and whole-heartedly never fails to move and inspire people. Warm wishes, handshakes and, sometimes, hugs occur at the end.

If we hate what we fear and we fear what we don’t understand, then a little understanding can go a long way. Small Worlds workshops, again and again, undermine myths, misinformation and prejudice—they fall away, little by little, demonstrating Contact Theory in practice. For many participants, this will have been their only experience of meaningfully encountering such ‘others’.

Small Worlds has fostered respect, trust and empathy with community and youth groups, faith-based groups, probation officers, prison inmates and staff, business and community leaders, youth workers, teachers, students and school children as young as seven across Northern Ireland. As the similarities between people are brought to light, it helps staff from agencies like health, social services, housing or the police service to respond with greater understanding. To date, we have run workshops with groups ranging in size from 15-90 participants.

Much goes on behind the scenes and workshops are carefully tailored to suit different age groups and requirements. A youth group were recently enthralled and/or horrified by photos showing, for example, the enforcement of strict dress codes upon women in Iran, children in Bangladesh as young as five working to support their families by making cigarettes, or the complete absence of mobile phones and social media in the life of a Tibetan nomad. Interest can be sparked by any of this and, suddenly, the interpersonal connection is there.

On another occasion, adult participants were captivated by the detail and hardship of a long and harrowing journey from Somalia, moved by the human impact of leaving children and other family members behind in a refugee camp, intrigued by the rituals of prayer and fasting in Islam and alarmed by the dangers of driving in Kazakhstan.

Absent in most of these accounts are the safety nets of welfare, healthcare, education or housing so easily taken for granted and, accordingly, the experience of Small Worlds proves humbling for many participants.

For table hosts, it reverses the usual balance of power, privileging their life experience and their perspective over that of the participants. An interested and, often, affirming audience boosts confidence as well as improving their conversational English, and the retelling of traumatic elements is done at their own discretion and can be cathartic in effect.

As with BFC, my role is to hold open a safe, inclusive and impartial space in a dynamic environment for table hosts and participants to speak openly, to ask and respond honestly to questions and to explore what it means to be human in the knowledge that there is nothing to fear and much in common to be discovered and enjoyed together. This is how it can be.

Given the trauma suffered by some of the table hosts, facilitating the delicate balance required with participants has evolved over hundreds of encounters and I am astonished by their sheer power. Time and again, I have seen these encounters connect hearts and shift mindsets, generating genuine warmth and short-circuiting our usual caution around others.

For more information about Small Worlds, see here.

About the author

Stephanie Mitchell is the co-founder of Belfast Friendship Club and a research fellow at Queen's University Belfast.


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