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Our love is colour blind but we face prejudice - Northern Ireland mixed race couples tell of their experiences

With film A United Kingdom at cinemas now, a true story documenting the political fall-out from an inter-racial relationship in Britain and South Africa of the 1940s, Kerry McKittrick talks to three mixed race couples here about their experiences.

Published 28/11/2016

All smiles: Rosamund Pike and David Oyelowo in A United Kingdom
All smiles: Rosamund Pike and David Oyelowo in A United Kingdom
Big step: Robert and Raquel McKee on their wedding day
Richardo Azevedo with his wife Joanna and their children, Eva (left) and Rio
Richardo and Joanna
Settled family: Janette Nhangaba and husband Carlos
Carlos with their son Toby

'I haven't had any nasty racist comments here'

Raquel McKee (40s) is a teacher, poet and storyteller. She lives in Belfast with her husband Robert, also a teacher, and their four children. She says:

I was born in Jamaica and as a teenager took part in a youth exchange. I spent four weeks in England, then two weeks in Northern Ireland - and that's when I met Robert. Afterwards we started writing to each other.

We met again a year later for the other half of the youth exchange to Jamaica. While it didn't actually include Robert he managed to tag along. We started dating and I came to Northern Ireland on a work programme the following summer.

Initially I came over for visits, but when we decided to get married things became more daunting.

At my wedding shower I confided in my friends that I couldn't imagine my life after my wedding day. As we got married in the UK I had to fit my whole life into two suitcases - as well as my wedding dress.

Robert and I lived in England for the first 10 years before coming over to Northern Ireland. There were some scary bits about being here, such as army checkpoints, but it was the way of life.

Moving here also meant bringing all of my paperwork to the embassy where they were photocopied and read by a stranger so they could establish that our relationship was real.

Shortly after I arrived Robert's grandad said he had never met anyone of my colour before. While it was a statement of fact and curiosity it did set the tone, for the most part, of my experience in Northern Ireland.

I'm often asked why I would come here when I could go anywhere else which I find hard to understand.

While I haven't had any nasty racist comments here we did get them in Jamaica. Black guys have asked Robert why couldn't he find a woman of his own colour, why did he have to take one of their black girls?

And as an artist I find that there is an underlying assumption that I have nothing to give and can only receive, or my work will be at a particular level. It has been difficult to break through that stereotype.

It can also be challenging to accommodate both our cultures in our family as both sides aren't here. The food was something I had to adjust to, but my cousin in England sends me over Jamaican food. There are also very few Afro-Caribbean hairdressers here so it costs a lot more for me and the children. And the products we can use are also almost non-existent.

I was having a bad day once and went to Dunnes Stores and had a go at the sales assistant; I wanted a pair of skin coloured tights and there was nothing even close to what I could wear.

It is one thing to be from a different country, but it's another to be a different colour.

Although the population is becoming more diverse, when I first came here it was very rare to see someone with the same skin colour as me.

Anyone else can hide in plain sight - it's not until they speak that people will find out they're from somewhere else, but for me there's no hiding.

When our children started school here I asked the school to tell me if there had been any racial harassment. But very few schools have any kind of racial harassment policy - our kids have had to negotiate with people who've picked on them.

Robert says:

While there are differences between myself and Raquel, there are a lot of similarities too. Socially we're from the same background - well educated with supportive families.

I behave differently in Jamaica because I'm the minority there and it's a useful thing to experience.

Now, though, I've become more comfortable with it, but the experience has helped to understand what it's like for Raquel here.

Initially my mum was a little unsure about Raquel and me.

A distant relative had married an African before and they had a child but then split up - which hadn't been a great experience.

My mum was wary it might happen again, but she hadn't met Raquel at that point and things have changed since.

We've made a conscious choice to be a good example of what a mixed marriage can be like. In terms of friends there is no issue at all.

‘There’s always a fear your children will be discriminated against’

Richardo Azevedo (37), works in technical support for a software company. He lives in Belfast with his wife Joanna, an interior designer, and their children, Eva (7) and Rio (2). He says:

I was born in Mozambique and grew up in Portugal. I came to Northern Ireland in 2001 as a friend was contracting people in Portugal to come and work at Ballylumford power station. I was only meant to be here for three months.

The first time I saw Joanna was in a nightclub in Belfast in 2005 — but I didn’t talk to her. It was a year later when I met her again — at another nightclub. We realised we had seen each other before on our first date.

I had been on the receiving end of prejudice here before I met Joanna. But growing up in Portugal the racism there was worse. I know how to deal with it, so it doesn’t really affect me any more.

The strange thing is when I first arrived in Northern Ireland I got lots of positive attention.

I’m quite sociable and when I was out people would come and talk to me and ask where I was from.

I always felt welcome and met many of my close friends during those encounters.

There was no problem with our families when Joanna and I decided to get married — both of my parents are mixed race and so am I.

There’s always a fear, though, that your children will be the subject of discrimination, particularly from other kids at school.

We want our kids to feel like they’re all equals so we explain to them not to  accept that kind of behaviour.

Joanna says:

It never concerned me that Richardo has a different skin colour, but initially it was quite something for my parents to take on board. They come from quite a religious background so they have had to be more open minded.

I think their concern has been over the kids and what it would be like for them to growing up here, knowing the Northern Ireland mentality. It wasn’t a problem; it was just something they worried about. But now they are used to it.

Richardo has a bit of a Northern Ireland accent now, so once he starts to speak people realise he’s been here for a long time. We live in east Belfast and we are in a minority; there are no other mixed race children at Eva’s school.

She has had the odd racist comment — she’s been told her skin colour is unlucky, and I know that comes from the parents. I find attitudes like that really shocking.”

‘He’s been told to go home or he’s only here for benefits’

Janette Nhangaba (37), is a widening participation manager, and lives in Belfast with her husband Carlos (35), a car park chain supervisor, and their children, Toby (4) and Oliver (four months).

She says:

Carlos and I met when I was volunteering for NGO in Mozambique in 2007. He was a leader at the company and I had travelled out to Africa as I was considering a permanent post there.

We became good friends and when I went up to the north of the country for a few months we stayed in contact. When I returned our relationship changed and we became more than friends. Carlos always struck me as a man of integrity who is also compassionate.

I came back to Northern Ireland to do a masters degree in development management and trained to teach English. From 2008 we went back and forth between here and Africa — I would take all of my annual leave so I could spend a couple of months there and he would do the same thing to come here. When we got married in 2011 we moved out to Mozambique, where I taught at international schools.

A year later we came back to Northern Ireland and we had Toby. Carlos could only get a visa for six months so he went back, but when a family situation arose in Mozambique we joined him there for another 10 months. I came home in the summer 2014, then started the battle to get Carlos over.

Most people here probably don’t realise how hard it is for people from outside the EU to come over. It feels as though you’re guilty until proven innocent. Carlos had to do an English language test, while I had to prove I could support us as a family. He has no recourse to public funds for five years — nor is he interested.

While it took seven months to get Carlos here, it can take longer.

Being in a mixed race relationship here compared to Mozambique is different. It was presumed that I was rich in Africa because the few white people there tend to work for oil companies. Sometimes people thought he was my driver. I was never mistreated for being white though, there was no animosity towards me.

Carlos has been here since March 2015 and while people don’t look or treat us differently as a couple  — they do react to Carlos.

He has been told to ‘go home’ or that he’s only over here for benefits; he responds by telling those people he’s here because his wife is from Northern Ireland. Carlos is well-educated but as a black African his qualifications aren’t necessarily recognised, so he has to start off at the bottom of the career ladder. People assume that he can’t speak English and he often has to wait longer in shops to be served.

Some people assume he is a refugee; you really have to start at the bottom and work your way up people’s prejudices.

Carlos says:

My job is something I do for now as I gain local experience. I travel with my job and Northern Ireland is a lovely country — I love summer here — and I’ve had great experiences with the people.

Food-wise I’m still learning — it’s not the same as Mozambique where you can go into the garden and pick fresh mangoes and limes off the tree.

I’ve been living here on and off for the past seven years, but now that I’ve moved over to build a home and family it’s a bit different.

People often make comments and I am treated differently.

Moving to a different country is hard for anyone. You have to learn how people live. People here aren’t very approachable — I worked for an NGO for 10 years and made friends from all over the world.

But I’ve been here for over a year now and most of the friends I’ve made have come from my wife’s side. It’s been tough for people to engage with me as a normal person. People here are less travelled.”

Belfast Telegraph

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