Belfast Telegraph

He fled here from the Ivory Coast ...now Justin Kouame is helping other refugees to build a new life in Northern Ireland

By Rebecca Black

Justin Kouame may not have much materially but he does have a big heart.

This award-winning support worker gives his time for free to help asylum seekers and refugees who often arrive in Northern Ireland with nothing more than the clothes they are standing in.

He vowed to help others after going through the same thing himself when he arrived here in 2009 after fleeing fighting in the Ivory Coast.

The former teacher (44) said he "fled for his life" and recalled how he didn't even know Northern Ireland existed back then, and only knew of the Republic because its flag is similar to his own.

Justin said coming to Northern Ireland was terrifying, both being so far from his family and friends as well as the unfamiliarity of the country and system.

But he slowly began to settle in with the help of the Northern Ireland Community for Refugees and Asylum Seekers (NICRAS) and has devoted himself to helping others.

"I work to give financial support and advice as well as identifying activities for families to help them settle in," he said.

"There are a lot of people who come here, our organisation has over 300 members. At the moment they are mostly coming from Somalia and Zimbabwe where there is conflict.

"Northern Ireland is not a primary destination for asylum seekers so there is very little help in terms of support. So NICRAS was established in 2000 to help provide this kind of support to asylum seekers."

He is a lifeline in terms of obtaining access to food, clothes and vital services.

Justin was working as an economics teacher in the Ivory Coast in 2009 when he had to leave due to the political instability.

His first job in Northern Ireland was doing the books for NICRAS.

But he found his passion in volunteering and works long hours for no renumeration. Some of his roles include NICRAS chairman, a tribunal representative and advisor with the Citizens Advice Bureau and a member of the Immigration Sub-Group at the Law Centre.

Justin also works with the Department of Social Development designing a road map for asylum seekers who have refugee status to reduce delays in claiming benefits.

His extraordinary work was recognised recently when he won the Community Foundation's Stephen Pittam Social Justice Award, along with Grace Cassidy for her work in the field of mental health rights.

The award has an overall value of up to £3,000. As well as using this money to take a community development course, Justin said he also plans to make a donation to homeless charity, the Simon Community and to NICRAS.

Avila Kilmurray, director of the Community Foundation for Northern Ireland, said: "The Community Foundation for Northern Ireland is delighted that Justin is one of the two recipients of the inaugural Stephen Pittam Social Justice Award.

"Despite very difficult personal circumstances, Justin has thrown himself into work that can help other refugees and asylum seekers like himself. Northern Irish society needs to value the contribution of people like Justin, not marginalise them. Justin is a case of social justice in action."

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