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Kasia Garbal: 'Ulster can no longer be seen in terms of orange and green'

The Big Interview

Published 05/10/2015

Battling racism: Kasia Garbal admits she has thought of leaving Northern Ireland because of racist attacks
Battling racism: Kasia Garbal admits she has thought of leaving Northern Ireland because of racist attacks
Battling racism: Kasia Garbal admits she has thought of leaving Northern Ireland because of racist attacks

Laura Abernethy talks to Polish-born Community Relations Council leader Kasia Garbal about the problems faced by the migrant population of Northern Ireland.

Q. So, what is your role on the Community Relations Council?

A. I am on the board. I joined them in December 2014 so I am a fresh face there. I think I'm the only one from a minority ethnic background.

Q. What has been happening during the week?

A. With Community Relations and Cultural Awareness Week, we've organised a lot of initiatives across Northern Ireland. It started last Monday and the whole theme of the week was 'One Place, Many People' and it was really to say that Northern Ireland has changed and we can no longer talk just about the two communities. This place cannot just be seen in terms of orange and green anymore. It has to be seen as being made up of so many diverse people.

Q. Why do you think Community Relations and Cultural Awareness Week is so important?

A. I think moving towards diversity of people in this place would break down the traditional barriers and I would say that people are really longing to create something new and something positive. I know that there are things in the past that haven't been sorted and I cannot even imagine how it must have been for people to live through the Troubles but at the same time, I think there is a massive appetite for peace and to move forward and move beyond that.

Q. There are more than 200 events during the week. Do you think that's too many?

A. I think it's amazing that there is such a number of events. You have to remember that this is not only in Belfast but it's also across Northern Ireland. I've held other events and we've had the same accusation that there are too many things but I think it's good because it focuses people's minds. There is a lot of work being done throughout the year but the week is an opportunity to have a concentrated focus on the important issues. Some of the events are small, for example, some are organised by schools, but it's great because it gets people to concentrate on and celebrate community relations.

Q. Most of the funding comes from the taxpayer. Do you think this is a good use of public money?

A. I don't think Community Relations Week has got a big budget. You are talking sometimes about quite small events. Some organisations use their own resources to organise and don't need additional funding. From my point of view, community relations should underpin every single activity in Northern Ireland. I don't think you can move anywhere without thinking about community relations because it determines so many lives here.

I don't think the money from the public purse is badly spent. There is a big cost in maintaining the division and the conflict. We have to do everything to keep the peace and try to move towards reconciliation of the main communities but also everybody who has decided to make this place home. Division costs but there's not enough money being put into promoting equality and diversity.

Q. What other organisations are you involved with?

A. My day job is with the Irish Congress of Trade Unions. I am a migrant worker support officer. That job involves working on two levels. One is the strategic policy level. As part of that, I have been part of the Common Platform, which campaigns for a robust racial equality strategy. We've waited a long time for that but the political stalemate at Stormont doesn't help and it's one of those things that we're just waiting to see what happens. The other part is working on a grassroots level with migrant communities and individuals. I go out and represent people who have been discriminated against.

Q. What are the main sorts of difficulties that migrants face in the workplace?

A. Everything! I have been in this job for seven years and it could be from smaller problems like under payment of wages, which are relatively straightforward to sort out with employers, to issues of race discrimination, sex discrimination and sexual orientation discrimination. The big one that I have been struggling with for years is women who are sacked when they are pregnant.

Q. Is that particularly a problem for migrants or is that a problem that everyone faces?

A. Being a migrant makes it even more difficult because if you don't know the language and you don't know the law, the employer thinks that they can get away with it. If you look at the data from the Equality Commission, sex discrimination and pregnancy discrimination is the highest on the list of complaints.

Q. What do you do to help when someone comes to you?

A. It can be anything. It can range from writing a letter, calling the employer or going through a formal procedure. It's a whole range of stuff.

Q. Do you find that you are usually successful in these cases?

A. I don't want to brag but I'm quite successful. I get a good resolution in most cases.

Q. When did you come to Northern Ireland?

A. I came here on a scholarship from the British Council to do research for my PhD at the University of Ulster. That was June 2004. Europe opened its borders to the new accession countries in May. I had no idea that I would meet any people of Polish background. I didn't know much about this place. There were three of us from Poland. We were travelling on a train from Coleraine to Portrush and we were approached by three men because they heard us speaking Polish and they told us they were working in the meat factory.

They couldn't believe that we were students. I decided that I liked this place and my skills would be useful because these people didn't know the language and they didn't know anything about this place. I started helping them with small things and that sort of snowballed because then they brought their families and it evolved. I felt that my skills were needed here and life overtook fiction. Life proved more interesting than my PhD and I decided to stay. Here I am 11 years later.

Q. Why did you choose Northern Ireland?

A. It was because of the programme but with Northern Ireland being part of the UK, you could have access to every single book that is being held by any library all over the UK. That was wonderful because you wouldn't have had access to that many English language books back home. It was a massive opportunity.

Q. Did you always want to leave Poland?

A. Probably, yes. Poland can be very suffocating. It's quite a conservative society. Attitudes are changing here but not as much in Poland.

Q. What was your background in Poland?

A. I grew up in a smallish town about the size of Dungannon. I had two sisters and a brother, which is a big family in Poland. I moved from my home town to Warsaw for university. I studied English and then got my Masters. I was doing my PhD when I came over here.

Q. How did you get involved with ICTU?

A. I started doing freelance interpreting. It was great because I got to travel and it paid reasonably well. It was much better paid than a job in a bar. Then I went for a job at the South Tyrone Empowerment Programme in Dungannon. They were one of the agencies I was an interpreter for and they were looking for full-time interpreters so I applied there and I was there for a year-and-a-half, then I had my baby and then I applied for a job here.

Q. What was it like when you first came here?

A. People were really friendly but I had problems with the language at the start, especially up in Coleraine. I have a Masters degree in English. I read Shakespeare in English so there is no question about my English skills but for the first few weeks I wasn't sure what people were saying to me so I just used to smile and ask people to repeat themselves. Then I got used to it and now when I go abroad, people think I'm from here. I have picked up a bit of the accent.

Q. Do you think Northern Ireland is still a welcoming place for migrants?

A. I think it generally is. Although people talk about the Troubles, it is still a great place to be because people are friendly and approachable and so easy going. There are racist attacks, homophobia and sectarianism and we need to work on that. There is a lot of work to be done to dispel myths about migrants, gay people and 'Them 'uns'.


Q. Why do you think there has been such a rise in racist attacks in the last few years?

A. It spreads from ignorance but unfortunately our politicians and some community leaders don't help. They should go out there and condemn it straight away. Quite often, that has been very slow.

You have to understand the dynamics of migration as well. People come here for jobs and they go to the cheapest houses and these are quite often areas of deprivation that have their own problems so they feel that the new people moving in pose some sort of threat and they feel under siege. They think there's not enough jobs or houses for them, which is obviously not true and I would say that neither our politicians nor our local leaders address that and challenge those views enough.

Q. What would you like to see politicians and community leaders doing more of?

A. Every time that there is an attack, they need to condemn it straight away and they should be out in their communities, engaging them and giving them correct information to diminish that fear of others.

Q. Do you think the problems at Stormont are making it worse?

A. People on the ground are increasingly frustrated with the politicians. There is so much good work being done on the ground and it is constantly being undermined by politicians. The government released a strategy, which is called Together Building a United Community. It's a beautiful name for a strategy but when they are on the radio, they don't do anything to promote a united community. All they do the majority of the time is argue with each other. Argument is healthy in politics but these are not constructive arguments. These are mostly just discussions along sectarian lines, using the same arguments.

We need political leadership and it's just not there. We need to see more of politicians working together and agreeing with things because people are actually interested in moving forward. We need to convince them that together is the only way.

Q. Do you think people from ethnic minorities are represented politically in Northern Ireland?

A. I don't think at the moment political parties see ethnic minorities here as an electorate because on the whole, people don't register to vote as much as they should. That's the result of the political situation. I'm hoping that in the future that there will be more of a say for ethnic minorities in political structures.

Alliance MLA Anna Lo has been working tirelessly to support anyone with minority ethnic issues. She's been a really great influence. She has lived here for 40 years but she's suffered a lot because she is of Chinese descent. I will be really sad to see her step down.

Q. Have you ever considered standing yourself?

A. I've never considered it. In the current political situation, no. When we still have sectarian divisions, it's impossible to find a place for people who are completely non-partisan and who just want different type of politics.

Q. Do you think migrants do enough to integrate with other communities?

A. We need to distinguish between two groups. There are the groups of economic migrants that only come for a short time to make a bit of money. Then there are people who have come here with families and settled here. They have mortgages, jobs and they send their kids to school. They make every effort to integrate, especially the point when children go to school. Quite often they work in a factory and they can be isolated from local people but once kids go to school, they start to play a more active role. If you also look at how many people study ESOL every year and how many migrants start courses and try to learn the language, you can see that they are trying to be proper fully-fledged citizens of this place.

Q. Have you yourself ever been subject to a racist attack?

A. No but any time there is tension, I can feel it in the air. My daughter and I speak Polish with each other. I remember people being in a shop and people looking at us so we switched to English. It's sort of a defence mechanism. I feel that I belong here but at the same time, I am a foreigner and I will be a bit of an outsider in this place.

Q. Have you ever considered leaving Northern Ireland because of racism?

A. Sometimes, yes. Last year, there were quite a few racist attacks and they were coming and coming. We organised a protest in June and I spoke at it. I said that this is my home and I have been here most of my adult life. People said 'if you don't like it, go home'. This is my home.

I get frustrated at things and I think they should be getting better but at the same time, I can't imagine being anywhere else. I feel this is where I've made my home. It's very difficult at times because I almost feel like I personally suffer. It hurts me. I feel I belong but at times like that, I feel I'm not wanted here.

Q. What is it like when you go back to Poland?

A. It's great to see my family but I no longer feel part of that society. I don't follow politics or anything in Poland anymore. When I land in Dublin or Belfast, I feel this is home. It is almost like I can have my little Poland here. I speak with my kids in Polish. I have Polish friends. I have two Polish shops around the corner from me. That's better than back home.

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