Belfast Telegraph

Mixed bag for week

by Natalie Irvine

World Refugee Week is almost upon us, and to a lot of people living in south Belfast, it is the busiest time in their calendar.

Muhammed Matbouli is from Egypt and has been a volunteer interpreter with NICRAS (Northern Ireland Community of Refugees and Asylum Seekers) for the past five years.

He said: “Next week is a very important time for us to highlight the role asylum seekers, economic migrants and refugees play in society. For those new to Belfast, it’s extremely important that they find ways to integrate into society quickly. It can be scary in a place not knowing the language, that is a starting block, and we offer a lot of English classes. The teachers all volunteer their time.

“We also try to find ways of getting the local community involved in meeting those new to the city. During the year it is difficult as a lot of working class people around here work through the day — it’s hard for them to find time to meet and get to know new asylum seekers who obviously can’t work for their first six months in the country because of their status.

“However during Refugee Week, we try to ensure a lot of activities happen at the weekend or the evening, and we invite everyone to attend.”

We sit in on an English language workshop at the NICRAS office. Huddled together in a space not much bigger than a cupboard are seven people from Darfur (North Sudan), Kazakhstan, Iran and Zimbabwe. Most are barely here a month. They are joined by Sister Anne Kilroy and retired solicitor Colin Flinn who both volunteer to take the English class, and Mr Matbouli who assists.

Sister Anne said: “Last week the group learned what people here eat for breakfast and how to ask for it. Now they are learning to say what they eat for breakfast in the countries they are from, in English.

“You could say this table is like a big bowl and each of us are ingredients from around the world, we are all added in to the big mixing pot —a big bowl of porridge!

“It’s all informal learning, and so we try to incorporate as much as we can about life in Northern Ireland into their learning, so they understand quickly the culture of the community — it helps them settle in and makes them feel part of Belfast. Most importantly it gives them the confidence they need to integrate.

“No one knows how long they are here for, and it’s not something we ask. We are here to help them integrate during their time here. This benefits the local community. Asylum seekers, refugees, and economic migrants who have the confidence with their English language skills to integrate, makes it a lot easier for them to develop friendships big and small in the local community. I see my role as empowering them to make this step.”

Colin Flinn who helps the group learn English, also volunteers as a befriender to newly arrived asylum seekers — many hastily fleeing their country from persecution. He finds a lot of them are totally unprepared with limited English and no family or friends for support.

He said: “Befriending involves many different things. Sometimes it is accompanying the person to the library for the first time, so they can get out books.”

Many of those here will be involved in Refugee Week, some visiting Stormont tomorrow, Friday June 11, to launch the programme. Dates of interest next week are the international music night at the Menagerie Bar on Wednesday June 16 at 9pm, and an annual cultural celebration on Friday June 18, at City Church, University Avenue, at 7pm. For more info, call 9024 6699 or email nicras@hotmail.co.uk

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