Race attack salon owner's defiance and tears as protest shows solidarity
The owner of a nail salon destroyed after being torched by racist thugs has vowed she won't be driven out of Northern Ireland.
Police are hunting a four-man gang who set fire to Asta's Glam Factory in east Belfast on Monday night.
The gang forced up the shutters, poured accelerant on the premises and set it ablaze.
The distraught Lithuanian owner Asta Samaliute (24) was on her hands and knees in tears yesterday after seeing her ruined business.
Around 100 people turned out for a rally in support of the young business woman last night.
She told the crowd she was determined to start again.
Miss Samaliute - who has been living in Belfast for six years - is determined to stay in Northern Ireland.
"I always felt really accepted here, like this was my home," she told the Belfast Telegraph.
"And if anyone would ask me would you go home, I always said no, because this was my home. And I just couldn't believe what happened to me.
"I don't feel like I want to move. I feel really, really supported."
The arson attack is the latest in a series of crimes against foreign nationals in Belfast.
Yesterday, police revealed that racist incidents in the city have surged by 55%, rising from 307 reported in 2013 to 476 last year.
The latest attack took place at Asta's Glam Factory on Castlereagh Street shortly before midnight on Monday.
The inside of the building suffered extensive fire and smoke damage.
Police confirmed they were treating it as a racially-motivated attack.
Days before the blaze the salon was daubed with graffiti saying 'Polish out'.
Miss Samaliute had built up the business over two-and-a-half years.
However, she had moved to the premises only two weeks ago.
She fought back tears as she recalled the moment she saw her destroyed business.
"I was really, really upset. I felt my whole world came crashing down," she said. "I worked so, so hard and I put everything I had into this and everything was just gone within 10 minutes."
Miss Samaliute, who is due to get married in four months, has been backed by people in east Belfast, who staged a support rally outside her salon last night. A fundraising page also raised more than £4,000 within hours of going online yesterday.
"I was amazed by people, how supportive they are and how generous they are - just amazing and unbelievable," she added.
"In hard times like this you see how appreciated you are and I definitely don't think of moving. That never even crossed my mind. I'm just thinking of ways to move forward."
She said her concern now was for her employees.
"I just hope we can move forward and resolve this and I hope the people who work at the salon will get their jobs back soon.
"I'm more upset about that because it's so many people out of work. Some of the girls have families, they had kids."
Miss Samaliute has already been offered the use of a room in nearby premises to continue her business.
Local GP Dr Henry McKee from the Mount Surgery said people were "appalled" by the attack.
"Having spoken to several of the other traders it is a fairly general response from all of us that what has happened in Castlereagh Street is not reflective of the viewpoint of either the people who live in the area or those who work here," Dr McKee said.
"We are all horrified and want to express our revulsion at what has happened up the street. I speak for all the traders when I say that we find it appalling."
Police have appealed for information on the attack. Assistant Chief Constable Stephen Martin said it was clear it had been racially motivated.
"It is very clear - a hate crime is our direct line of inquiry. We believe it was a motivated hate crime and we believe it was aimed at the Polish community."
Factfile: Racist crime on the rise
In 2014 there were 476 reported racist incidents in Belfast, compared with 307 in the year before. Of these, 88 were on members of the Polish community. Last week three homes occupied by Polish people were targeted in north Belfast. Police figures suggest East Belfast is a hot spot for race crime. Between last May and January this year, there were 128 racist incidents in the east, compared to 125 in south Belfast, 107 in north Belfast and 29 in west Belfast. Police said race crime across Northern Ireland has risen by 31% in the last year.