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Northern Ireland has a tradition of welcoming the refugee

As the first group of displaced Syrian migrants touches down in Northern Ireland, writer Malachi O'Doherty looks back at our history of providing shelter and finds a fine heritage of tolerance

Published 16/12/2015

51 refugees from Syria, consisting of 10 families including a new born baby, land at Belfast International Airport after flying from Beirut in Lebanon. The families displaced by the on-going war in Syria will be housed in Belfast under refugee status
51 refugees from Syria, consisting of 10 families including a new born baby, land at Belfast International Airport after flying from Beirut in Lebanon. The families displaced by the on-going war in Syria will be housed in Belfast under refugee status
Belfast Mela Festival
Belfast Mela Festival
A refugee from Syria prays after arriving on the shores of the Greek island of Lesbos aboard an inflatable dinghy across the Aegean Sea from from Turkey

It is hard to imagine how Syrian refugees in Northern Ireland will view this place. Northern Ireland's terrain could hardly be more unlike the sand and dust of the Middle East. The fragrance of desert herbs and the shrill sounds of cicadas will be replaced by the smell of wet grass and the wind in the trees, punctuated by the occasional helicopter. They will immediately get some wrong impressions that we could gently and helpfully steer them clear of.

For a start, it is usually even colder than this in December. The bleak mizzle that seeps through wool doesn't actually reach the bone, it just feels that way.

It does get warmer, about as warm as a Mediterranean spring in high summer here. And, whatever they have read about racism in Northern Ireland, it is not as bad as it's painted.

A mischevious journalist a few years ago coined the phrase by which Belfast was repeatedly designated: the "race-hate capital of Europe". That was a response to several high-profile attacks on migrants in their homes, petrol bombs thrown at them, foul slogans daubed on their walls, windows broken.

Those things happened - and will again. But it is simply unfair to imagine that Northern Ireland is uniquely horrific and hostile.

Yes, there is bigotry, and many migrants have experienced it. But they also know that most of us are embarrassed by it.

Recently a doctor of Indian descent had her car firebombed outside her home, but the people who rallied to support her and raised money to replace the car far outnumbered the small-minded thugs who had tried to make her feel unwelcome here.

Racism is not an ingrained characteristic of the people or the place, and it is as racist to stereotype us that way as it is for some among us to sneer at the outsider.

The history of our welcoming and assimilating new communities goes back a long way. Among the first waves of migrants to the north of Ireland were Jews from Germany in the 1860s, merchants apparently attracted by the linen industry. Today they would be classed as "economic migrants".

The first synagogue in Belfast was built in Great Victoria Street in 1871. Ironically, the depletion of that first Jewish community followed on hostility towards them as Germans during the Second World War; it was not anti-Semitic.

The second wave of Jewish migration in the 1890s from Eastern Europe fared better, though fell into decline, too.

But there is still a synagogue here and several members of the Jewish community have distinguished profiles in academic and broadcasting circles.

Around the same time that their forebears came here, Italians arrived in numbers and their family names survive as Fuscos and Raffos and Rosattos and others. Like other waves of migration here they brought food - notably ice-cream.

They also brought skills at working with stone and marble and many of the finer public buildings of Belfast have been embellished by Italian craftsmen.

The City Hall, the Crown Bar and Clonard Monastery, all iconically of Belfast, were made distinctive by these migrants and their legacy is treasured still.

The third wave of Jewish migration consisted of refugees fleeing Germany for safety at the same time that German Jews were being made to feel unwelcome and were leaving. Many of them were sheltered first in the Refugee Settlement Farm in Millisle, Co Down.

Many of those who were looked after there were children who had come on the Kindertransport, a massive project to evacuate Jewish children from the Nazi terror, unquestionably saving thousands from a fate that led only to the ghetto and the death camps.

Ten thousand unaccompanied babies and children were taken into the United Kingdom and a huge charitable endeavour was launched to look after them. Millisle was part of that.

The farm was run like a kibbutz, with even the children working, and it is believed that 300 adults went through the system there. Things were improvised in ways that probably would not be allowed now; a saxophonist was put in charge of the health of the children, because he was related by family to medical practitioners. Most of those refugees left after the war, but some settled here.

The largest ethnic group originating outside Northern Ireland is the Chinese. Most of them are from the New Territories, rural areas around Hong Kong, and speak Hakka and Cantonese.

The first arrivals established themselves in catering. The first Chinese restaurant was opened in Belfast in 1962. Those who established businesses here were then able to bring over family members and provide them with jobs. There was undoubtedly some derision faced by the Chinese migrants from bigoted locals. Catering for people coming from pubs at night, they faced a clientele that was sometimes drunk and abusive.

But the community thrived and grew quickly.

There are now thousands of young Chinese people who were born here and speak the English of the locals. In south Belfast the Chinese New Year and other festive occasions are routine and colourful.

At the end of the Vietnam War in the 1970s refugees called "boat people" fled for safety and a group of them were taken to Portadown in Northern Ireland to be looked after by voluntary groups and Churches there.

It was a bleak and desolate part of the country to send them to at a time of intense intercommunity sectarian violence and they did what a lot of local people settled in Portadown did - they left.

In 1981 the first Indian community centre was opened in Belfast for a growing number of families from the subcontinent. That community now is prominently involved in artistic, festive and inter-ethnic celebrations, particularly the Belfast Mela, a festival of world cultures. Yet, Belfast is plainly not as multicultural as most British cities.

It does not have a mosque, but it has an Islamic centre where regular worship is held. And while, as in all communities, there are people who disparage the outsider, the majority here do not.

When First Minister Peter Robinson condescendingly said last year that he would trust a Muslim to go to the shops for him - this in the context of an argument that is being aired in the courts this week - hundreds rallied to dissociate themselves from the remarks.

This is a complex society for refugees to come to and it has a history that they might understand better from their own experience of divisions than many expect them to.

It is not the completely narrow-minded and xenophobic society that it is lightly branded as.

Belfast Telegraph

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