Matthew Collins investigates life for an immigrant family in Belfast
Just off Donegal Road in south Belfast they’re converting a city centre gravel car park into what looks like a wasteland. Local residents are doing their yearly dump of anything that burns. There are sofas, thousands of books, boxes and magazines and more than a couple of washing machines. Mattresses too, that’s obligatory. Almost anything that could be fitted into a car or a small van has been transported here and dumped.
The car park attendant turns a blind eye, though he must have noticed an articulated vehicle of some sort drop off 300 wooden pallets right in the middle of the faux wasteland. As we drive in, he holds his hand out for payment.
Five track-suited youngsters are guarding the rubbish. To them, this isn’t any old rubbish. This is their Protestant birthright – to hold a large bonfire on 11 July to signal the count-down to celebrating the glorious 12th. Except this year, the traditional marches by loyalist and Unionist Protestants have been moved to the 13th. Good Protestants do not drink and sing, march and bang drums on a Sunday. And while they guard, they drum, using proper drum sticks or, in the case of one, a set of spanners, in perfect symmetry.
Their spokesman, a large teenager who is not drumming, gives suspicious permission for photographs. Four days away from the big blaze, he’s concerned the picture will show their pyre looking a little underdone. “Hey English, come back in a couple of days and this’ll be much bigger,” he boasts. “And we’ll stick a Taig flag on top for you.”
A short walk away, in the Holylands district of inner south Belfast close to Queens University, I have an appointment with accountants. Holylands used to be a staunchly Protestant working-class neighbourhood, but as the university’s expansion has mirrored that of both the Catholic and the migrant communities, Holylands has become rows of streets with religious names as diverse as the tenants who reside there. As well as “losing” Holylands, some in the Protestant community feel they have “lost” Queens University too.
The red hand of Ulster, traditionally painted or displayed on walls of Protestant neighbourhoods, has been replaced by red stars and fists, almost defiant symbols from a burgeoning, internationalist student population, with Palestinian slogans and flags marking the contrast with nearby loyalist neighbourhoods that fly Israeli flags. There are no Irish tricolours here, no overt Republican sloganeering next to stencilled graffiti saying “Stamp Out Racism” and “Kill Nazis”. A few rows of freshly painted empty houses is all that separates the old from, perhaps, an entirely new world.
Ismael and Ghizlane are both qualified accountants, not that anyone would know. A condition of their asylum application is that they are not allowed to work, so they have not worked since arriving from Morocco in 2004.
I’m ushered inside their cramped living room where the ironing board occupies most of the space, trying to avoid waking their three-year-old son sleeping on the couch while Thomas Tank Engine and Friends plays silently on the television. Ghizlane turns it off and nods in her son’s direction. “His favourite,” she whispers. The only other sound in the room is of inquisitive canaries hopping around excitedly in their cages. Upstairs the couple’s daughter sleeps. Later the family plans to celebrate her first birthday.
Ismael carefully lifts his son, gently running a hand through his thick mop of black hair, whispering an apology in softly spoken Arabic. The boy was born with spina bifida and his life is already a painful daily grind of visits to GPs and the hospital. His parents’ lives have for five years been a daily grind of uncertainty, torment, intimidation and assaults.
As asylum seekers with very little recourse to public funds, when thugs attack people like Ismael, 33, and Ghizlane, 26, they are entirely at the mercy of the voluntary sector and organisations such as NICEM (Northern Ireland Council for Ethnic Minorities) and NASS (National Asylum Support Service).
“I want to work,” Ismael begins, almost apologetically. “I didn’t come to Northern Ireland to take money. We both can work, we have both tried to work, to help and to fit in, but there is nothing they will let us do.” Despite their near perfect English, an interpreter is present who reassuringly nods when Ismael or Ghizlane shoots nervous looks in his direction. Ismael puts his son to bed.
In 2005 the family moved from emergency accommodation for asylum seekers to a property in south Belfast. On her first trip to the shops, Ghizlane, who wears a headscarf, was punched in the face by one of her new neighbours. Other shoppers and pedestrians stepped over her as she lay on the ground. “We did not call the police, we had been warned that people may be aggressive at first. I thought ‘is this normal’ but of course, it is not,” says Ismael staring at his feet.
NICEM’s figures show that fewer than 30% of victims report racist incidents to the police, although more than half suffer repeated incidents. For Ismael and Ghizlane, the “hundreds” of incidents of spitting, verbal abuse and physical threats continued for over two years, by which time they had come to the attention of NICEM.
They had a small group of friends from Belfast’s “tiny” Islamic centre who were desperately advising them. Regular taxi rides to the hospital for their son were exhausting the family’s limited finances and they were encouraged to apply for an emergency move. “The whole time we were there not one neighbour spoke to us even though it was obvious we had a child who was sick and we had very little support. Never. Not one friendly word.
“You smile at people and it was as if they do not see you. We hated leaving the house because we never knew what was going to happen. But of course we didn’t have to leave the house to find trouble.”
Accommodation described as “perfect” was found for them in west Belfast in 2007 on the advice of a social worker that fewer racist incidents are reported there. The family settled near the Falls Road and, more importantly, close to the hospital. “The first time I used the bus there, the driver said ‘hello’ and I was really amazed,” Ghizlane says with a rare smile. “This was where we wanted to live. The house was very cramped and there was a noisy pub a few doors down, but the people were friendly.” It seemed a better place to spend the hours between weekly English lessons and almost daily visits to the hospital. Ghizlane fell pregnant again. They approached 2008 with more hope than ever before.
On the morning of New Year’s Day, Ismael was having a cigarette out on his doorstep. It had been a noisy New Year’s Eve with excited celebrations that had kept the family awake, but they had not complained. They were attracted to the hustle and bustle of Belfast and the night had been joyful.
Ismael watched two men drinking from beer cans walking up the street towards the pub. They took offence at the tall but almost painfully thin man sitting on his own doorstep smoking a cigarette. According to Ismael, they threw a set of keys at him and told him to go inside, but carried on walking. After a few moments in the pub, they returned and attacked him with a knife, stabbing him in the hand and face.
Ismael shouted for help and told Ghizlane, who had tried to come to his aid, to go back inside. Neighbours instructed Ghizlane to call only an ambulance and not the police. Terrified and confused, and watching her husband bleeding, she called both. “That was the end for us in west Belfast,” says Ghizlane sadly.
“When the policed arrived, they [neighbours] called us names for calling the police.” Both Ghizlane and Ismael required hospital treatment. The PSNI (Police Service of Northern Ireland) did not take any statements from the couple, but advised them they would probably have to move away. “I wondered why,” says Ismael. “I had been attacked on my doorstep, why shouldn’t I call the police?” Perhaps the couple had not read the west Belfast “welcome pack”, which advises against calling the police to a racist incident.
“Nobody ever spoke to us again,” says Ismael. The silence can be intimidating too. Their landlord started demanding money from the couple that NASS had already paid. The community had withdrawn its support and the search for a new home began.
The family had been in east Belfast only five months before they had to move again. On 23 August 2008 four families in and around Imperial Drive were visited simultaneously by men with baseball bats and hammers and told they were “not welcome”.
“I had a month-old child now and here were young men with hammers and baseball bats telling us to leave by the end of the week. I called the police who came very quickly. My doors and windows were smashed and the people who did it were just standing there outside my house while the police were inside.
“The police took away the hammer and baseball bat for finger printing, but just came back and said we should leave. They were taking this very seriously, I don’t know whose finger prints they were, but although they did not make any arrests they were genuinely concerned for us.” The house was attacked three more times before they left in September.
Now they are in the Holylands, cramped in a house with damp that is making Ghizlane ill. “But the students are so very friendly,” she says. “Now it is the end of term a lot of them will go away and although the peace will be nice, it is nice when they are around.” With the bonfires being prepared and drummers already drumming, the approach of the 12th brings apprehension. “We want to be a part of this country,” says Ismael. “My children were born here. I could go and watch the parades and assimilate, but they just don’t seem to want me to, even though they do not know me.”
An assault on us all
“The Romanians have gone,” Patrick Yu tells me. And so has some of Patrick’s spark. In previous dark hours, somewhere inside Patrick there had still been a smile, a warmth, even when the Chinese community were fleeing south Belfast in fear of their lives three years ago. He seems genuinely drawn and distressed. “I miss David Ervine [former loyalist paramilitary and politician]” he tells me sadly. “There just seems no way into the paramilitaries like there used to be, to mediate and get this to stop.”
“This” is a spiral of violence that is seemingly out of control. The Irish media are firmly assured in the convenient belief that a mythical nazi Combat 18 unit is responsible for ethnic cleansing across the province. Patrick’s organisation NICEM is stretched to the limit. “What figures do you want?” he asks. “This morning’s, this afternoon’s or this evening’s racist attacks?”
Patrick doesn’t accompany me to Sandy Row, “Heartland of South Belfast Ulster Freedom Fighters”, the nom de plume for the UDA. He doesn’t think he can stomach a meeting with paramilitary spokesmen and anyway he has to drive to Stormont for a meeting about housing. “They don’t want to help because they fear, in the middle of decommissioning their weapons, people will think that they’re involved in racist violence and not sectarian violence. Why should the peace process only involve two communities?”
Patrick’s American assistant Jolena Flett nervously joins me in the back of Jackie McDonald’s car. She has kept us waiting a good few minutes while, I suspect, she was weighing up whether this was an entirely good idea. McDonald and his driver had arrived outside NICEM’s offices less than five minutes after I had rung him suggesting a cup of tea.
McDonald is the alleged (his emphasis) brigadier of south Belfast UDA and the alleged overall commander of the UDA. His official title is community worker. In his office, he is businesslike. He looks you straight in the eye when he speaks, on or off the record. And Jackie can talk, brilliant anecdotes with quick-fire humour. “The UDA is not ethnically cleansing anyone. Write that down, I’ll wait for you. But neither are we kneecapping or giving ‘digs’ in the stomach to people who are doing this stuff. Have a look at what the Unionist politicians have given these [loyalist] communities in return for votes. The great King Billy himself could ride down here on his horse at night and he’d be mugged.
“I call the police, I tell anyone who comes to me and says ‘Jackie, so and so has robbed me’ to call the police. We’ve put the guns away, we’ve had to. If people know who is behind these racist attacks, I’m telling them to call the police. We won’t get anything done for these communities if Jackie McDonald is the one going around dishing out law and order. And these kids behind these attacks in South Belfast won’t listen to a UDA with its guns put away anyway.”
Out on Sandy Row for a photograph, everyone says good morning. McDonald is warm and embracing of his people. People listen in to what he is saying. Perhaps he could condemn these racist attacks louder, then? “I do, but who writes it down and prints it big enough? I’ve been on all the marches, all the protests, but this does not work. I don’t want a far-right group filing the void here in these communities and it is only real work that can stop that from happening. But I do think, look at how many people are moving here into a shrinking community that’s crying out for help and political direction and I know the same things are happening in nationalist and republican communities too.”
Eastern Europeans bear the main brunt of Protestant anger. They’re accused of “Romanising” the empty streets in south Belfast, as well as taking the few remaining jobs. Over 40 Polish people from nine families have been “put out” (forced to leave) in south Belfast this year. The justification was “community anger” over football violence when the two countries played in the city earlier this year, but many worry that Polish children are “catholicising” Protestant state schools in the area and believe that the Poles all hold Republican sympathies.
Aleksandra Lojek-Madziarz, (pictured) a Polish journalist and community worker, feels this intensified when Polish football fans “stupidly” travelled from Scotland and unfurled an Irish tricolour carrying the letters “IRA”, presumably in support of Celtic goalkeeper Artur Boruc. Republican dissidents had carried out terror attacks shortly before the game.
“I like the people here,” she says. “They are good people reacting in some cases very badly to change. The Polish community is, however, quite strong and resilient and I am a patient person too.
“Comparatively, Northern Ireland is a wealthier place with a lot more to offer some Polish people, but we are not here to take anything from Protestant communities, we don’t want to vote them out of house and home or change their country. They don’t see that, because they do not feel the benefits yet in post-conflict Northern Ireland, and I can see that every day when I meet people who are really struggling, who still have poverty and other unresolved issues. They have to stop thinking of us as an historical enemy, because we do not come here with that burden or intention.”
Patrick Yu finally went to see Jackie McDonald on 10 July, about a letter he had received purportedly from the UDA’s youth wing, the Ulster Young Militants, telling him and NICEM to leave Ulster before the 12th or be “blown up”.
You may also be interested to read The name that fits the crime Matthew Collins investigates the anti-Romany violence in Belfast. From Searchlight Magazine July 2009