I remember during my first week or so in Belfast in the year 2000, I missed the last bus to my university accommodation. I didn’t have a mobile phone and didn’t know any taxi number. When I asked a local guy for directions or where to catch another bus, he was so anxious and worried about me getting lost that he asked two other strangers, two young women, for help. One of them said that her boyfriend was coming to pick them up shortly and they would give me a lift.
I never met any of them again, but I’ll never forget the facial expression of the boyfriend when she told him that I would be joining them in the car.
He took it lightly, though, and said to her with sense of humour: “So you pick up fellas now and then you ask me to give them a lift as well?” It turned out she studied politics and knew about the Middle East, which gave us something to talk about.
This story came to mind recently as I was asked by a friend if I know of any refugee who would be interested in some furniture she wanted to donate. Another friend said that she would like to invite refugees for a hot meal at her house. Despite all the negative publicity and scare-mongering about refugees – and of course there are those who openly regurgitate the same old racist arguments – you will always be able to count on the generosity and hospitality of the Irish.
From speaking with a number of refugees, it is true that there are a lot of problems facing them, especially finding work. Many of them believe they face discrimination in the employment market due to prejudice and stereotype. While the right to work is an essential economic right, economic rights require legislation to protect them. Though such legislation does exist, applying it is not so simple, which seems to make it easier for employers to dismiss employees. For refugees and immigrants in general, it is even more complex due to lack of familiarity or understanding of such laws.
Being able to communicate and speak the language is essential in order to secure employment and achieve socio-economic integration. Once again, surely you can count on the lovely people keen to welcome the new Irish, with no shortage of volunteers giving their time to teach English to refugees and other immigrants. The NI Department of Education initiative announced last year to offer free English lessons to refugees in colleges across Northern Ireland is also welcomed.
Difficulties remain, and there is no doubt that there are those in the media and populist politicians who are trying to alienate refugees and demonise them.
Despite a noticeable change in attitude towards refugees and non-western immigrants in general as a result, however, over and over again, a lot of people in this country prove that it remains a welcoming place. It may not be all wonderful for refugees but they are more welcomed by the public than the hate-filled far-right racists.
In my case, when I came as a student about 17 years ago, that very brief encounter I mentioned with people I never met before – their kindness and compassion is a major factor in why I’m still here after all this time, despite the ups and downs I’ve encountered over the years..
Mohammed Samaana is a freelance writer based in Belfast.