A new start in a New Belfast
A packed Europa Hotel ballroom for the 21st annual Aisling Awards gala on Friday was treated to a celebration of community endeavour with heroes from all parts of the city and from all sectors being honoured for their bridge-building efforts.
Mags McGuckin, indefatigable founder of the Survivors and Victims of Institutional Abuse campaign group, which represents those abused in the care of the state and religious orders, was acclaimed as the 2017 Person of the Year. Presenting the top accolade of the evening to Mags was Scotland’s Brexit Minister Mike Russell (see photo below) who urged his audience to rise to the twin challenges of pushing back Brexit and pushing forward the peace process.
But undoubtedly, it was Syrian newcomer and teenager Aisha Alnajjar who stole the hearts of the Aisling faithful with her introduction for singer turned Refugee Rescue dynamo Joby Fox – recipient of the coveted Roll of Honour accolade. Aisha’s father died after being tortured in captivity and the family spent many years in the UN refugee camps of Lebanon.
I publish Aisha’s edited comments below in recognition of her outstanding courage in taking to the Aisling stage for what was the largest audience to date for our Syrian neighbours who have made their home in Belfast over the past two years.
“This is the seventh year of war and conflict in Syria. Families have fled the devastating war and are now struggling to survive. The first group of Syrian refugees arrived in Northern Ireland in December 2015 and my family was one of the group. We have been living here for one year and 11 months and we are all homesick. We wish to go back to our homes when everything settles down. At first we found it difficult and strange to be abroad in these conditions but when we saw how pleasant and respectful the Irish people here were, we felt welcome and reassured. The life in Belfast is quite peaceful and calm.
“Learning the language was difficult for most of the Syrians but, mercifully, Syrian children got the language quickly – even the accent. The children are going to schools and integrating with the indigenous population. My little brother and I went to Malone Integrated College in February 2016 and we both got support and extra English classes. I did five GCSE exams, which usually take two years, in one year, with the help of my fantastic head teacher Mrs Máire Thompson.
“In summer 2016, I went to the youth club to learn extra English. The teachers were very nice and supportive and I met Mrs Nora McQuaid who helped us in English and Science. She is a really fabulous teacher and friend at the same time. I did Double-Award Science, my favourite subject, English Language and Maths and Arabic, my first language.
“Thanks to the help I received, I did really well in my exams and was overwhelmed that I got amazing, top results. I felt like I was over the moon. Currently, I am in Methodist Grammar College studying three A Levels and having more challenging and new experiences at the school.
“I never forget the most important person in my life who prayed for me, made me do my best, work hard, be determined and confident and who supported me after the death of my father: my dear mother. I hope I can make her proud of me and I hope she will see me working as a doctor in the future.”