Teenager Ascha Alnajjar provided the perfect response to the exuberant community welcome accorded the Syrian refugee families of Belfast at a celebration in the Shaftesbury Recreation Centre last night (Saturday).
And it wasn’t just her words which mattered – though it was nice to hear “we love our new home” — but the fact that she had the immense confidence to make them in front of a packed hall.
Just a few short months ago, Ascha and her family were billeted in a UN refugee camp in Lebanon having fled the devastated city of Homs. Her father, detained by the Assad regime, died shortly after his release from injuries received under torture. Now with her mother Susan, brothers Loaui and Abdulmomen, she is making a new life for herself in her adopted city. A model student at Malone College, she was the first of the 51 Syrian refugees to speak on camera in a BBC news piece this week. She is one to watch for the future and I have no doubt both she and her brothers will make a positive impact on Belfast.
For various reasons, the Syrian families have been isolated from the wider community since their arrival and not all had the opportunity to experience the vast outpouring of support for their presence in Belfast. That has been put right.
Saturday’s celebration was intended to give the people of Belfast an opportunity to roll out the red carpet for our Syrian guests — and to show off some céilí steps — but there was a very practical side too as recruitment agency CPL invited every refugee of working age to take part in a skills audit as the first step in finding them employment. Hastings Hotels was among employers represented on the night who are keen to help the Syrians find work in their new home town. Stalls promoting Rosario football club and Sustrans cycling agency complemented the enchanting efforts of art genius Deirdre Mackel and Belfast Community Circus.
I am told by co-organiser and faithful translator Raied Al-Wazzan that the warmth of the welcome made a big impression on the Syrian families. That was evidenced by their own joyous traditional dance.
A truly cross-community welcome party was headed by politicians Junior Minister Emma Pengelly of the DUP, Rodney McCune of the UUP, Paula Bradshaw of the Alliance Party and underpinned by neighbouring Fitzroy minister Rev Steve Stockman and North Belfast’s campaigning cleric Rev Bill Shaw.
And, courtesy of the loaves and fishes skills of Ann Marie White of LORAG, all our revellers enjoyed a hearty meal to end what was another good night for Belfast.
Beannachtaí na Féile: The second annual SPAR Craic 10K meant Belfast hit the ground running on St Patrick’s Day. Associate charity was DeterMND which is led by former Antrim GAA captain Anto Finnegan who is pictured with course marshals and participants. I had pledged to do my own bit towards the fundraising target by raising £200 from the 10K. I have chipped in half that amount and any support via JustGiving to hit that target would be appreciated.