The Belfast Friendship Club: an open space that strikes conversations between migrants and locals
In 2004, Belfast was rocked by a series of unprovoked racist attacks on its Filipino community, a significant proportion of whom worked in the city’s hospitals. At the time, misinformation about immigration, sensationalised by tabloids, was rife. In a population still reeling from decades of civil conflict, mistrust of minorities remained close to the surface.
In response to these divisions, a large group of civil society organisations and charities gradually came together and, in 2009, started the Belfast Friendship Club, a safe space for people to meet and build relationships. It was aimed, primarily, at anyone new to the city for any reason, but also welcomed locals who now make up almost a quarter of the membership. And it has flourished ever since.
Belfast Friendship Club meets every Thursday evening, and over the months and years meaningful connections and friendships have been forged, irrespective of our backgrounds or identities. The club’s strength arises from an ethos of solidarity, equity, respect and the huge, loyal and expanding membership draws newcomers into its warm and welcoming space.
However, it became apparent that our ease with one another’s difference, so easily taken for granted, was not enjoyed in many other parts of the country, nor even the city. The Small Worlds workshops (profiled in the film above, and here's their main page) were a response to just this, taking a glimpse of who we are into settings wherever we were invited.
After nine years of witnessing the effect of these workshops first hand, the implicit message about the unity in diversity that we symbolise is the most powerful of all. We have a common bond with, an affection for, and support of, one another which speaks for itself—and we are the new face of Belfast.
In a country still wrestling with its history of intolerance and suspicion of the ‘other’, introducing the table hosts as my friends immediately sets the scene and makes way for connection on a basic, human level. As table hosts share their purely personal perspectives about how they’ve coped with their lives as migrant workers, asylum seekers or refugees, participants are prompted to wonder how they, too, might fare if placed in similar situations.
This, along with the freedom to ask questions, becomes the unifying element for participants. We are all sisters, brothers, daughters, sons, mothers and fathers after all and, although information changes nothing, real stories from real people about real lives allow us to compare notes on the experience of being human—with its moments of real connection and great fun.
In A/UK, we're beginning to explore the role of "clubs" as ways to nurture and let flower new kinds of citizenship. As the Belfast project exemplifies, clubs are ways for people to learn from each other, opening themselves and their skills/experiences out for mutual benefit. A "friendship" club is a brilliant idea (and it's worth exploring BFC's ethos and methods).