Getting acquanted with groups working on Roma minority rights in South Belfast

Published February 27, 2012 – by Reem Judeh

As part of getting acquainted with the field of Roma children’s environments, in my new position at BvLF, I visited Belfast on 17 February. My very full and extremely rich one-day introduction to the city and to the work of the Community Foundation for Northern Ireland (

Belfast is known as a city with a very high degree of segregation along ethnic lines. The question, for me, was: how, then, in a city such as Belfast, do groups working on Roma minority rights function and conceptualize their work?

This visit was organized by Avila Kilmurray, the Foundation’s Director, who is herself a human rights and women’s rights activist, extensively involved in the ongoing peace-building processes in Northern Ireland. She thoughtfully scheduled meetings for me with practitioners, activists, and legal expert in minority rights, and with representatives of NGOs and the Health Authority staff working on Roma Rights in the city.

Based on lessons learnt from its work in the period 2007-2011, The Foundation has developed “a new model that combines social justice work with community development practice, [which] will enable groups to assess how they identify and meet needs in their local areas, how they might tackle injustices and how they might become more inclusive and accountable”.

Belfast is known as a city with a very high degree of segregation along ethnic lines.The city’s ethnic geography is dotted with and, to a large extent, defined by territorial markers, such as flags and graffiti, which separate the Protestant and Catholic areas. Those are not immediately visible to outsiders like me, but the city’s residents have had to intimately learn the symbols of this geography in order to navigate Belfast during the years of the Troubles. Peace-building strategies in Northern Ireland are attempting to address the multiple facets of Belfast’s religiously and politically segregated spaces, through urban regeneration and development schemes, which include deprived neighborhoods. This includes South Belfast, the location of the Foundation’s Roma center.

The question, for me, was: how, then, in a city such as Belfast, do groups working on Roma minority rights function and conceptualize their work?

To help answer this question, together with Ms. Kilmurray, I visited the Roma Children’s Support and Education Center, a safe and colorful space in South Belfast, staffed by highly motivated and energetic women. The Center was established to support 125 Romanian Roma families in South Belfast, primarily to access and participate in educational opportunities for their children. This includes primary School preparation to primary school age children (4 -10 years), early years services for children aged 0 – 3, and family integration activities on Sundays.

The Center is doing a wonderful job, but it faces a number of challenges. Staff told me that Roma children’s attendance of school is irregular, despite the (special) training of teachers (for the purpose of integrating Roma children) and the provision of language and tutorial classes to the children. If those factors were not sufficient to guarantee school attendance, what else needs to be looked at?

The Roma families in South Belfast are illiterate. They have no access to mainstream employment or education. Children do not have English or literacy skills. They are unable to afford uniforms, bus fares or after-schools activities. They have little previous experience of schooling and difficulty in adapting to school regimes, time keeping, and attendance. Education has been identified as the critical factor in building a sustainable integration plan for the Roma community in Belfast. And while the Education Department has taken a sympathetic view to Roma children in mainstream education, there remain other barriers to be overcome before successful inclusion and participation can take place.

When it is cold -I was told- many Roma parents prefer not to send their children to school. Not only because they can’t afford the warm winter clothes, but more importantly because they do not want to take the risk that their children become sick, when they do not have access to health services. Due to their position as accession EU state residents, the Roma do not have access to regular health services in Northern Ireland, with the exception of Accident & Emergency facilities. Similarly, while Roma children can attend mainstream schools, their families often lack the money to buy school uniforms and to pay for transportation. A staff member said that one of the mothers told her: “I am ashamed to send my child to school with the food I have at home. I can’t prepare a proper sandwich for my son, and I am afraid that the other kids will laugh at him!”

The Foundation and the Center have established good working relations with the Roma community, and have identified and are working with good allies in different Departments, including departments of education, housing, and health. One serious challenge, however, is that of a gatekeeper family, which seeks to maintain control of access to the Roma community. This is posing difficulties, as the gatekeeper in this case seeks to deliberately minimize the interaction between the members of the Roma community and broader society. Advice and support services that are provided free are particularly targeted by the gatekeeper, as it threatens the benefits the family wants to maintain by acting as (an unnecessary) go-between. The Center, together with the relevant departments, are struggling with this problem.

By the time I had to rush to the airport to catch my flight back to Amsterdam, the discussions on how to best organize collaborative efforts to develop a local strategy for Roma inclusion were continuing. For me, the impressions and the questions generated by this whirlwind visit were, and are still, crowding my thinking.

Reem Judeh, Roma Program Officer