A HOMELESS woman has spoken of her despair at the racism her family experienced living in the Village area of south Belfast.
Sahra Mahamuud left Somalia for Europe when she was a 14-year-old. She left behind a country in turmoil in search of a more secure existence.
Having lived in a number of European countries before she settled in Northern Ireland, Sahra told The Detail she has experienced more racism here than anywhere else.
She is no longer living in the Village and her family is now homeless.
Sahra and her children moved to Belfast from Bristol in 2013, following the footsteps of her father who had decided to move to Northern Ireland.
“As soon as we moved here the problems started,” Sahra told The Detail.
“My son was beaten up on the bus. My children were chased from the park with kids telling them to go back where they came from.
“My children said to me ‘we were born in the UK, I don’t know why they are telling us to go back’.
“People have come to our house and police have had to physically remove them from our door because they would be kicking and knocking the door and telling us to go back where we came from. It’s been really hard.”
The Police Service of Northern Ireland (PSNI) recorded that in the five years from April 2014 until March 2019, there were on average more than two racist crimes carried out here every day.
South Belfast, where the Village is located, experienced a higher number of racist crimes than any other part of Northern Ireland during this five-year period.
There were also over three times as many racist crimes recorded in south Belfast than in west Belfast during this time.
However, racist crimes often go unreported.
Sahra said what she has gone through has made her consider leaving Belfast. However, she acknowledged that the abuse her family experienced was carried out, and supported, by only a small proportion of people of the Village, adding: “I know not everyone is the same.”
The family has been in Ardmoulin Mews Hostel in west Belfast, which looks after homeless families, since last December.
One of her five children has type-one diabetes, putting her at greater risk to the effects of the coronavirus, especially given that she is living in a hostel environment where facilities are shared with other families.
Sahra said: “I’m constantly worried about my daughter. What if somebody sneezes, what if she touches something where the virus is, what can I do?"
Her eldest son, who is 16, moved back to England to live with family there, because he was embarrassed about being homeless and living in a hostel. His mother worries about him living away from her at such a young age.
"If I had my own accommodation it would be a great help," she said.
In 2014, Sahra’s family was living in a house in Dunluce Avenue, near the Village, but an incident involving her child at school led to a man coming around to her home, threatening to burn the house down.
The family then moved into a landlord owned house in the Village in 2015, but this was not a permanent home for the family.
It was made clear to Sahra that certain people in the area did not want them living there.
“My windows were smashed but when the police came, they couldn’t find anyone," Sahra said.
After a few years of living in this temporary accommodation, where the family experienced racism, Sahra was offered a newly built social house, also located in the Village, which would have been a permanent home for her family.
However, she said: “The day after I was shown it, the next day, people sprayed the house with graffiti saying, ‘locals only’.
“The police said that paramilitaries were involved and they would not let us move into the house.”
Dr John Kyle is a Belfast City councillor and the leader of the Progressive Unionist Party (PUP).
He told The Detail: “The Village is an area of social disadvantage. You’ve got families and community groups there who are grappling with welfare reform, poverty, poor housing, lack of employment opportunities and educational underachievement.
“Then you will get individuals who, for reasons of personal gain or animosity, stir up fear and racial resentment of newcomers. They end up exploiting people’s pre-existing sense of grievance.
“It’s very easy for unscrupulous individuals to exploit the situation and then try and act as community spokespersons and attempt to exercise power."
Dr Kyle said this "abuse of power" can lead to people feeling “they can order people out".
He continued: "Racism is a very corrosive and negative influence in communities. It damages relationships, it damages trust, it creates fear. It undermines good, positive relationships and the ability for a community to tackle problems in a constructive way."
Sahra told us that police confirmed that loyalist paramilitaries were involved in directing negative behaviour towards her family in the Village.
Dr Kyle's party, the PUP, has historic ties with the Ulster Volunteer Force (UVF), a loyalist paramilitary organisation which retains influence in communities throughout Belfast.
He said loyalist paramilitary groups were “a mixed bag” and that there are some “thoughtful, responsible, positive elements within paramilitary organisations who are trying to bring about positive transformation of their communities”.
However, Dr Kyle added: “There are also criminals who see being a part of a paramilitary organisation as a way to make money and to exercise, and gain, power.
"If they realise that there are negative feelings towards newcomers they will exploit that for their own ends and they will often sail under the flag of a paramilitary organisation because it gives them a greater sense of authority.
“Paramilitaries should have left the stage, we should be in a post-paramilitary phase now, but the reality is that they haven’t.”
When Sahra couldn’t move into the permanent home in the Village, her family had to remain a few streets over in the landlord owned property. However, the landlord then decided to sell this property in late 2019 and Sahra had to move out.
She said: “I was then offered more temporary accommodation on Donegall Avenue (also in the Village). However, my friend used to live in that house and he had to move because of hate crime.”
Sahra was perplexed by this offer from the Housing Executive. “I had been suffering for a very long time in the Village,” she said.
“How could they offer me another house there – the same area where I was having the problems? I was told this was all they could offer my family.”
Sahra didn’t move into that house.
She is unhappy that the Housing Executive hasn’t provided her with housing intimidation points. She also said she’s happy to live anywhere in Belfast.
However, despite what Sahra claims, a Housing Executive spokesperson told The Detail: “We are aware of this case. This applicant presented to us in December last year, informing us her private rental home was being sold.
“One minor incident of vandalism took place at this property during the time she was living there – police confirmed there was no threat to her or her family.
“She remains in temporary accommodation until a suitable housing solution can be found. She has updated her areas of choice on several occasions.”
Unable to secure a new house, Sahra moved into Ardmoulin Mews Hostel in December 2019.
“So far there have been no new housing offers,” Sahra said.
As well as being black and African, Sahra's family are also Muslims. She said: “It’s not only me. A lot of families from a black, Muslim background have been chased from the Village.
“They sprayed my cousin’s house ‘ISIS, if you don’t move we will burn the house down.’ They moved her to Beechmount Avenue into different accommodation.
“I didn’t want to go into a hostel. I was just hoping that a new house would come up.
“Most people facing those threats in the Village run away very quickly but I stayed there for five years, hoping they would offer me something better, but it never happened.”
Dr John Kyle, from the PUP, acknowledged that there is some fear of Muslims throughout Belfast, based on negative things which people see in the media.
However, he said: “The Muslim community in Northern Ireland has conducted itself with great sensitivity, dignity and with a real sense of wanting to be a positive part of the society."
In a message to those behind racist activity, Dr Kyle added: “Racist behaviour damages everyone. It creates fear and resentment and it damages their own communities.
"We need to be creating communities where our friends and children can grow and be successful and flourish. Racism has the opposite effect."
Sahra is a qualified carer who worked in a hospital two days a week prior to moving into Ardmoulin Mews Hostel.
However, she has been unable to work since moving into the hostel because her father, who supported her with the childcare, wasn’t permitted to visit in the same way he would have been if the family had their own home (before the lockdown).
Sahra added: “My daughter was admitted to hospital before coronavirus started, two or three months ago, and the nurses had to look after her while I had to stay here (in the hostel) with the other children.
“I was devastated. I couldn’t be beside my child, only the nurses were there, because I couldn’t leave the hostel.”
Since then, the implementation of the coronavirus lockdown has made childcare even more difficult for Sahra.
She is also frustrated that she’s unable to work at this time “because the health service is in desperate need of carers”.
Sahra continued: “I’m here now. I pay £35 a week. I’m not working, the children are not at school. It’s just so hard managing everything. It hasn’t been easy.
“My children were born in this country, I contribute to this country, I work hard. I keep to myself. I don’t really understand.”
Sahra told us she feels the police should be doing more to combat racist intimidation in Belfast.
She said: “When that house was offered to me in the Village, they should have reached out and said they would keep us safe and they should have spoken about how our family has the right to live in this country, but they just said, ‘sorry, paramilitaries are involved’.
“If they keep doing that, this thing will never end. They have to enforce the law and say there is a reason why we are here – we are not illegal.
“It’s like the police are afraid. I don’t understand. It’s been going on in the Village area for a very long time, I know a lot of families who have suffered with this in the area.
“My friend was attacked and another lady I know was getting abused every day. She has now got a house in Tate’s Avenue. My cousin had to move out of the Village and is now in Beechmount. Those are just a few examples, there are more. It has been going on for years.
“They put up flags, flags, flags. It’s their area and newcomers aren’t welcome.
“It’s 2020, you don’t have to like people but that doesn’t mean they shouldn’t be able to live somewhere. The law has to do something about it.”
In response, Dr John Kyle said: “Aggressive hate crime and intimidation is very difficult because not only is the victim targeted, it makes others reluctant to speak against it. In those situations it’s down to the police to intervene.
“You can gather intelligence and have a pretty good idea of who did it, but getting proof is difficult.”
PSNI Chief Inspector Gavin Kirkpatrick told The Detail: “Sadly, it takes only a matter of moments for an individual to step out of the shadows and spray graffiti on a property during the hours of darkness.”
While he acknowledged that these types of crimes are often under-reported, Chief Inspector Kirkpatrick added that police investigated two reports of ‘locals only’ graffiti, in the Village area in February 2019 – the period when Sahra told us she was due to move into the newly built permanent accommodation.
However, he said: “Police liaised with the property owners to ensure the graffiti was removed and carried out enquiries, but unfortunately, there were no witnesses, forensic opportunities or CCTV available, so nobody was held to account for their actions.
“Whenever police deal with this type of criminal behaviour, the challenge is that there is not always a policing solution to it.
“So our job as a police service is to work with the neighbourhood officers, the Housing Executive, local representatives, the families themselves and the wider community, to say this sort of behaviour is unacceptable and, if people have particular issues or concerns, to deal with it in a constructive and democratic way.”
Reinforcing sectarian division
The Detail submitted a Freedom of Information (FOI) request to the Housing Executive, asking for housing intimidation statistics in Belfast, broken down by neighbourhoods.
The purpose of this request was to ascertain what specific parts of Belfast have the biggest problem with housing intimidation.
FOI legislation dictates that responses should be provided within 20 working days.
The 20-working day time limit for this response came eight weeks ago. However, the Housing Executive has still not provided us with either the requested information or a reason why they are declining to release it.
A spokesperson from the organisation cited the COVID-19 crisis as a contributing cause for this delay, even though the response was due back just as the lockdown period was beginning.
Elfie Seymour is a housing rights activist who works for Participation and the Practice of Rights (PPR), a campaigning organisation based in Belfast.
PPR has been working with, and supporting, Sahra since she became homeless and moved into Ardmoulin Mews Hostel in December 2019.
Ms Seymour told The Detail: "Sahra's trauma is all the more tragic because of how common it is. Numerous media reports have told of both immigrant and Catholic families being forced out of what are considered 'loyalist' areas of Belfast.
“We have provided support to many families in the aftermath of such attacks. At its heart, this is nothing other than a crude and blunt attempt to reinforce the sectarian division of our city and maintain single-identity communities.
“There is a political motivation behind these actions and it would be a mistake to conflate this bigotry with the people who live in these communities.”
Ms Seymour added that politicians and public figures who “obscenely deny the deeply racist and sectarian motivations underpinning this intimidation” are also culpable for the “human misery” caused.
She referenced the 25-acre former Mackie’s factory site in west Belfast, which The Detail has reported on before here, which is not far “from where Sahra now lives with her family in a ‘temporary‘ hostel”.
Ms Seymour believes the Mackie’s site should be utilised for social housing development to provide homes for those in need, such as Sahra.
The site is owned by the Department for Communities, the Stormont department responsible for housing.
Ms Seymour has reiterated her desire for a moratorium on the plans for Mackie’s, which currently do not include proposals for social housing.
She added that the Minister for Communities Deirdre Hargey and Belfast City Council should “stall plans that guarantee no housing and engage with those impacted by the housing crisis to develop meaningful solutions” at Mackie’s.
- Rory Winters, the journalist who wrote this article, is a Bertha Foundation fellow.
- All of the work which he will be completing as a Bertha Foundation fellow will be focused on the right to land and housing issues.
- This is the fourth in a series of publications which Rory Winters will produce as part of the Bertha Challenge. To view the first publication, please click here. To view the second publication, please click here. To view the third publication, click here.
- To find out more about the Bertha Foundation, please click here.