GAA Football

Time to bring ethnic minorities off bench and include them in sports

Some of EMSONI's volunteers.

Cold, cold eyes upon me they stare

People all around me and they’re all in fear

They don’t seem to want me but they won’t admit

I must be some kind of creature up here having fits.

It’s almost half a century since the late, great Curtis Mayfield wrote those lyrics but, sadly, their message still holds true for some in society.

‘Hard Times’ might almost be the theme tune for EMSONI (Ethnic Minority Sports Organisation NI) but its founder Adekanmi Abayomi is determined to change the record.

A Nigerian lawyer, better known as Kanmi, he and his wife re-located here five years ago.

“It has been interesting since then,” he says with a deadpan smile.

Explaining his motivation to set up EMSONI, he says: “I am not used to idleness, so I joined a couple of charitable organisations to volunteer with them. Through that work I found out this was something I needed to do, to help people from ethnic minorities to integrate.

“Sport is a good platform for integration. Through my research, I found out that the participation rate of ethnic minorities in sport is very, very low.

“I said to myself ‘This narrative needs to change. We need to create a platform for leadership, to drive people from ethnic minorities to participate in sport’.”

Easier said than done, of course.

The setting for an interview isn’t often relevant or interesting. The latter certainly applies in this case – a bench in the foyer of Shaftesbury Recreation Centre – but the former doesn’t.

Think about it for a moment. An intelligent, educated, impressive man, aiming to represent the rest of the world here – and he can only sit on a bench, one that he doesn’t even own.

And the Shaftesbury, off Belfast’s Ormeau Road, is a place where Kanmi is actually known and receives a friendly reception.

Speaking to Kanmi is both uplifting and depressing. He’s articulate, passionate, positive – but the message he delivers is a downbeat one.

In a few words it might be this: Tolerance is not acceptance.

From my party house I’m afraid to come outside

Although I’m filled with love I’m afraid they’ll hurt my pride

So I play the part I feel they want of me

And I pull the shades so I won’t see them seein’ me

“There are a lot of barriers [to ethnic minorities participating in sport]. One is acceptance: the local community have not really accepted us. It’s more a case of tolerating.

“For ethnic minorities to actually integrate into this country the local people need to give us that sense of acceptance. When you accept us, we’ll have the confidence and trust to share our stories with you, so you can know me more and I can also know you.

“Without that sense of acceptance coming from the established communities here, it’s very difficult for us to participate.”

That lack of a base is indicative of the problems faced by EMSONI: “That is another one of our challenges. We don’t need a whole building. All we need is just a room, to organise our events, put people together.

“Some organisations have given us computers, others are ready to give us furniture, office equipment – but we don’t have a space.

“We come to coffee shops, try to put paperwork together, to plan our strategy. Go to meetings on our own bus passes, all on our own personal money. It’s so, so hard. We just need a base.”

Havin’ hard times in this crazy town

Havin’ hard times, there’s no love to be found

Havin’ hard times in this crazy town

Havin’ hard times, there no love to be found

Kanmi hasn’t had a particularly hard time here. “My wife suggested to explore Northern Ireland and Belfast. It is quite quiet and the people look friendly. We decided to stay. The people are friendly and warm.”

Not always, though, as he recalls.

“Where I live, my place was attacked by some kids and I knew them. They were probably sent by some adults, waiting for my reaction, maybe to attack the kids and from there a fight start, blah, blah, blah.

“I didn’t do that. I went up to their parents and had a chat. ‘Your kids threw a lot of stuff into my house – spoilt oranges, eggs, tomatoes – and I find it absurd. What is going on? I’m not here to cause trouble, I’m here to make peace.

“‘If myself or my family have done something terrible to you, we’re sorry about that.’

“I was amazed – they saw the sincerity of what I said and we live in peace now.”

Yet racism doesn’t need to be overt to be oppressive and hurtful.

“Most of the racism is more of the mental sort, the way that someone looks at you without even saying a word. People who think you’re not qualified because of colour or where you came from, and decide to react to you negatively.

“I don’t have to be hit with a big stick…A lot of people suffer from that, and become isolated and depressed.

“Let me tell you for a fact: a lot of people who are competent have been to a lot of organisations to volunteer – and they turned them down because of their colour. People with knowledge, people with credentials.

“Some organisations subject ethnic minorities to voluntary work that is not dignifying, the dirty part of the job. That’s they kind of ‘opportunity’ that you give to us.

“We have people who are experienced, educated, who want to be part of the system, volunteer in some intellectual capacity. We’re not allowed to do that. That impression needs to change.

“I was shocked when I saw your message on Twitter…It’s almost always only when there are negativities that newspapers phone the ethnic minorities. Why? In terms of media presence we have not been treated well.

“Come and see us, how we’re promoting good relations. Come and talk to us, let’s see how we can make this society a better world for everybody.

“We need to be seen as partners in progress. People need to see the beauty in diversity.”

After first speaking on the telephone, Kanmi wondered how I’d guessed he was Nigerian. “The name. The accent. The fact that you’re in charge,” I replied.

He laughed at that last bit. EMSONI has had some assistance and small amounts of funding, but it’s largely a labour of love from its volunteers.

So what do Kanmi and EMSONI want, need?

Money would help, of course, even if only ‘in kind’.

“Finance is also a barrier [to participation]. A lot of people from ethnic minority backgrounds are not financially buoyant for one reason or another, so for them to explore sports facilities is quite expensive.

“That’s all we are saying: if you really want the ethnic minorities to participate in sport and also to use sport for integration, you have to support them. How do you support them? Support an organisation that represents them and see how they can get support.”

From my party house I feel like meetin’ others

Familiar faces, creed and race, a brother

Facilities are the dream, in a ‘build it and they will come’ way.

A place to call home.

“We don’t really have facilities. Often when you go along the place is booked.

“We need to be provided with facilities, a multi-purpose centre to help ethnic minorities to participate.

“We are not saying that ethnic minority people should be segregated; no, we are not saying that. We are only looking for an opportunity where they are free to participate. They want to play basketball, table tennis, lawn tennis.

“Give ethnic minorities the opportunity to come together. We are not talking about Ghanaians alone, or Indians alone, or Chinese alone.

“But this [Shaftesbury] is for this community. Shankill Leisure Centre is for the Shankill people.

“All we are saying is that we need a sense of identity, a safe venue, without restriction.

“That would be a starting point. The government should be sensitive to differences and peculiarities.”

Respecting diversity

Just one example to illustrate that.

“We started six-week swimming classes for women to show them the beauty of swimming. If we start swimming classes for children, the mums will say ‘Hey, I enjoyed that swimming class, so I also want that for my children’.”

With Muslim ladies involved, the sessions had to be women-only, which was tricky.

“That’s a big factor. That gave us challenges in organising this project. The [local] community is not sensitive to the plight of people from another religion.

“We need to respect their religion. If they want to cover their face, or don’t want men to be in the pool when they are half-naked and swimming, we need to understand that and we need to support them.

“You need to think ‘How are we going to accommodate them?’ Both public and private sectors need to encourage such people. A lot of them won’t go swimming because men are at the pool.

“We have lots of Muslim women in NI now so it’s a big issue, not just for swimming. They need sports uniforms that cover sensitive parts of their bodies, because it’s their religion.”

No segregation

Kanmi is quick, though, to point out “That swimming project also involves local people.

“We are not wanting to segregate ourselves, no! We would not be happy about that. We are totally against segregation. We want oneness, we want to co-exist, to be part of inclusion – but we have to start somewhere. Identity is important. Ethnic minorities should have a safe place.

“None of EMSONI’s projects are meant only for ethnic minorities. But we hear every day that ‘There are no opportunities to participate’. That is true. We want to change that.

“Most of the football clubs in Belfast, Northern Ireland, it’s not that they don’t want us – but they are over-crowded. People decide to leave these clubs because they are not being encouraged.

“Say there’s a team of 40 people and just three migrants there, coming to training every day, but they’re not played in matches – that feels devastating. They need to participate, not only in training, they want to play in matches.

“When they don’t play, they feel they’re not good enough, it kills their self-esteem, it kills their desire to participate, and from there they withdraw.

“There’s a lady I’m working with right now, a swimmer, who has been to a lot of swimming clubs in Northern Ireland and they found her very good – but they are not calling her, they’re not giving her an opportunity to come train with them.

“She has friends from here who went to the club after her and they’re being encouraged.

“How do you explain that? She cries every time I talk to her. Why? Is it because of her colour?

“These are the things we are seeing. It will take time, but we will get there.

Partners in progress

“We just want the government to understand our pain, and to see us as partners in progress. We want to make things work for everybody. We are not here to give the government problems; we are here to be a problem-solver.”

Kanmi accepts that having non-white sporting heroes is helpful, but he’s thinking about all ages with EMSONI:

“It’s a point, that helps inspire young kids, ‘You too can do that in Northern Ireland, don’t allow fear to put you off’.

“We went to Windsor Park for the League Cup Final, Linfield against Ballymena United, and we put pictures out for ethnic minorities to see.

“The message was ‘Don’t allow fear to keep you away from public spaces. Don’t be put off by what someone says. Go there and be civic, go and see things for yourself.’

“It was a lovely atmosphere, we all enjoyed it. We’ve heard bad stories, but things are changing.

“We went to the stadium to make a statement. It’s good to diversify the crowd. It’s not just about the athletes, it’s about the crowd too.”

Involvement in administration

Ethnic minorities need involvement in sports administration too, at all levels.

“We need social justice in sport, equal opportunities – based on competence. Can I do it? That’s all we are asking.

“Equal opportunities, not only for the athletes, but also in sports administration. Ask us what we want – we want to be part of it.

“We are the ones wearing the shoes – you need to hear from the horse’s mouth, so that we can have good policies and legislation.

“I founded this organisation to provide leadership because there is no one speaking for ethnic minorities in sport. No one in sports administration. We need ethnic minorities on boards and governing bodies.

“We have a pool of experts. This organisation should sign-post that, to recommend to government to diversify sports administration.”

Positive perceptions

Most of all, though, what’s required are positive attitudes from the ethnic majority:

“Some try to keep rugby to themselves, some say ‘GAA is our sport’, and some say ‘Golf is for the rich’. Within the sports industry there is a lot of division.

“There is no way we can live together as humanity when we don’t appreciate each other’s differences and the beauty in our diversity.

“That is not allowing us to integrate. That perception is not helping us.

“We want people to come together and participate in the same sports without rancour and division.

“Some have a good perception about us, but some don’t. I don’t blame them, because they don’t know us.

“How do you judge a book when you don’t know what’s inside? We want to let the local people see beyond the cover of the book, see what is inside.

“To be honest, a lot of the white folks don’t know us, and have the wrong impression about us. Misconceptions, propaganda about us. It’s a big problem.

“Blacks, Asians, whites may be living together on the same street but we don’t know each other. If you don’t know me, how do you trust me, have the confidence to talk to me?

“We want to create opportunities for cross-fertilisation of ideas, of cultures, mixed together, to understand each other. From coming together, from doing sport together.

“By meeting regularly through sport, then we can develop something outside sport: personal relationships, engagement, connectivity. Then we get to know each other, clear away doubts, mend fences. That has to be done locally, from the grass-roots. Giving the right impression about each other.

“We need help and support. We are all volunteers, investing our time and limited resources to make sure that we put smiles on people’s faces.

“We have a lot of expertise ready to give of our time. We need support and encouragement.

“As well as giving ethnic minorities the opportunity, we also need to give them the cultural reception, make them feel at home. Without that it will be hard.”

Time for change – for the better. For everyone.

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