Anne Hailes: A timely read about refugees, plus a wonderful Christmas concert

Sarah Richmond one of the associate artists of Northern Ireland Opera
Anne Hailes:

I CAN'T use names because people are afraid to say anything that will threaten their families so I'll refer to her as J. She lived in Iran with her husband and 14-year-old son. They were a happy family but there was a problem, an unsurmountable problem. As a member of the gentle Baha'i faith she lived in grave danger of persecution.

She worshiped privately but her neighbours found out and reported her. Before she could be imprisoned she was spirited out of the country and eventually, after a deeply distressing journey, she arrived in Northern Ireland.

J has left behind her entire family, her friends and, most importantly, her husband and her son. Can you imagine the pain? Hopefully some day they will be united. Until then she is absorbed into the Baha'i community in Belfast.

You'd have to be in a desperate situation to pay vast sums of money to flee through a variety of countries, risk violence, including rape and murder, and rat-infested, overcrowded camps and then ending with the perilous journey in a small boat across the English Channel.

Briefly, an asylum seeker is someone who leaves their own country often for political reasons or because of war and who travels to another country hoping that the government will protect them and allow them to live there. Once they submit an application they have a legal right to stay in the country until the Home Office decides whether to grant them asylum.

A refugee is someone who has already proven to the Home Office that they would be at risk if they returned to their home country and is therefore granted leave to remain.

A migrant is someone who moves from one place to another in order to find work or better living conditions. Not easy.

Being an asylum seeker involves great fear and hardship, children so frightened, women afraid, often pregnant so what happens then? Men trying to keep the family together and find the money for their escape.

Of those who have arrived in Northern Ireland it's been one traumatic event after another, escaping from a life of conflict into a cauldron of confusion, vicious opposition, a new set of religious values, often settling into a housing estate, a concept they are not used to but accept.

Add to that the language barrier, a new climate, the precarious work situation, forms and interviews to be tackled and, as one woman told me, “trying to understand people – you all speak so quickly”.

You can't blame any of them wanting out of here and a sizeable number have left to settle in England. Others, however, remain in Ireland. like the family who didn't want to live in a city and were offered a home in Letterkenny. They were welcomed. The husband opened a shop, their sons integrated well and are now at university. A success story.

With International Migrants Day falling on Friday December 18, Declan Henry's book Young Refugees and Asylum Seekers is a timely publication and invaluable to those who study the worldwide situation. The author is a qualified social worker of vast experience.

“I came to know and respect many young refugees and asylum seekers and to hear of their suffering and endurance is sometimes beyond our capacity to understand.”

A chapter on emotional distress includes a teenager being bombarded with news of Covid-19, the death toll constantly reminding him of the dead family and friends he's left behind in war-torn Iraq.

Although Declan writes mainly about young people, what he has uncovered is common to all ages no matter what country they come from. He goes into detail of what is required of the person seeking refuge and the reaction of the authorities, not always sympathetic.

In his research Declan, himself from Ireland, has found that this is a welcoming country although there are downsides – such as the high cost of living and the risks of being used as cheap labour or forced into prostitution.

Fresh in people's minds is the tragedy last October when 39 Vietnamese nationals were found dead in a trailer. Their families had sold the farms and borrowed money to pay smugglers to take their sons and daughters to a place of safety and a better life.

Over 20,000 men, women and children are presumed drowned in the Mediterranean since 2014. For an asylum seeker the journey to safety is torturous; often they witness family members being raped or murdered.

:: There is help

The Northern Ireland Community of Refugees and Asylum Seekers (NICRAS) is the only refugee-led organisation that represents the interests of the refugee community.


:: Support the integration process of refugees and asylum seekers into local communities throughout Northern Ireland.

:: Raise awareness of the issues, problems and difficulties faced by refugees and asylum seekers.

:: Inform members of relevant changes to immigration policy and legislation

:: Organise social and recreational events.

:: Respond to the changing needs of its members.

:: Advocate for improved circumstances of asylum seekers and refugees.

Their Covid-19 Response is a partnership project with Homeplus, South Belfast Roundtable, South Belfast Foodbank, Embrace and Storehouse, organisations that have coordinated to deliver food supplies to the refugee and asylum seeker community in Belfast.

:: Contact: or telephone 028 9024 6699. For Declan Henry's book go to

:: Christmas concert

IT WAS my pleasure to take part in a Northern Ireland Opera film of Christmas music and readings. It will be so beautiful to watch as the setting is the historic Rosemary Street Church in Belfast which was dressed in garlands and candles, with music rising to the ancient rafters.

The City Hall also makes a spectacular appearance; from there Sean Rafferty will host the concert – The Priests, Ruth McGinley, Neil Martin, David Carr, singers and musicians, including Daniel Perskawiec on sitar, all contributing to ‘At Home For Christmas' which will be shown on Wednesday December 16 at 8pm.

Get comfy, a seasonal drink, switch on the Christmas tree lights and turn to

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