Multicultural centre volunteers boosted by public support after race hate arson as hopes for justice and new building fade
A MONTH after the night Belfast Multi-Cultural Association volunteers watched their charitable efforts go up in flames, Bimpe Archer finds the unexpected generosity of strangers is a rare spark of hope amid disillusionment.
FOR the first time during our conversation Muhammad Atif hesitates.
A trustee of the Belfast Multi-Cultural Association and its public face, he is not usually lost for words, whether it is passionate condemnation of the campaign of racial harassment which culminated in the burning of its building or warm appreciation for the recent outpouring of support and aid.
However, asked what he would like to happen to those who threatened his fellow volunteers and torched the listed building that was their food bank, the easy flow breaks down.
It is clear he sees it as more of a philosophical question than a practical one, having little hope of a successful prosecution.
Last year just 6.1 per cent of racially motivated cases of criminal damage resulted in charges or summons compared to a general clear-up rate of 17 per cent.
"I think there's the practical side - thinking what should happen - and the human element which thinks what can be done to improve," Mr Atif says.
"Practically, I would like the people behind bars and to pay for what they have caused, the damage, because none of these race hate crimes have convictions in this country.
"You can scarcely find any incidents where people have been charged and that's it - they get bailed and there is not enough evidence. Which gives them confidence to go out and do it again.
"So I want people behind bars to be made an example to others to think two or three times before you lift a finger.
"Then I think if someone can come and tell us that they did it and say that they are sorry and see the work that we do, that would be something..."
But he breaks off, credulity perhaps stretched too far: "But you can only forgive somebody who would come forward and admit publicly and they will not do that."
The PSNI insists it is committed to solving the "hate crime", with a £5,000 Crimestoppers reward for witnesses.
"Two men aged 42 and 49 arrested in relation to the deliberate fire have been released on bail pending further enquiries," Detective Inspector Keith Wilson said.
"A 40 year old man has been charged with offences in connection with a separate ongoing investigation into incidents of criminal damage at the centre and is due to appear at court next month."
Mr Atif may not know who set fire to the former church on Donegall Pass, but they are familiar to him.
For months, figures have been standing outside as he and his colleagues went about their work there. Faces hidden by PPE masks, sometimes racial abuse shouted, always a general air of menace.
A disturbing escalation in September saw attacks on their cars.
"We told police - we have been followed and watched. We are being targeted. This is racially motivated."
Earlier attempts to reach out to `community leaders' had, he said, been rebuffed.
"We asked them to come and see what we do, see who we are, work with us, help us.
"We did not publicise it, but this food bank has been going for around five years. The majority of people we are helping are white. We never ask any questions about race or religion or gender or anything. Even about your finances. The only question is `Do you need help?'"
Their offer has not been taken up.
The "hurtful" arson attack on January 12 left the volunteers deeply traumatised.
"The act of burning down a building can never be justified, but we had not been doing something illegal or wrong, we were only trying to do charity like Islam instructs us.
"Since the pandemic we have been delivering to NHS workers, Women's Aid, homeless, people who have been shielding and can't leave their homes."
He said volunteers are all still "quite emotional", especially when presented with £72,083 raised in an online campaign by Amnesty International NI director Patrick Corrigan.
"On the upside - the only upside of things - the support we have is overwhelming from people. Yes there are people who did this to us, but hundreds of thousands of people standing beside us and with us.
"The charity work has been going on, it hasn't stopped, we've been working from our homes."
A month after the building was gutted, there is disillusionment about support promised by politicians and government bodies.
"Government institutions, politicians, they promised us help but now we wonder if it was just for the PR and publicity because we haven't seen a single address where we have been offered something (definite)."
A council spokeswoman said it "recognises the important work of the Belfast Multi-Cultural Association in delivering vital services to communities across Belfast.
"We have had a number of meetings with the organisation, along with the Department for Communities, to look at short/medium term support to assist with their recovery and are currently exploring options at the Ulster Hall as a short-term option.
"At this stage, nothing has been finalised and we will continue to work with the group and other agencies to explore all options in supporting their recovery."
The Department for Communities gave an identical statement, adding minister Deirdre Hargey "met with BMCA immediately following the deliberate hate crime which severely damaged its current premises and went out to see at first hand the damage caused".
Engineers say the building will not be habitable for two years, but the attack and frustration with the authorities response has galvanised Mr Atif and his community in other ways.
"I have lived all over the world and people are amazed that I call Northern Ireland my home, because it really feels more like home than anywhere else.
"Nine out of 10 people, a big, huge majority, are there for you, to help.
"But when I go into meetings about the lack for racial equality laws here and the attacks on ethnic minorities do you know how many people making these decisions are from ethnic minorities? None.
"I think we should all be looking at becoming more politically active, at joining the political parties so we are on councils and in the assembly. That is when we will see change."