Small Worlds is a café-style event. People circulate around tables hosted by volunteers who have come to Northern Ireland from across the world. Each small group spends a couple of minutes listening to their host’s introduction before a longer time of questions and answers. After 15-20 minutes it’s time to move to another table and meet another host.
Belfast Friendship Club’s Stephanie Mitchell explained to me that it’s “a way of experiencing diversity in a safe and managed environment”.
The first Small Worlds workshop was held in December 2009 and it now “exports a little bit of Belfast Friendship Club’s diversity out into the community”. The round table event has been run in primary schools, youth groups, community centres, as well as with business leaders.
Small Worlds workshop in full flow here at Malone College and students very attentive to experiences from Latvia pic.twitter.com/T1TDr3jD2w
— Belfst Frndship Club (@BelongInBelfast) February 25, 2016
“The hosts are all Friendship Club members and they come from many walks of life. At any one Small Worlds event you might meet people from Sri Lanka, Latvia, Zimbabwe, Somalia, South America, all over the world.”
I took part at a Small Worlds session that ran after EMBRACE’s Annual General Meeting. Ronald and his family left Zimbabwe in 2002. His asylum application was processed relatively quickly. Originally a teacher, he now works as a key worker supporting Syrian families being resettled in Northern Ireland under the UK Government scheme.
“The hosts come from a huge range of backgrounds. It’s rare that you would have the opportunity to come into contact with people whose stories are difficult and can be quite harrowing. It’s sobering to hear real descriptions of the circumstances of people’s lives, why they’ve left their countries of origin, what they’ve had to endure since then, and what it’s like to live here in Northern Ireland and not be of this place.
Justin’s story started similarly. His journey through the asylum process is still ongoing. Yet despite the many years of appeals and a successful judicial review, he remains upbeat in the face of what is clearly a frustrating procedure that leaves him able to volunteer for organisations but not take paid work while he waits for resolution.
It’s quite emotional to listen to real people with real stories, what could sometimes be dismissed a figure on a piece of paper.
“That’s the power of this. It really enables you to encounter a person very close up […] and to listen and learn an enormous amount … One of the beauties of this method is that the table hosts themselves are accorded a dignity that very often is missing throughout the rest of their lives as someone seeking asylum in Northern Ireland. So literally the table is turned and it’s their table, their story, their photographs that they have chosen and questions are coming from people who are interested.”