BELFAST — Inioluwa Olaosebikan, a 17-year-old immigrant from Nigeria, sits on the Belfast City Council where she advises the city on diversity and education for young people. She is one of the 25 young people from communities across Belfast shaping the council’s agenda. She also teaches young children coding and other computer and life skills.

However, because of a quirk in the UK education law that provides for free education only until 16 years of age, she is unable to go to school or get loans to go to school.

Inioluwa, known to her friends as Ini, has written over 100 school applications, only to be met with rejections or silence. A lot of schools said that she came a few weeks too late to enroll.

When she arrived in Belfast in October 2023, she had different expectations. While her younger sister was able to enroll in a local high school, she was barred. And if she can’t finish high school she can’t pursue her dream of continuing her education in a university.

 “When I got here, I found out very quickly that it would be very difficult for me to access education,” she said.

Ini’s case shows the challenges faced by immigrant youth in Belfast, where access to education can be hindered by bureaucratic and financial obstacles. Despite her determination to learn, her dependent status on his mother’s student visa made her ineligible for public funds, including student loans.

 “You can’t take out a loan or anything like that,” she said. “You know, being in this type of space, especially international fees are actually very expensive. “You’re out of your own pocket.”

“They just deny you. They don’t provide you with any alternatives,” she said.

She discovered that the Education Council of Northern Ireland holds no statutory duty to educate young people beyond the age of 16, leaving her without official avenues for support. In the United Kingdom, the typical school system spans from ages 5 to 16, ending with students sitting their General Certificate of Secondary Education exams. After that, students have the option to pursue further education for an additional two years, known as the A-level years, either at a sixth form college or further education college.

Ini aims to complete her A-levels, and go to a university to study a dual degree in computer science and politics or social work as an undergraduate.

“Education is a thing for us,” she said. “My family, we pride in education too much.”

Religious-Based Education

Integrated schools in Northern Ireland adhere to a strict quota system in integrated schools, allocating 40% of places to individuals identifying as Catholic, 40% to those identifying as Protestant, and the remaining 20% to those classified as “others.” This division comes from the Troubles, an ethno-nationalist conflict that enhanced segregation between Catholics and Protestants and lasted for about 30 years from the 1960s to 1998.

Ini believes that if she had been classified as Protestant, her entry into schools would have been easier. However, the educational system branded as an “other” making her compete with other immigrants for a limited amount of “other” spots. There is some irony here since she is technically Protestant – she attends the Nigerian Protestant Church in Belfast and found herself categorized as “other” when trying to enroll in school. In the eyes of the government, however, she is other.

“You might be Protestant, but as long as you’re black, you definitely do fall under the ‘other’ category,” she said. 

This classification is not solely based on religious affiliation but also on racial and cultural factors. “It’s white Catholics, white Protestants,” she notes. “If you don’t fall under that category, then you’re ‘others.'”

The implications of this categorization extend beyond school enrollment. Funding for youth organizations serving the “other” category is also impacted, as resources are distributed according to the same 40-40-20 ratio. Consequently, organizations catering to marginalized communities, including those comprised of individuals of diverse ethnicities and religions, face challenges in securing adequate funding and support.

Finding Her Path

Ini’s only option was to wait to enroll in school the following year. The prospect of waiting another year for educational opportunities weighs heavily   – she discovered a passion for volunteering that has transformed her life. She sought opportunities to contribute to her new community and found solace in volunteering at a youth organization in Belfast known as Diverse Youth NI.

 “Volunteering has been the highlight of my entire journey so far,” she shares. “Just being here alone has opened so many doors for me with opportunities.”

The idea to volunteer came from Ini’s aunt who believed it would be a valuable use of her time as a young person in a new country. Through her involvement with Diverse Youth in Northern Ireland, she has not only gained valuable experiences but has also undergone personal growth.

“I had to learn on my feet,” she says. “I learned a lot about communication, public speaking, and a lot of empowerment along the way.”

Ini’s role involves working closely with younger children, teaching them skills such as coding and facilitating sessions on mental health. Diverse Youth NI serves a diverse range of individuals, particularly those from Black, Asian, and minority ethnic backgrounds in Northern Ireland, including asylum seekers, refugees, and immigrants like her. Through her work, she not only contributes to the community but also advocates for the empowerment and inclusion of marginalized groups.

“I work with youth, empower them,” she explains. “I do a lot of mentorship with young people.”

In Northern Ireland, accessing education can be a formidable challenge for immigrants, but efforts are underway to address these barriers. Ini’s organization is at the forefront of this endeavor, providing crucial educational opportunities for immigrant communities.

“We do a lot of digital literacy courses,” she explains. “During the time they can’t access school, we empower them with access to English classes.”

Beyond language barriers, Ini advocates for systemic change to improve educational access for immigrants. She did a full presentation to the Committee of Education in Northern Ireland on youth education and engagement as well as wrote a seven-page paper with recommendations for policy change focusing on the critical challenges and barriers faced by BAME (Black, Asian, and Minority Ethnic), asylum-seeker, and refugee youth within the educational and employment sectors in Northern Ireland, especially in the wake of digital era advancements.

“I submitted a list of recommendations for policies that we can put into place to help people access education,” she said. Education, she believes, is fundamental to empowerment, especially for vulnerable young people navigating life in a new country.

“If you’re ignorant, you will not know a lot of things, and you won’t have a lot of opportunities,” she said.

This drive to effect change led her to a significant role – serving on the Belfast City Council in the Belfast City Youth Council from 2024 to 2026. Her position allows her to directly influence policy decisions and advocate for the needs of marginalized communities. With her experience in a leadership and politics program through Diverse Youth NI, she felt encouraged to apply for the position.

It’s a role that aligns with her longstanding passion for creating more opportunities and empowering those around her.

Finding Community

While serving on the Belfast City Council provides her with a platform to advocate for underrepresented voices, Ini acknowledges the historical exclusion of minority ethnic communities from decision-making spaces.

“A lot of their policies, a lot of their laws cater to their own community, which is the Protestant and the Catholic community,” she observes. “Oftentimes, in that space, they leave out the voices

of minority ethnic people. They actually reached out to us and said, ‘Okay, we need to hear diverse voices,'” she said.

While this outreach is a step in the right direction, Ini recognizes the persistent challenges of representation and belonging for minority ethnic youth.

“In a society where it’s divided, segregated, you can never feel like you belong,” she said. “When you come to a new place, you don’t really feel like you belong, I still don’t feel like I belong. The only place I feel like I belong is in the place where there’s a lot of representation, I see myself in other people, I see people that look like me.”

 For many immigrants like Inioluwa, volunteering serves as more than just a way to give back – it’s a lifeline for integration into Belfast’s community.

 “Volunteering has actually been the only way I’ve been able to communicate, to integrate into Belfast,” she shares. “It’s very difficult making friends when you don’t really know anybody, you don’t know where to go to make friends. If not for volunteering, I probably wouldn’t know any of the people I know today.”

For Inioluwa, connecting with other Nigerians through volunteering has been particularly impactful. In addition to volunteering, Inioluwa finds solace and community in her faith. She goes to the Christian Church of God in Nigeria, and they have a center in Belfast. Attending church not only provides her with spiritual nourishment but also offers opportunities to connect with fellow Nigerians and young people in the community. There are other Nigerians who came into Belfast and she was able to connect with the same issues.

“That makes me feel like I belong in this space,” she said. “I feel seen, I feel heard. I feel loved, I feel accepted. It is definitely very important.”