A 17-year-old Path from Immigrant Youth to Belfast Council Advocate

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.”

Northern Ireland Granted Him Asylum: Now Comes the Hard Part

BELFAST, Northern Ireland — Yousif Alshewaili, a 24-year-old Muslim who fled his native Iraq (pictured above), was recently granted asylum status in Northern Ireland. He is thankful for the reception he has received in his new country but says that it often comes with strings attached.

“People are super nice,” he said in a recent interview, but they also want to convert him to Christianity. "Some grandmas volunteer to teach English also through Jesus," he said. They are constantly giving him Bibles.

"Like I had more Bibles than clothes, you know?" He chuckles as he recalls his early days there.

Alshewaili recounted an encounter where his reluctance to discard Bibles led to amusing exchanges. "One time I was asked by the hotel staff, 'Yousif, are you religious?'" he recalled. "I was like, 'No, it’s just that each time I go to the church, they give me a new Bible. I don't want to be rude or throw them away.'"

Christians form an overwhelming majority of the population of Northern Ireland. When people there speak of religious diversity, they mean Catholics and Protestants. Northern Ireland is still deeply divided, largely coming 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.

Even today, the population predominantly identifies within these two groups. According to the 2021 census, 42% of the population identifies as Catholic, 30% as Protestant or other Christian denominations. Muslims like Alshewaili are a small minority. There are only about 12,000 Muslims in a country of just less than 2 million people, the census shows.

Despite efforts to foster inclusivity at the churches, religious undertones often remain — even in casual events.

"One of the churches that we go to after football, they offer us water and oranges and biscuits, coffee, you know, for free and they talk about Jesus," Alshewaili shared. "They invite us to come to the prayers and stuff."

During Ramadan, which ended this year on April 10, Alshewaili and his friends shared an iftar meal in South Belfast. This reunion for Ramadan was one of the few ways Alshewaili has managed to keep his roots and practice his religion — Islam — in a city that has made headlines for racism against religious minorities and for burning down places of worship for Muslims.

Alshewaili fled Iraq because of the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIS) and fear of prosecution. Iraq had become intolerable, prompting him to leave the country. Since then, he has endured significant challenges in his life, including living in refugee camps in Greece and the UK. Despite these hardships, Alshewaili has managed to teach himself English and photography while living in a refugee camp in Lesbos, Greece, mastering both skills with remarkable proficiency.

Photo by Yousif Alshewaili at the Moria Refugee Camp in Greece

Photo by Yousif Alshewaili at the Moria Refugee Camp in Greece

Now, he lives in Belfast, works as a photographer, and is slowly building a new life in Northern Ireland, a place he has called home for the past one and a half years. He was also recently accepted for a program in cybersecurity engineering at a university in Derry.

When I arrived one night of Ramadan to interview Alshewaili at his friend’s house, I was immediately greeted with food. His friend offered me dates, a sweet fruit from the Middle East, and grape juice while we waited for the main meal. We shared the meal with three of his friends, two from Yemen, and another from Iraq, whom he had met in Bangor, Northern Ireland, when he lived in a hotel hosting asylum seekers. They all cooked dinner together while chatting in Arabic, with Alshewaili translating the conversation for me.

When one of his friends offered me grape juice, I thanked him.

“We don’t say ‘thank you’ and ‘sorry’ in Arabic,” he told me. “Because everything you do, you expect to come back to you. If you do good, good comes.”

Upon arriving in Northern Ireland, Alshewaili felt welcomed. However, he also faced the restrictions of living in a hotel used to host asylum seekers, such as not being allowed to work while waiting for his documentation, being prohibited from cooking, being prevented from leaving the hotel on Fridays and receiving only £8.86 in weekly cash support — enough only for a one-way train trip to see his lawyer.

“It's just frustrating to seek asylum here because they don't allow you to work until you get your asylum. So you're basically living at the mercy of the government,” he said.

Constantly looking over his shoulder in Bangor, located a little less than an hour by train from Belfast, he lived in fear of potential attacks. The threat of violence loomed close, as many of his friends fell victim to street assaults in Bangor. Transitioning to Belfast offered a somewhat improved environment due to its larger size and more diverse population. However, even here, Alshewaili encountered troubling incidents. He recalls being followed while attending the gym, even to the changing rooms. One day, a staff member approached him, questioning his choice of footwear.

“At the end, she was like, ‘Look, if you don’t have trainers, we can donate. People donate them all the time for free,’” he said. “I was like. 'What do you mean? Why would you say that?' It’s racist. I came here to train, I pay for my membership. I have been a long-time member. So I don’t understand.”

“Peace walls” stand as stark reminders of the division between Catholic and Protestant neighborhoods in Northern Ireland. Some of these walls soar over 40 feet high, stretching approximately 21 miles (or 34 kilometers) in length. Initially erected during the Troubles to mitigate the risk of petrol bombs and missiles, these barriers are now more used for psychological security to both communities. To this day, many on the Protestant side identify strongly with the United Kingdom and British identity, while several members of the Catholic community align with Irish heritage.

This security iron gate divides the Catholic and Protestant communities along the Belfast peace wall. (photo by Renata Daou)

Upon his arrival, Alshewaili was initially optimistic, believing that the people of Northern Ireland would empathize with his refugee past. “I thought I shared a lot of things in common with these people. They will understand me because they went through it all, so they will understand why I am here,” he expressed. “But unfortunately, only one side of the wall understands; the other side has been racist. Not everyone, but a lot.”

Street mural in Belfast (photo by Renata Daou)

I asked Alshewaili to spend a day showing me Belfast from his perspective. As we navigated the city streets, the disparity between the communities became evident. While strolling through South and East Belfast, we observed strong loyalist sentiments depicted in murals.

A mural in East Belfast (photo by Renata Daou)

We also passed areas where Arab businesses were burned down in allegedly racially motivated incidents. However, upon turning onto Northumberland Street and passing through the gates that segregate Protestant and Catholic areas, we noticed a palpable shift in the atmosphere, with signs welcoming immigrants and an Irish sentiment.

“One side is way more welcoming, way more nice,” he said. “Those who cared for refugees, most of them were from the Irish side of the wall. They were trying to fix the situation and organize a protest against this system. They tried to support us in any possible way.”

In 2021, the Belfast Multi-Cultural Association (BMCA) building, situated in South Belfast, a mainly Protestant Loyalist area, was destroyed by arson. BMCA is an association that fosters cultural diversity and community services such as a food bank and prayer area. The crime was believed to be motivated by hate, according to police reports. Just hours after repairs were completed in 2022, the building suffered another arson attack, further reinforcing suspicions of a hate crime. Faced with ongoing safety concerns, the BMCA decided to relocate to a different site in February 2023. Naomi Green of the Belfast Islamic Centre explained that BMCA has moved to another building in a more mixed area which is considered safer, and where a previous mosque was located for over 40 years without problem.

“For the previous area, I wouldn't consider it a safe area for Muslims in particular, or people who may be 'coded' as Muslims — Arabs, South East Asians or African,” Green said. “No one was charged for most of the attacks in those areas.”

Despite these obstacles, Alshewaili acknowledged recent progress with advocacy for the creation of multicultural groups. "You know, it's getting better," he said. "Lots of people working on it and speaking on it."

During his time in Bangor, Alshewaili believes he experienced his worst period yet. The region witnessed a surge of protests against immigrants residing in hotels, with demonstrators accusing them of various crimes and expressing discontent over government expenditure.

“Some people held different kinds of signs,” he said. “Signs accusing us of rape, theft, blaming the government for spending millions on us and labeling us as criminals, among other accusations.”

One notable example is the Facebook group "North Down Concerned Residents," which attracted about 2,500 followers and serves as a platform for local opposition against refugees and asylum seekers. The group organizes protests outside hotels and voices grievances regarding the immigrant population in Northern Ireland.

Alshewaili perceived a deliberate attempt by the government to scapegoat refugees for economic woes. With private hotels housing immigrants paid for by the government, a large part of the Northern Ireland population is unsatisfied with the arrangement.

“The government is using refugees as scapegoats, telling them that the economy is bad because of refugees,” he said. “The asylum system in the UK is for profit. So they are profiting from me.”

A prior BBC investigation revealed that private companies are experiencing growing profits while the government spends millions of pounds daily to accommodate asylum seekers in the UK.

“Reducing the backlog in asylum cases and establishing a more efficient and robust decision-making system is not a strategy in and of itself to stop illegal migration but is important to taxpayer value and we have prioritised it,” said Minister for Immigration, Robert Jenrick, in a statement to the House of Commons on illegal migration.

There exists a suspicion that paramilitary groups may be orchestrating attacks against immigrants in Bangor. On one occasion, Alshewaili said the police had video footage of an incident but still did not get involved.

“We made two complaints about racism and racist attacks,” Alshewaili said. “They closed the investigation after two days only and told my friend that they could not identify the people. It is Bangor, it is not big. The police cannot act against the paramilitary.”

Alshewaili maintains that many of the tensions between the two communities could be alleviated through improved housing policies. “I would put more housing in Belfast for both communities,” he asserted. “Let everyone live with dignity.”

May the Peace Be With You

NEW YORK — “La Paz sea contigo.” This phrase, La Paz sea contigo, means “may the Peace be with you,” and may have been the only time the churchgoers at St. Patrick's Cathedral in New York City interacted with each other on a recent Sunday.  

With a capacity for approximately 2,400 people, the cathedral attracts more than 5.5 million visitors annually, making it one of New York’s major religious tourist attractions. During Sunday masses, which are considered the Lord's Day for the Catholic Church, St. Patrick’s Cathedral hosts eight services, including one in Spanish at 4:00 pm. In between masses, the church welcomes tourists to explore its design and tradition.

This means that the time in between masses is extremely short. The church also has extra security personnel who ask churchgoers to show the interior of their bags before entering the seating area for mass. As a result, the parishioners at the cathedral do not have any time to interact with each other — until the passing of peace.

The ritual happens during communion, which encompasses the prayers for peace and the communion itself. The greetings happen after the Prayer for Peace, and before the communion, where the priest asks that peace extends to all people, present or not, so that they can fully live the mystery of Christ. At that moment, people can share their wishes for peace with one another. 

It is also the moment to observe the vast difference between those who frequent church. We see families hugging one another, toddlers who take the opportunity to finally run around and talk with each other, and those who come in solitude talking to their neighbors. It is the moment people step out of their own prayers to extend their votes of peace to the community. 

“La Paz sea contigo,” are the wishes shared among the faithful, who shake each other’s hand - except a man with glasses who did not shake anyone’s hand and, instead, held up the two-finger peace sign in response to the greetings.

Growing up Catholic, I had already been to many masses in different churches around the world. Most of the time, I tend to prefer more charismatic churches that promote interaction between churchgoers. However, the solitude of St. Patrick’s promotes a more introspective and direct connection with the ceremony. Sylvia Rivas, Assistant to the Exec. Director of Development, said most people who attend mass at St. Patrick’s Cathedral seek solace and prayer. 

This elevates the prayers for peace, turning them into a more cherished and extended experience compared to other churches. I was taken aback by the significant number of parishioners at St. Patrick’s Cathedral who were praying alone, particularly noteworthy considering that Hispanic masses typically bring large families together. Observing young women in their twenties, older women with veils, and solitary men reaching out to say "La Paz sea contigo" adds an intimate and meaningful dimension to the moment, creating a sense of mutual understanding.

St. Patrick's Cathedral is in the Midtown Manhattan district of New York City and serves as the principal church for the Archbishop of New York. The cathedral stands directly across from Rockefeller Center.

Back in the 5th century, Saint Patrick undertook his mission in a predominantly pagan Ireland. His efforts to evangelize led to a significant portion of Ireland's population embracing Christianity, according to the cathedral’s website. The Catholic faith has remained a resilient force in Ireland ever since, especially in the southern part of the country. His legacy remains alive, represented by the large New York City cathedral.

St. Patrick's Cathedral, designed by James Renwick Jr., is the most extensive Gothic Revival Catholic cathedral in North America, according to the Cathedral's website

Day Five: Northern Ireland's Journey Towards Peace and the Bloody Sunday Legacy

LONDONDERRY – Today, our class began exploring tumultuous divisiveness and violence in Londonderry's recent history — and ended with an uplifting message of unity and friendship across religious divides. 

After breakfast at the Maldron Hotel, we followed Northern Ireland guide, Dr. Barbara McDade, into the Bogside to learn more about the somber echoes of past conflict and the resilience of its people. 

Our first stop of the day was The Museum of Free Derry. Walking down a slope into the Bogside neighborhood, we immediately noticed political posters and slogans in every direction. The streets were filled with flags from nations with which locals identify, including Palestine, Basque, Catalonia and Bosnia. Murals paid tribute to the innocent lives lost during Bloody Sunday when British soldiers shot 26 unarmed civilians during a protest march in the Bogside. There were also posters opposing the Good Friday Agreement and supporting the 32 County Sovereignty Movement, a political movement that is against the British rule of Northern Ireland. 

Photo by Renata Daou

McDade explained that members of the group ask “What are the 30 years of war if you still accept the control of the British over Northern Ireland?” in opposition to the Good Friday Agreement, which ended most of the conflicts of the Troubles, an ethno-nationalist conflict that segregated the population between Catholics and Protestants.

But the prospect of a united Ireland still seems distant, McDade explained. Despite nationalist sentiments, economic and trade opportunities and benefits like universal healthcare often dictate voting behavior.

After seeing the influence of the conflicts in the streets of the Bogside, we reached The Museum of Free Derry, which opened in 2007 to memorialize the events that occurred in the city known as ‘Free Derry’ from 1968 to 1972. This era encompasses the civil rights movement, the Battle of the Bogside, Internment, Bloody Sunday and Operation Motorman. Located in the middle of the Bloody Sunday conflict zone, it was right outside the museum that British officers wounded three men and killed two others.

A mural depicting the victims of Bloody Sunday, highlighting Gerald Donaghey (top) the single victim who was not later exonerated (photo by Renata Daou)

The visit to the museum had a personal touch with the family history of the museum guide. Our guide, Eoin Yates, 30, wasn’t yet born on Bloody Sunday but has a personal connection — his great uncle, Patrick O’Donnell, was wounded after throwing himself across a woman to shield her from gunfire.

Yates explained other tactics employed by the authorities during the conflict, such as adding glass to rubber bullets to maximize harm. He described the contemporary relevance of these historical events, showing the parallels of modern instances of injustice. "‘Bloody Sunday’ is something that happens around the world,” he said. 

Yates also shared that many visitors, particularly those from Britain, don’t know about the events that led to Bloody Sunday until they visit the museum. 

In the years following the atrocities, the struggle for justice and recognition of Bloody Sunday continues. Yates discussed the ongoing legal proceedings against Soldier F, a former British soldier on trial for two murders and five attempted murders. Yates also criticized recent legislative efforts that seem to undermine the quest for accountability. 

The Museum of Free Derry is not just a memorial, but also a means of engaging with global patterns of state aggression. Yates believes in the power of shared experiences to foster understanding and solidarity. "If we can use that experience to help others, then that’s what we have to do," he said.

After the museum, our class dispersed for several hours of reporting time. 

Ellie Davis, Katelin Moody and Emma Paidra visited Oakgrove Integrated College to learn more about integrated schools in Northern Ireland, which attempt to bring together children from both sides of the primary religious divide in Northern Ireland — Catholics and Protestants. They explored why the schools are still such a small segment compared to maintained (Catholic) and controlled (Protestant) schools. 

Indy Scholtens interviewed Susan Gibson of Derry Well Woman about the Legacy Act. They talked about Gibson growing up in Derry during the Troubles. She founded Derry Well Woman because she believes that women suffer most often from conflicts yet don’t receive any special care. 

Refael Kubersky, meanwhile, traveled back to Dublin to report at a mosque — he will meet up with our group in Belfast tomorrow. 

As we mentioned before, stay tuned to read these pieces in the coming weeks. 

Later, at 6:00 p.m., we gathered for dinner, joined by guests Bishop Andrew Forester from the Church of Ireland, Bishop Donal McKeown of the Catholic Church, Rev. Gordy McCracken from the Presbyterian Church, and Rev. Stephen Skuce of the Methodist Church. Surrounded by green and gold banners in preparation for St. Patrick’s Day, we learned about their journeys to faith and their initial interactions with Christians from other denominations. Overall, there was a shared optimism regarding the efforts of various churches to foster peace in Northern Ireland.

Edited by Trisha Mukherjee