Defiance! Meet the Romanian families refusing to be forced out

Author: By Peter Popham and David McKittrick

More than a hundred of his fellow Romanians fled from Belfast last week, the local authorities arranging flights home after attacks that have been publicised worldwide and condemned as shameful.

But this man said he would stay, one of only a handful prepared to take their chances against what is said to be “a small group of racist thugs” who had terrified the Romanian families living in two south Belfast streets.

Only a few have opted to remain in Northern Ireland in defiance of the attackers, who waged a campaign of intimidation, throwing bricks through windows and in one case threatening to cut a child’s throat.

The immigrants had almost all decided to leave for Romania despite attempts by the authorities to persuade them to stay. But the man who spoke to The Independent on Sunday said he would not go, despite “pressure” from local men which made it impossible for him to work. This is not his first experience of intimidation: his house, which is some distance from where most of the Romanians lived, has had its windows broken. The family moved there three months ago because the windows of their previous home had also been smashed.

He and his wife ? who works selling newspapers in a market ? live there with their children, aged 11, eight, three, two and three months, as well as the wife’s father and brother. Including other relatives, there are 13 people living in the house.

Like most of the Romanians in Belfast, he has little English. He does not even know the address of the house where he lives. Our interview with him was conducted in Italian, a language he picked up while living in Italy ? another country, he said, where his family experienced intimidation.

The violence in the south Belfast back streets has driven most of the Romanians out ? the majority left on Friday. But they face an uncertain future wherever they go, they told volunteer helpers before leaving.

Denise Wright, a committee member of Embrace, a group of Christians promoting a positive attitude to ethnic minorities, worked closely with the Romanians, who spent most of the week in emergency housing.

She said: “They’re worried about finding jobs and the kind of conditions they are going back to. They were traumatised here, yet I don’t think they were surprised in any way at their treatment.

“As Roma people that is their normal life, so I don’t think they were particularly shocked. They just felt that this is what they experience at home and across the world. They said they may well have to travel again to find enough to live on.”

She added, however, that the migrants had been encouraged by the help and sympathy they received in the wake of the attacks. “The goodwill of the people of Belfast in supporting them was very heartening,” she said.

The local authorities and in particular the Housing Executive won praise last week for their efforts, as did the City Church, a non-denominational grouping which took in more than a hundred people. Pastor Malcolm Morgan said: “A number of volunteers were cleaning outside the church when the phone call came.

“I just said to them: ‘Guys, we’ve got a new job to do,’ and they responded magnificently.

“I made a couple of phone calls to a Christian agency which helps people in need, and they turned up within an hour with food. The city council arrived, the lord mayor arrived, the Red Cross came. A local landlord came, had a look and turned up an hour later with 15 mattresses.

“It was great to see ? that was the best of Belfast, the acts of kindness.”

Another incident with racist overtones took place in the north of the city, when missiles were thrown at a long-established Indian community centre. A member of staff there said: “We regard ourselves as an integral part of Northern Ireland society. We believe this sort of incident will not damage our good relations with the host community.”

Speaking of the Romanian exodus, the Northern Ireland housing minister, Margaret Ritchie, said: “I commend the focused, swift and caring work done to support the families. That has shown the warm hearts of the vast majority of people.”

Florin Fekete, who returned to Romania last week with his wife and two sons, said: “There is no work here. Life in Belfast was good, we had really good times but I could not risk my family’s lives. I asked some of the ones who were attacking us, ‘What do you have against us?’ The reply was, ‘We hate you because you are gypsies’.”

A 21-year-old man and a 15-year-old boy have been charged in connection with the attacks, which began more than three weeks ago.

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