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DIVERSE CITY

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Since it first opened its doors in 2007, the Ethnic Minority Support Centre in Newry has helped over 15,000 people.

Located at Newry Town Hall, the centre provides free advice and support to minority communities in their own language about access to education, benefits, courses, housing and other general facilities.

It is the only Council-run support centre for ethnic minority residents in Northern Ireland.

''It was the Council's response to the changing demographics in the area,'' said Justyna McCabe, Programmes Manager with Newry, Mourne and Down District Council.

''It was to provide support to the new communities that were coming in in quite large numbers, especially Polish at that time.

Artur Kmiecik, Ethnic Minority Support Officer with Newry, Mourne and Down District Council. Photograph: NewRayPics.com
Artur Kmiecik, Ethnic Minority Support Officer with Newry, Mourne and Down District Council. Photograph: NewRayPics.com

"In 2007, there was a need because suddenly a lot of people were coming here and the Council quickly noticed this; a lot of people with different needs and something needed to be set up for that.

''We had great support from Council management and it was thanks to them that the project took off. It's still quoted as the model of best practice by Northern Ireland Local Government Association (NILGA) because it is the only centre within the Council structures.

“I know some councils may have some support centres, but not based within the Council structure. It was a great move."

Funded through the Council's Good Relations Programme, the centre provides a free and confidential support service for ethnic minority residents.

This includes information on the EU Settlement Scheme, on housing and employment rights, help with registration with GPs, placing children in school, and advice and help with writing CVs and where to look for jobs.

It also provides assistance with benefits, appeals and official letters, as well as facilitating integration programmes.

From its inception, the centre formed strong working partnerships with agencies that it would have to work closely with such as the Citizens Advice Bureau, the PSNI and the Housing Executive.

Those relationships remain strong today and provide invaluable support to the wide range of issues and needs brought to the centre on a daily basis.

"People come with different issues," says Artur Kmiecik, Ethnic Minority Support Officer with Newry, Mourne and Down District Council.

"They will come with housing issues or employment issues. People will come and ask about jobs; what is available and where they should look for them.

"We help people with Universal Credit, people with tax returns, people who would like to set up a small business.

"Also, when new families arrive here, we help to arrange schools for children and help them to register with doctors and dentists. This is how we help them and we do so by using their own language to avoid misunderstanding.

"At this moment, we are able to communicate in five languages; Polish, Lithuanian, Russian, Romanian and Arabic. Most of the people that come to us have a limited knowledge of English, so we can communicate with them and help avoid misunderstandings."

The number of people using the centre is increasing every year.

Artur Kmiecik in his office at Newry Town Hall. Photograph: NewRayPics.com
Artur Kmiecik in his office at Newry Town Hall. Photograph: NewRayPics.com

There has also been a change in the nationalities seeking help in recent years.

"When we started, we had about 1,500 a year on average, by 2018 we had 2,025 visits," said Artur.

"In general, our centre was visited by about 15,000 people since it opened.

"On average, we had about 1,500 to 1,800 service users every year, but in the last two or three years we've had more than 2,000 every year."

Artur said one of the reasons for the increase is the number of Romanian and Bulgarian migrants.

When it opened, the centre dealt mainly with Polish and Lithuanian nationals.

But it has seen the national profile of its clients change quite dramatically since 2017 with fewer migrant workers from Poland and Lithuania using the service, and more nationals from Bulgaria and Romania.

They, he said, often arrive with little or no education and therefore require additional help.

In November last year, the centre held a Romanian Information Session in Newry with 64 Romanian nationals in attendance.

''The session lasted almost three hours and showed the level of trust that the Roma community in Newry have in our centre,'' said Artur.

''In light of recent alarming publications in the press from other regions of Northern Ireland, our meeting was and is a good sign of mutual understanding and good relations.

''Apart from the main theme from our session, two other serious concerns for the Romas were addressed; overcrowded apartments with no heating and threats of potential evictions of families with small children.''

As well as advice and assistance, the Ethnic Minority Support Centre also provides English language classes.

And in recent months, it has facilitated information sessions for various minority communities on Universal Credit and the EU Settlement Scheme, something that has caused unease in communities across the district.

Justyna says this is now the centre's biggest challenge.

"The centre will be assisting EU citizens with the EU Settlement Scheme," says Justyna.

"It will be a big demand and challenge. Everyone will have to register."

Anyone currently living in the UK who is an EU citizen will have to apply to the scheme by June 2021 in order to be allowed to stay here following the 2016 referendum result to leave the EU.

Successful applicants will be given either settled or pre-settled status.

Anyone that doesn't successfully register will then be living in the UK illegally.

"People are concerned about it," said Artur.

Artur Kmiecik. Photograph: NewRayPics.com
Artur Kmiecik. Photograph: NewRayPics.com

"They feel they have been living here for a long time, they have been working here, so why should they register. This is their home. Some have bought houses here, they have children in schools, so people are very concerned and they are asking lots of questions.

"But we have material from the Home Office and we can distribute this and helping people to register."

It has caused great alarm because people are happy living in the Newry area.

Unlike some parts of Northern Ireland, the growing migrant community has been largely welcomed across the district.

"I think we are quite lucky. Because of the amount of work we have done, I think it has paid off," said Justyna.

"People do feel welcome. Probably the biggest recent challenge is with the Syrian community because there is such a difference in culture and they're at the very early stages of their settlement here, so maybe they do experience isolation, but again, we have a contact point at the support centre.

"Twice a week we have English classes, especially for Syrians, so at least they have somewhere to go and meet and ask for support."

It's a busy, and sometimes stressful schedule for the pair, but Justyna and Artur are enjoying their roles in helping new communities make Newry their home.

Artur added: "It's fascinating because you meet so many people and come across so many different cultures and different characters. It's fantastic."

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