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Wednesday, 24 July, 2002, 10:22 GMT 11:22 UK
Living in the shadow of racism
Jamal and his family have been forced to move home
Jamal and his family have been forced to move home
There has been a dramatic increase in racist attacks in Northern Ireland in recent years.

BBC News Online spoke to a leading Belfast Muslim who says he has borne the brunt of growing intimidation and physical attacks on ethnic minorities.

For Jamal Iweida, each of his seven years in Northern Ireland has seen an annual increase in racism.

Originally from Palestine, Jamal left Jordan in 1995 to study at Queen's University in Belfast.

He says the early years of his new life were relatively happy and free of problems concerning his race.

But in more recent years, a nastier side to Northern Ireland society has emerged.

Jamal Iweida has lived in Northern Ireland for seven years
Rarely a day passes that someone does not shout a racist remark to him in the street.

The naked intimidation he suffered in his south Belfast home has now come to a head.

Verbal abuse, stonings, vandalised cars, dogs being set loose and face-to-face threats have forced Jamal and his family to leave Finaghy.

'Lip-service'

Jamal says Muslims have been living in Belfast for more than 100 years. They, like many other ethnic minorities, are an integral part of Northern Ireland's social, educational and economic life.

Now president of the Belfast Islamic Centre, his roots are firmly planted in the city.


We have to say that the vast majority of people in Northern Ireland are very friendly, very kind and tolerant towards us

Jamal Iweida

He married a woman from Bangor in County Down and they now have a young son who is almost a year old.

Jamal says "lip-service" is being paid to the problem of racism, but no firm action is being taken.

"I have been in Northern Ireland for almost the last seven years and I have noticed a clear increase in racism over the last five years," he says.

"When we came here at the beginning, it was very quiet and very friendly. We have to say that the vast majority of people in Northern Ireland are very friendly, very kind and tolerant towards us.

"But the problem is that there is a small minority who cause this trouble."

Paramilitary ceasefires

Racial abuse has increased year on year, he says.

"Now, when you are walking down the street you will get - almost every day - called names."

In February, a report said there were more than 350 racial incidents reported to the police between 1996 and 1999 - a 400% increase.

The number of racist attacks on children doubled - rising from 8.5% of total attacks in 1996 to more than 16% in 1999.

The annual total increased from 186 to 269 incidents between 1999 and 2000 - a rise of 45%.


I want my child to walk down the street and not be called names because he may look different

Jamal says many people from ethnic minority communities came to Northern Ireland following the paramilitary ceasefires and Good Friday Agreement.

Some came from Britain and other countries to find work or to study.

Part of the problem behind racism against Muslims is the way they are portrayed in the media, says Jamal.

'Respect other cultures'

Following the terrorist attacks on the United States last year, the Belfast Islamic Centre was targeted. Bricks were thrown at the south Belfast building and windows smashed.

"Using certain terminologies and promoting certain stereotypes in Hollywood movies about particular Muslims and Arabs causes a lot of tension and misunderstanding about Islam, Arabs and the culture from the east," says Jamal.

Educating people to respect other cultures is something which must begin at an early age, he believes.


The majority of our community have been born here, been educated here and they belong here

And he fears for the future of his young son growing up in Northern Ireland.

"I want my child to live in an environment which is free from any kind of racism. I want my child to walk down the street and not be called names because he may look different."

He points to the failure of most politicians and church leaders to speak out against racist attacks.

'Deep roots'

Politicians in Dublin have spoken out against racist attacks in the Republic of Ireland, but that has been an example poorly followed north of the border, he says.

But outside of the intimidation and racist attacks, Jamal says that Northern Ireland is a permanent home for him and many others in his community.

"We are not just passing through. People from my community have been living in Belfast continuously for over 100 years.

"We have deep roots here - some with second, third and fourth generations.

"The majority of our community have been born here, been educated here and they belong here."

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 ON THIS STORY
Leading Belfast Muslim Jamal Iweida:
"There is a small minority who cause this trouble"
See also:

01 Feb 02 | N Ireland
21 Jul 02 | N Ireland
12 May 02 | N Ireland
25 Oct 01 | N Ireland
14 Apr 00 | N Ireland
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