By Stephanie Mitchell, coordinator of Belfast Friendship Club
Looking round Belfast Friendship Club (BFC) on a Thursday evening, at what seems like a huge and unruly family of 40 to 60 people, I sometimes wonder how many other settings exist that attract such a diverse bunch of individuals who seem to have so much in common and, between them, create such a happy atmosphere.
One element of my role is to ‘hold’ this space. From many walks of life and from all over the world, including these islands, we are caterers, writers, au pairs, cleaners, students, artists, academics, volunteers, interpreters, IT professionals and so on.
Some are working in Belfast, some are looking for work and others, seeking asylum, usually wish to support themselves through paid work but are not allowed to do so. Others have no entitlement to public funds of any kind. People move freely between the tables, creating a warm buzz of conversation and much smiling and laughter is evident. The barriers of race, belief, class or income that usually separate people seem not to apply here.
Starting out as a small-scale project in 2009, BFC has now become more of a social movement, attracting people from 20 plus nationalities and many walks of life. Every week five to 10 newcomers arrive and most return, bringing with them more people. Regardless of how or why we find ourselves in Belfast, our humanity comes to the fore on Thursday evenings, spilling over into the street when members greet each other in the city centre.
For anyone who has ever experienced being a newcomer, this simple acknowledgement can make all the difference to your day. As coordinator of BFC, this sense of belonging is, for me, one of the simple building blocks of social capital that enables all manner of individuals and initiatives to thrive.
And yet, such building blocks seem to be elusive in many settings across the country, which motivated me to write the publication: ‘Be the change: a guide to creating safe and inclusive space.
The booklet attempts to capture the principles behind the success of Belfast Friendship Club. It is intended for those who are aware of newcomers or those in their midst who are ‘different’ and want to create a culture of welcome but are not sure how to start or, perhaps, how to improve what they have already begun.
The guide has now been published by South Belfast Roundtable, with the support of the Community Relations Council and will be available, free of charge, from early December 2014 in hard copy and PDF download via: www.belfastfriendshipclub.org or www.community-relations.org.uk For further information, email: email@example.com
• Belfast Friendship Club meets every Thursday at Common Grounds Cafe, 12-24 University Avenue, Belfast, BT7 1GY. All are welcome.
• Stephanie Mitchell, coordinator of Belfast Friendship Club