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Co-op student gives migrants a voice

Sonia Banaszczyk at the Belonging Project Exhibit

When the right oppor­tu­nity comes along, don’t hes­i­tate to take it. That’s exactly what Sonia Banaszczyk did when she found out about a co-​​op posi­tion at the Northern Ire­land Council for Ethnic Minori­ties’ new Belfast Migrant Centre.

I orig­i­nally wanted to do my co-​​op con­ducting research about the media’s influ­ence on the per­cep­tion of migrants,” explained Banaszczyk, AMD’15. But she simply couldn’t pass up this chance, saying “This was an oppor­tu­nity to work directly with the migrant com­mu­nity to figure out what their needs are and ways to address them.”

In Belfast, Banaszczyk worked as the coor­di­nator for the Belonging Project, a trav­eling art exhibit that tells the sto­ries of indi­vidual migrants through por­traits and record­ings. The exhibit—a col­lab­o­ra­tion between the Belfast Migrant Centre and pro­fes­sional pho­tog­ra­pher Lau­rence Gibson—aimed to chal­lenge neg­a­tive immi­gra­tion rhetoric in the media and the polit­ical system by show­casing per­sonal accounts of migrants, including asylum seekers and refugees.

Immi­grants are often used as scape­goats for prob­lems, and they’re pre­sented as a mono­lith. There are rarely oppor­tu­ni­ties for migrants to voice their own sto­ries in main­stream media plat­forms,” said Banaszczyk, a fifth-​​year stu­dent studying soci­ology and com­mu­ni­ca­tions. “What ends up hap­pening is those neg­a­tive per­spec­tives trickle down to the public and foster fear, ani­mosity, and hos­tility, which are not based on any­thing real. This project was a way to get Northern Ire­land talking.”

For her part, Banaszczyk orga­nized photo shoots and inter­views with the migrants who par­tic­i­pated in the project; planned exhi­bi­tions and launch nights; and built rela­tion­ships with local com­mu­nity orga­ni­za­tions to encourage their mem­bers to get involved with Belonging. She also helped orga­nize work­shops with youth groups, schools, and the gen­eral public to encourage dis­cus­sions about cul­tural iden­tity, diver­sity, and inclu­sion. After a few months, she was con­tacted by the online mag­a­zine Open Democ­racy to pen an article about the role of the exhibit in the increas­ingly mul­ti­cul­tural Northern Ireland.

The exhibit, she said, impressed its subjects—as well as many locals, migrant communities, and gov­ern­ment offi­cials. Two Northern Ire­land Junior Min­is­ters, Jonathan Bell and Jen­nifer McCann, made opening remarks at one of the exhi­bi­tion launches, which gave Banaszczyk and the rest of the team the leverage to expose the project to a wider audi­ence. This fall, the project will move into the Par­lia­ment building of Northern Ire­land in Belfast.

We want to make sure the exhibits are always in a free, public space, so that people from all walks of life can come and see the project,” Banaszczyk said. “This is a very rel­e­vant and top­ical project, and it’s clear that there is a need for these con­ver­sa­tions to take place. The Belonging Project encour­ages the dis­cus­sion to center around the nar­ra­tives of migrants themselves.”

– By Jordana Torres

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