‘I refuse to be called other, it isn’t nice’
The head of the North West Migrants Forum has called for an end to the deeply unfair practice of ‘othering’ school children who do not identify as Catholic or Protestant.
The Forum’s Director of Programmes Lilian Seenoi Barr was speaking after receiving a heartfelt letter from a ten-year-old Muslim girl.
In the note, which was handwritten and hand delivered to Ms Barr’s office, the young author takes issue with how schools here recognise only two religions by name.
According to the Education Authority’s website parents applying for a place in an integrated school are asked to select their child’s community background from the options ‘Protestant community’, ‘Roman Catholic community’ or ‘none/other’.
The schoolgirl who contacted the North West Migrants Forum said it was “not nice” to be labelled an ‘other’ and that something should be done about the insensitive description.
“I am writing to complain about signing up for the schools, you see I found it hard to sign up to some schools because of the criteria,” she said.
“As I’m sure you know it’s set into Catholic, Protestant and other. I refuse to be called other, it isn’t nice.
“I personally know other people who also feel very strongly against this, such as yourself.”
Encouraging the North West Migrants Forum to make representations on behalf of children like herself, the ten-year-old added, “I hope that you can do something to stop this.”
It has long been accepted that a greater effort is needed to move away from the binary labelling of schoolchildren in Northern Ireland and that there is a need to try and better recognise the multiple layers of identity in young people’s lives.
In its ‘Together: Building a United Community’ (T:BUC)’ strategy, published in 2013, the Executive said it recognised that the diversity of identity in Northern Ireland was complex and that post-troubles migration and secularisaton had dramatically changed the make-up of society here.
Yet 25 years on from the Good Friday Agreement and in an increasingly multi-cultural six counties, thousands of children are still being ‘othered’.
On receiving the letter Lilian Seenoi Barr described the writer as “extremely brave” for speaking out on such a mature issue.
Vowing to raise the matter with the Department of Education and the Executive Office, Ms Barr said, “What we are doing here is telling young people that they don’t belong, that they are an ‘other’.
“The majority of these children will have been born here, they aren’t ‘newcomers’ or ‘children of immigrants’. But 25 years on from the signing of the Good Friday Agreement they are still being made to feel that they are somehow less equal or less worthy.
“If Northern Ireland is to move on and become an inclusive society then we need to stop using this language, we need to start recognising that these young people have an identity that they are very proud of and that they are much more than an ‘other’.”
Calling for more inclusive terminology to be introduced, Ms Barr added, “Instead of having to tick a box stating ‘other’, let people say how they identify.
“Instead of ‘other’, ask the question what is your ethnicity? If they say Catholic, Protestant, Muslim, Pentecostal, none or whatever then that is fine, at least that way we will have a better picture of the make up of Northern Ireland in modern society.
“But we need to review or renew this exclusionary language and I intend to make representations to see that it happens.”
The North West Migrants Forum has today contacted the Department of Education, the Education Authority, the Executive Office, The Secretary of State and the leaders of all the main political parties about the matter.