I did not know much about Northern Ireland, apart from the obvious: conflict, divisions, bombs, riots – all what was shown in the nineties on Polish TV and American movies in Polish cinema.

From London to Belfast by night

When I arrived here from London where I had lived for 2 years, only by chance, having been offered a job as an editor in chief of a small Polish monthly for Poles living and working in the NI (with never fulfilled ambitions of becoming a magazine for all Poles in the UK), I was taken by a friend on a Belfast car tour by night. It was 2008. Dark autumnal night, empty streets and – to my utter shock- walls and gates rising in the middle of the streets, without any warning, no sign of it happening.

The friend tried to explain to me what I was seeing, but contrary to the old expression “seeing is believing”, I actually could not believe my eyes. I could not comprehend the absurdity of what I was seeing. Yes, I am of the generation who remembers the Berlin Wall – as a child I was in Berlin with my parents and the soldiers there were guarding the wall with guns pointed at us all. But it was pre-history. I was 5 then.

I do not know you… So I will tell you my story

I started talking to local people who were more than happy to share their stories with me, eager to be heard and understood by somebody who is an outsider, who does not have any involvement in the past and, as I soon learned, presence of this place.

These were life-changing conversations. After the magazine collapsed (luckily, I was not to be blamed for it – the global credit crunch suffocated it), I got another job which allowed me to work very closely with the local community workers. I became a hate crime support worker. It meant that I had to work with the local communities, both: green and orange, seeking support for the victims of hate crimes.

I discovered that regardless of the wounds and hurt, the people of NI were not cynical nor withdrawn. In fact, I met some of the most inspiring human beings working on the ground with their communities who were more than happy to work extra hours, sometimes around the clock, sometimes on purely voluntary basis to support the victims, their communities, the young and underprivileged – everything in the name of the shared future.

Belfast children

Sounds cheesy? Not anymore. That is why I wrote my book, “Belfast. 99 ścian pokoju” (in Polish) which, to my surprise, became critically acclaimed in Poland. Northern Ireland has become a place on the map that Poles know and want to visit. I still keep invitations to Polish media to talk about NI if something is boiling here – but for me, the most important thing is that even though Northern Irish people very often do not appreciate their own work, it is very much appreciated in my country – the art of attempting to keep peace and reconciliation in the face of the enormous challenges, emotions and deep wounds still being felt today. I find this place fascinating, humbling and I know that I do not know enough about it, the more I read and learn, paradoxically – hence my participation in I in NI project.

Besides, Northern Ireland has become my home. My son was born here – I have never expected that to happen – and this is his home, his streets and his people. He is a Belfast child. So is my book.