Indians adapting to a complex culture

The North's Indian community is making an important contribution to social life, writes Bryan Coll

The North's Indian community is making an important contribution to social life, writes Bryan Coll

THE REAR of Belfast's Indian Community Centre (ICC) looks more like a high-security prison than a former Methodist church. Rusting barbed wire runs along a high metal fence, with the building's faded stained-glass windows protected by large metal grates, the corners of which have been prised off by patient fingers.

The purpose of the heavy-duty reinforcements isn't to ward off racist attacks. After all, the centre has been a permanent fixture of Carlisle Circus since 1978, the year when the old church building was converted into the main social and religious venue for Northern Ireland's Indian community. The reason for the stringent security is that the centre lies next to one of Belfast's largest Orange halls. The next-door neighbour's paint-bombed facade is proof that this address is one of the most volatile in the city.

Occasionally a victim of its neighbour's notoriety, by means of wayward stones or misplaced graffiti, the ICC, located midway between the loyalist Shankill Road and the republican New Lodge area, is taking few chances.


For Deepak Sharma, whose family lives in the community centre, being on the front line of Northern Ireland's street politics also has its advantages. The neighbourhood activity helped to instil an interest in Northern Irish history in the 19-year-old, who is currently studying for his A-level politics exam.

"People are surprised I'm interested in politics," says Sharma, who moved to Belfast from Kenya four years ago.

"But I find politics here fascinating and I'm always talking about it."

Sharma's only regret is that the local community's knowledge of his own background is often non-existent: "One day we found a sticker on the door of the centre which said 'No Mosque Wanted Here - This is Belfast, not Bangladesh'."

Sharma, a Hindu, dismisses the incident with a laugh. "People have a problem with Muslims but how can they think we are Muslims? It's so stupid."

The North's Indian community is one of the longest-established ethnic minorities in Ireland. The first immigrants arrived in the 1930s, mostly from the Northern Punjab region, and the first wave of families soon settled in the 1950s. Today, the North's Indian population comprises around 3,500 people, most of whom live outside Belfast.

One of the best-known figures in the local Indian community is Raj Puri, the current chair of the ICC. Puri is surely one of only a handful of bold individuals to have picked Belfast as a holiday destination in the 1970s - a decade that marked the bloodiest period of the Troubles. Even more unusually, Puri, who owns a clothing wholesale business, decided to stay and live in the city once his vacation had finished.

"Back then, there were only two groups and people were fighting amongst themselves," he says. "We were left alone."

In today's more peaceful Northern Ireland, Puri believes racism has served to fill a void. "More are on the streets now and there are more attacks. We are facing more racial problems than when I came here."

For Puri, the Indian community's long history in Northern Ireland and its high level of integration means its young people are generally less at risk from racist attacks than other ethnic minorities."The Indian community is not isolated," he says. "We mix with local communities and about 70 per cent of our children are in mixed marriages."

But for young Indians growing up in the North, integrating isn't simply a matter of dealing with racial prejudice. Eighteen-year-old Kasem, who came to Northern Ireland from Leeds, found his English accent posed as much of a problem as his skin colour at the Catholic secondary school he attended.

"Because of my accent, people were racist for two reasons", says Kasem, who now speaks with a pitch-perfect Belfast brogue. "I didn't like it when I moved here but I knew I had to make friends, so I got over it."

According to Deepak Sharma, whose father is the priest at the ICC's Hindu temple, local interest in other cultures is gradually increasing, despite the ongoing problem of racist violence. "People find it hard to imagine other cultures," says Sharma. "But if you give them the knowledge and try to explain it properly, they will listen to you."

Experiences of racism have not discouraged Sharma from settling in the North. On the contrary, he plans to remain in Belfast after his A-levels, even if his parents go through with an intended move to England.

As for his future career, Sharma, who is a member of the youth panel at the Northern Ireland Commission for Children and Young People, doesn't rule out a job on "The Hill": "People say 'we can imagine Deepak sitting in the Stormont Assembly," he laughs. "It was hard when I first came over but now I'm living the American dream here."