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On co-op, student helps migrants share their stories

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.”