From refugee to Northern Ireland’s first Black mayor, meet Lilian Seenoi-Barr

Abu Mubarik May 28, 2024
Lilian Seenoi-Barr. Photo via RTE

Lilian Seenoi-Barr has made history by becoming the first black mayor in Northern Ireland. Seenoi-Barr, who is originally from Kenya, will represent the city of John Hume and Derry Girls, according to the Guardian.

She first arrived in the country as a refugee from Kenya and became part of the region’s growing multi-ethnic identity. However, her election has also raised questions about her safety. This is because not everyone is happy with her elevation.

According to the Guardian, far-right activists have capitalized on her elevation to create the notion that Ireland, north and south, is being “invaded.” As a result, she has received multiple death threats and racist abuse.

“To have your life threatened is not a good feeling when you genuinely just want to serve the people of your city,” Seenoi-Barr, who will assume office on June 3, told The Guardian in an interview. “People are absorbing populist information that is quite loud. It’s kind of like every single problem that exists in the north of Ireland or across Ireland has been caused by immigrants.”

Derry and Strabane mayor-designate Seenoi-Barr’s feat has come at a time when there is a backlash against immigrants and refugees on both sides of the border. There is also a misunderstanding between London and Dublin over asylum seekers entering the republic via Northern Ireland, according to the British newspaper.

“I don’t think I would have ever been elected in Derry if people were hostile, but if you look at reports of hate crimes [across Northern Ireland], we do have racism,” she said. “If you talk about housing pressures, the scapegoat is immigrants. The collapsing NHS, the scapegoat is immigrants. Lack of school infrastructure, the scapegoat is immigrants.”

Figures show that 65,600 people or 3.4% of the population of Northern Ireland belong to an ethnic minority. Police recorded 1,353 racist incidents and 839 racist crimes over the past year, the Guardian noted.

Social Democratic and Labour party (SDLP) councilor Seenoi-Barr has even done a six-week “self-defense” course that included running, weight-lifting and threat assessment on the advice of her family in Kenya.

The 42-year-old grew up in Kenya in the Maasai community. Her father was a doctor and her mother ran a business. After attending university in Kenya, where she studied women’s reproductive health, she started running women’s empowerment programs in Kenya.

“I was always focused on empowering the Maasai child, amplifying their voice and giving them the choice I was given by my parents, which enabled me to make good decisions,” Seenoi-Barr told Irish News.

She moved to Northern Ireland in 2010 to protect her son, who is autistic. “It was a very dangerous job I was doing back home. The rescuing of girls was quite intimidating and quite dangerous.

“When I was doing it by myself, I didn’t care much about the implications but when I had my son, there were threats made towards both of us and, as a mum, I had to think twice about what was most important.”

Seenoi-Barr came to Northern Ireland as a refugee when she was 28 and later married a local man. She founded an advocacy network, North West Migrants Forum, in 2012. It now has six staff and 50 volunteers.

In 2015, she joined the moderate nationalist SDLP and first ran for council but lost. She was co-opted in 2021 and held the seat in a 2023 election.

She said of the SDLP’s mayoral selection process: “I put my name forward when we were asked to express our intentions, because this year was the party’s year to have a mayor. I engaged with that open process, and I was selected after very robust interview.”

Last Edited by:Mildred Europa Taylor Updated: May 28, 2024


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