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Workshops plan to combat island’s ‘fear of black people’

The one-year project, co-financed through the European Refugee Fund and organised by SOS Malta and Aġenzija Żgħażagħ, is called Youth Upbeat. Photo: Jason Borg

The one-year project, co-financed through the European Refugee Fund and organised by SOS Malta and Aġenzija Żgħażagħ, is called Youth Upbeat. Photo: Jason Borg

Since his arrival in Malta Abdulahi Hassan has wanted to do something about the “fear of black people” on the island, so when two local NGOs launched intercultural workshops with students, he seized the opportunity.

Some Maltese people think black people [Africans] are dangerous, and unfriendly, and this project was an opportunity I had to jump on

“Some Maltese people think black people [Africans] are dangerous, and unfriendly, and this project was an opportunity I had to jump on. Through these workshops I’m doing my part for a better community,” the 28-year-old from Mogadishu, Somalia, told The Sunday Times just before a morning workshop with form two students at Villa Psaigon in Dingli.

The one-year project, co-financed through the European Refugee Fund and organised by SOS Malta and Aġenzija Żgħażagħ, is called Youth Upbeat.

It consists of 24 interactive workshops with 10 cultural ambassadors that have a refugee or subsidiary protection status, a live-in weekend for young people interested in the performing arts, and a public performance combining Maltese and African cultures.

Working mainly with young people, the project uses performing arts as a bridging medium to raise awareness about refugees and their potential positive impact on Maltese society.

During the workshops, Mr Hassan breaks the ice by asking students what they think African lodgings look like, while his Eritrean counterparts ask them to prepare the table for an Eritrean Christian family that has Muslim friends.

But the ambassadors also speak about the similarities between the two cultures: including spaghetti as part of the daily diet and living in towns surrounded by the sea.

Mr Hassan noted that most of the students express curiosity about traditional dances and fear about misunderstanding the refugees. But it is not the first time that the young man has come across this fear. “I’ve seen fear at public places – buses, shops and in my neighbourhood. Some Maltese do not know why we’re here, who we are... all they know about are the wars covered by the media.

“They think all Africans are the same. It’s true, there are some bad people in Africa – but you find bad people across the world,” he said.

Mr Hassan recalled an incident in 2009, when a driver and a Somali man were quarrelling on a bus, and the driver shouted: “you black people are all the same”. He remembers people accusing him and African refugees of “taking all available jobs”, when he was still living in Valletta in 2010.

Asked whether this fear is still prevalent today, Mr Hassan smiled. He referred to a group of students taking part in an intercultural workshop who were reluctant to walk in the room where African ambassadors were waiting to start the morning session.

By the end of the day, the students were dancing with the refugees to the beat of Somali and Eritrean music.

He admits racism is more common in older generations, but he has noticed a difference in people’s attitudes as the years rolled by.

“Nowadays people seem to understand us better, probably because they meet other refugees during their everyday chores.”

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