The new chair of the SDLP Derry & Strabane District Executive has said she is committed to ensuring the party is fully reconnected to people across the community.
Lilian Seenoi Barr said she was honoured to have been selected for the prestigious role within the party, which comes after she polled strongly in her first outing in the recent Council elections.
While she didn’t get elected, Lilian, a Kenyan native from the minority Masai tribe who originally came to Northern Ireland as an asylum seeker, got over 720 first preferences and was in contention, a remarkable achievement considering she has only lived in the city less than a decade.
Lilian is better known locally for having founded the North West Migrants Forum in 2012 to help others after experiencing the isolation many migrants and asylum seekers face.
Having worked in the community sector for years, she told the ‘Journal’ that she is well aware of the issues facing local people and wanted to ensure the SDLP was representing them and relevant to them.
“My interest in standing for election wasn’t about getting into Council but about decision making, about making it a better place for all of us,” she said. “I want to reconnect with people and find out what people want and how the party can support people and make sure their voices are heard. I want to see if people can engage with us and change the politics of Northern Ireland completely, and I want to start in Derry.”
Lilian said she was attracted to the SDLP because it was founded by people from different backgrounds working together for social justice and fairness for everyone. She said that it was vital to build on the core values espoused by John Hume and others, but also to present the party in its current, re-energised form with their vision for a modern, diverse Ireland of equals that leaves no-one behind. “Young people don’t feel they are part of the society and they want to leave, they don’t want to stay. We want to change that.
“I’m a community worker and I am used to being on the ground and I enjoy connecting with people - not just in terms of migrants and integration, it goes beyond that because it’s about getting good services for the community we live in. During the election campaign I really enjoyed knocking on doors, talking to people.”
Lilian said it was, however, devastating to find local people living in poverty, despite the relative wealth of Britain and Ireland. “I come from a country where poverty is real,” she said. “It doesn’t need to happen here. There is so much being ignored by our politicians who are locked in these divisions. It is time to put that away now and think about the issues affecting people. When you have devolved power, you should make that work.”
She said it was inspiring to see moves being made at last towards equal marriage for the LGBTQ community, which dovetails into Northern Ireland being a welcoming place for all.
Like many people from different ethnic backgrounds, Lilian understands what it is like not to feel part of the community. “I set up the Forum because there was no organisation supporting integration for migrants,” she said. “I came here in 2010 and I’m now married. My son is with me. He is autistic and he is going to turn 18. I am a community worker by trade and I have 20 years experience in human rights.”
A multi-linguist herself, Ms Seenoi Barr said that right now in Derry, over 70 languages are being spoken. “There’s a lot of issues you face when you are a migrant, lack of services, language issues, childcare, and in many aspects there is no difference from issues people face here - I meet women here who can’t go to work because of childcare.
“The difference between a migrant and a local person is you have family connection, friends and the language advantage, there’s the colour of your skin - racism is alive and kicking - and people making assumptions. It’s not every person, but we have to fight for rights and to say: we belong in this society and we have so much rich heritage and culture to share.”
All this experience Lilian will be bringing to her new post, which she is “elated” to have been appoint to. “The team around me is brilliant, I have an amazing secretary and they have made me feel so welcome.
“It is an amazing honour for people in the party itself to say I am the person who can bring new energy to the issues the party is pursuing, but it is not only about change and inclusiveness, it goes back to the values of the SDLP, and shows the skills we are contributing as migrants.”