Eva Grosman is sitting in her office at the Centre for Peace-Building and Democracy, talking about her love of Northern Ireland and why she feels so blessed to call this rainy place far from her native Silesia, southern Poland, home.
“I have been in New York or elsewhere travelling on business, and sooner or later I always begin to miss Northern Ireland - I miss Cave Hill or my friends and I want to get back.
“It’s a bit clichéd to say but people here are friendly, welcoming and down-to-earth.”
Eva is certainly a high flier and it’s greatly to this society’s benefit that she decided to make Belfast home.
She’s a trustee of the MAC, an ambassador of Women’s Day, the brain box who decided to start a series of TEDX talks from Stormont and chief executive of the aforementioned Centre for Peace-Building and Democracy which aims to keep building on Northern Ireland’s positive new post-conflict image.
She has dedicated herself towards helping minorities here in Northern Ireland and has helped set up organisations to help migrants settle here - particularly the growing Polish population.
In 2009 she started the brilliant Unite Against Hate campaign which looked directly at the ugly reality of sectarianism and racism here and decided to confront it. Billboards were covered with bold messages promoting unity and togetherness. It was about galvanising all sections of society here to do their bit in rejecting all forms of prejudice towards others, particularly towards those who are different from us for whatever reason - whether this is to do with race, religion, sexual orientation or age. The campaign was an important recognition of a problem that has blighted our community: namely an attitude of fear or negativity towards minority groups, sometimes expressed in violence or intimidation, whose needs can be overlooked when so much of Northern Ireland’s politics is stuck in a unionist-versus-nationalist or orange-versus-green logjam.
The campaign was supported by all the political parties here, by famous faces, footballers, old and young. It was an uplifting and incredibly worthwhile project that sums up much about Eva - a problem solver who sees an issue that needs to be addressed and simply decides to face up to her civic responsibilities and act.
“That campaign was very important because we’ve all got our part to play in fighting all forms of prejudice and hate crime,” says Eva, who came to Northern Ireland after years spent working in retail and business management in London.
She arrived in Northern Ireland not long after Poland joined the EU and began to notice more and more Polish people setting up home here, without having access to the help they might need to build new lives here.
From this avid desire to help Polish newcomers integrate into the majority population came another of Eva’s brainwaves - Polish Culture Week - which speaks to her sense of the importance of the arts in bringing people together.
She decided to spearhead the Unite Against Hate campaign after a particularly bad run of racist attacks in 2009. Immediately Eva called the police and pledged her help and support in engaging with communities to stamp out such dreadful behaviour. Soon the message of saying an emphatic ‘No’ to bigotry and hatred was widespread.
Eva herself has never been a victim of racist violence. But she has witnessed it.
“I was in the car listening to the radio which informed me that there had been a number of incidents in the Village and I knew immediately that we had to do something about this,” she recalls. “I had a good understanding of the local culture having been here in Northern Ireland for several years by that time.
“I picked up the phone and called PSNI to speak with those who had been dealing with incidents in the Village.
“Many companies were employing migrants and paying them something like £2 an hour. Then some people were angered that migrants, who were living six to a house and drinking a lot, were making noise which was annoying residents. At the same time these migrant workers were being abused. So always there is a complex backstory to what you see reported in the news.
“Some of the people I work with and I were once invited to a July 11 street party in the Village. It is quite funny because I arrived at the time that we were operating our Polish Magazine and we went along to this party and this old lady opened the door wearing a TV shirt that said ‘F*** the Pope’. For a Polish person to see John Paul II on a T-shirt is pretty shocking. But in the end when we got inside we all got on together wonderfully. I asked everyone I had there with me to just look beyond this T-shirt and in the end it was actually a great party. Everyone was feeding us cups of tea, sandwiches, sausage rolls, they came and took us around the murals that they were proud of.”
Eva feels strongly that working-class Protestants often become the victim of negative media coverage and that because they are so used to this level of vilification they come to believe it themselves.
At the moment one of her main projects has involved working with loyalist flute bands - a group she believes has been consistently unfairly landed with charges of racism and all kinds of negativity.
A few weeks ago she had an Irish traditional musician playing alongside the Shankill Road Defenders at the MAC, and she is visibly angered by the way working-class loyalism is characterised so negatively in the local press.
“There are so many stereotypes heaped on this section of the community and these stereotypes are not helpful in the least. At the core of the Troubles was a lack of understanding - two sides failing to fully comprehend each other. When I began working with the loyalist flute bands I began to realise how marginalised they are. In my experience these are decent, hardworking men who go in and practice every week and who are very passionate about their culture. They are committed to their music, they care about each other and they care about their heritage and want to see it preserved in the right way.
“There are hundreds of bands across Northern Ireland who provide amazing examples of togetherness and joy. Yes it can seem like a single, closed off identity, but we can break through - part of our recent project at the MAC allowed members of such bands to come together and perform with everyone around the world.”
Rather than lamenting the flaws in our society or sitting about doing much-handwringing, Eva is very much a woman of action - dynamic and uplifting.
“We need to cherish and celebrate what we have in Northern Ireland that bit more,” she smiles.