From Refugee to Northern Ireland’s First Black Mayor: Meet Lilian Seenoi-Barr

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Lilian Seenoi-Barr has made history by becoming the first Black mayor in Northern Ireland. Originally from Kenya, Seenoi-Barr will represent the city of John Hume and Derry Girls, according to The Guardian. Her journey from refugee to mayor is a testament to resilience and dedication.Lilian Seenoi-Barr

Seenoi-Barr first arrived in Northern Ireland as a refugee from Kenya, becoming part of the region’s growing multi-ethnic identity. Despite the joy surrounding her election, her rise has not been without controversy. Far-right activists have exploited her elevation to promote the idea that Ireland, north and south, is being “invaded.” Consequently, Seenoi-Barr has faced 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 told The Guardian. “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.”

Seenoi-Barr, who will assume office on June 3, acknowledges the growing backlash against immigrants and refugees on both sides of the border. Additionally, there is ongoing tension between London and Dublin regarding asylum seekers entering the republic via Northern Ireland. “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.”

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Statistics indicate that 65,600 people, or 3.4% of Northern Ireland’s population, belong to an ethnic minority. Police recorded 1,353 racist incidents and 839 racist crimes over the past year, according to The Guardian. In response to threats, Seenoi-Barr completed a six-week “self-defense” course on the advice of her family in Kenya. This training included running, weight-lifting, and threat assessment.

Seenoi-Barr, 42, grew up in the Maasai community in Kenya. Her father was a doctor, and her mother ran a business. After studying women’s reproductive health at university in Kenya, she began running women’s empowerment programs. “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,” she told Irish News.

She moved to Northern Ireland in 2010 to protect her autistic son. “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.”

In Northern Ireland, Seenoi-Barr founded the North West Migrants Forum in 2012, which now has six staff and 50 volunteers. She joined the moderate nationalist Social Democratic and Labour Party (SDLP) in 2015 and first ran for council but lost. She was co-opted in 2021 and held her seat in the 2023 election.

Speaking about the SDLP’s mayoral selection process, Seenoi-Barr said, “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 a very robust interview.”

Seenoi-Barr’s election as mayor is a significant milestone, highlighting both the progress and challenges in Northern Ireland’s evolving social landscape. Despite the adversity she faces, her story is one of perseverance and hope, inspiring many to believe in a future where diversity is celebrated and embraced.

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