Belfast Multi-Cultural Association: £60k raised after arson attack

image copyrightPacemaker
image captionThe roof of the building in Donegall Pass was very badly damaged by fire

Volunteers from a multi-cultural centre that was set on fire in a suspected hate crime attack are hoping to repair and reopen it thanks to "overwhelming" donations.

The suspected arson attack badly damaged the roof of Belfast Multi-Cultural Association in Donegall Pass.

Supporters have since raised more than £60,000.

Muhammed Atif from the association said the support gave them "confidence" to keep going after a series of attacks.

"We are very grateful for the people who help us, we are very grateful for the messages we have been receiving," he told BBC News NI.

"The support - it's not only the money, it helps us to have that confidence that we have the backing of our whole community."

The volunteer-led association runs food banks and charitable support services for vulnerable and marginalised people from all backgrounds, including homeless people and asylum seekers.

'Campaign of intimidation'

It has been in its current premises in south Belfast for five years but recently volunteers have reported a number of attacks on their property.

Mr Atif, who is a trustee of the association, said vehicles belonging to two fellow volunteers were damaged in October and November last year.

image captionMuhammed Atif said the fire was the latest in a series of attacks

He believes they were also racist hate crimes, explaining: "None of other cars in the surrounding areas or next to these cars were damaged, it was purely targeted.

"We had a couple of our volunteers parking their in different streets even, and they were targeted at the same time."

Following the arson attack on Thursday night, tens of thousands of pounds to help rebuild the centre have been raised through an appeal online.

The appeal was organised by Patrick Corrigan from Amnesty International.

He originally set a fundraising target of £10,000 but said that was "smashed within two hours".

Revised targets in increments of £10,000 were also quickly surpassed and by Monday afternoon the figure had exceeded £60,000.

Mr Corrigan told BBC News NI it was a way of showing "solidarity" with the Belfast Multi-Cultural Association after its volunteers were subjected to what he called a "campaign of intimidation".

He added the response from the public to the appeal and level of donations had been "quite astounding".

"It speaks to the generosity of people here, not just of pocket but of spirit."

'A good picture of Northern Ireland'

More than 2,500 people and groups have donated to the appeal.

Mr Atif described the amount raised as "unbelievable, overwhelming".

"It's a good picture of Northern Ireland and to be honest, this is what we need at the minute, we don't really need the picture [the arsonists] tried to portray on Thursday night."

image captionPolice officers, a police vehicles, fire fighters and a fire engine at the scene of the fire

Mr Atif, a married father-of-three, is originally from Pakistan but has lived in Northern Ireland for 12 years.

In addition to his voluntary work with Belfast Multi-Cultural Association, he runs his own business in Antrim.

"Northern Ireland is home for me," he said.

Mr Atif and his fellow volunteers are trying to carry on the association's charitable work remotely from their own houses, offices and kitchens until they secure temporary premises.

'Historical, beautiful building'

They have not been able to assess fully the cost of the damage but according to Mr Atif, the main roof of the three-storey building was "completely lost" in the fire.

media captionThe Belfast Multi-Cultural Association was working to serve the community, says Muhammed Atif

"The top roof is gone...the middle floor of the centre is badly damaged and the ground floor is not really accessible at the minute because of the water damage."

"I'm not a building professional so I don't know if any of the roofs or any of the walls can be saved," Mr Atif added.

"We're hoping that we'll get something out of it - it's a historical, beautiful building and we want to keep as much as we can.

"But if worst comes to worst and we have to rebuild all, then we have to rebuild all."

image copyrightPacemaker
image captionThe historic building has sustained substantial internal damage

In the meantime, the association has received several offers to set up temporary premises while their own building is assessed.

Police have confirmed they are treating the fire as a deliberate hate crime.

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