A few days before the 2022 Assembly Election, I found myself sitting in Redeemer Central Church, staring up at the vaulted ceiling, lost in the fairy lights and wondering why I had agreed to be there.

I was a tired, pregnant Mayor of Belfast, and a town hall meeting was the last place I wanted to be.

That was until a man leaning against a wall at the back of the room started to speak, his words pulling me back into the moment, and suddenly everything around me seemed to shift.

He was a Syrian man in his fifties, who spoke of his family's escape from war in pursuit of a second chance.

"You don’t leave everything you’ve ever known unless you have no choice," he told us.

Yet their second chance now felt like a prison sentence. This was my introduction to the term ‘contingency accommodation’ – where those seeking sanctuary, without refugee status, are housed by a private company contracted by the Home Office.

Tears streamed down his cheeks as he described his children's malnourishment, his feelings of failure, and his desperation.

As I felt my baby kick, I thought how strange it was that two people in the same room, at the same time, could have such different lives, and I wanted to do something about it.

Some in the media often depict asylum seekers as living in the extravagance of hotels.

They may have once operated as hotels, but the truth is they are transformed into something entirely different when repurposed as contingency accommodation.

For entire families to live in a cramped room for months on end, signing in and out, no visitors allowed, restricted food access, adhering to strict meal times, inedible food, lacking privacy or space for children to play – this hardly qualifies as ‘luxury’.

That evening in Redeemer, a mother shared how she had to carry her daughter to the bathroom because her wheelchair wouldn't fit through the door.

She was a small woman who had her own health problems, and she could barely manage it.

A young man, a pharmacist in his home country, questioned why he was denied the dignity of work, expressing a desire to contribute and earn a living.

Nods of agreement rippled through the room.

Since that evening, my office has been inundated with more stories, and we've supported hundreds of individuals.

I go into the hotels to offer assistance in accessing services, but I always leave with a profound appreciation for the privileged life I lead.

During one visit, I met a group of women who had all endured sexual assault, some in the presence of their children.

Despite experiencing the worst of humanity, what struck me most was the resilience they possessed, and how grateful they were for any act of kindness.

And against the backdrop of the hostile environment and the anti-immigrant narrative peddled by the Far Right, people are kind.

I’ve often said that the people in Northern Ireland have an empathy born from the experience of trauma, and there is kindness everywhere.

Organisations such as the Anaka Women’s Collective, STEP, the Children’s Law Centre, and so many more are all fighting for us, to better lives.

Someone else is Oliver Jeffers, who I had the opportunity to meet at a conference. Oliver is a children’s author, artist, and illustrator who is renowned for creating work centred on the planet, humanity, and kindness.

I had shared with him the plight of older children falling through the education gap, too old for school, too young for anything else, and desperate to learn, yet spending their days in a hotel room with nothing to do.

He asked how he could help – which brings us back to Redeemer Central.

There, Oliver and the Anaka Women’s collective conducted a workshop*. The young people were asked to draw in an A4 box what represented them – many chose footballs, future careers, houses of their own – and Oliver drew a picture of each child around this, as though they were holding their box.

The result was a collaborative portrait which showcased these children as more than just asylum seekers – revealing how they wished to be seen.

In one powerful moment during the workshop, a mother I had been working with approached Oliver.

Her children had been struggling, asking what they had done wrong to be in jail, which is what they thought the hotel was.

Her son, during the workshop, had turned to her and said he felt happy and free.

Overwhelmed with gratitude, she said it was the best day they had had in a very long time.

The UK Home Office’s ‘hostile environment’ policy was designed to make life impossible for those seeking sanctuary.

I’ve seen the toll it’s taking. Yet communities, groups, and organisations are actively working to counter it – giving hope and support to people who desperately need it.

Our human history has been characterised by migration. We have an instinct to move, explore, learn, seek opportunities, and to do what we can to survive. Our diversity makes us richer.

As the planet contends with the impacts of war and climate change, the number of people seeking asylum is set to rise.

While we take in relatively few refugees in comparison to other countries, we need to do better to ensure our services work for everyone, better engage with communities, and counter misinformation.

Amidst the overwhelming scale of global issues, there are individuals and organisations who recognise our common humanity, and are harnessing the power of kindness.

It’s up to all of us to help share their light.

*The 36 pieces of art from the workshop found a place on the walls of Parliament buildings, forming an exhibition entitled, ‘Seen’. If your organisation would like to exhibit the drawings and help tackle stereotypes, please get in touch.

Kate Nicholl is an Alliance Party MLA for South Belfast and is the party’s spokesperson on Early Years & Childcare.