Packing up your life and moving to a new country or city away from your home comforts and friends can be tough, no matter at what age.
Having known this feel all too well themselves, Anne-Marie Mackin and Esina Juknaite decided to create a community for women from all over the world who live in Belfast to connect.
Anne-Marie, who is originally from Armagh, returned to Northern Ireland after 17 years after moving away to Leeds to study.
Speaking to Belfast Live, she said: “ I ended up in Berlin and that was the first time I had moved abroad when I didn’t actually know anyone and I was worried about meeting people and making friends.”
She came across Girl Gone International which was a group that spanned over 200 cities across the world and is a space for women who have moved to new places, like to travel or just want to find like-minded people to connect with under similar situations.
“I think I had been in Berlin about three months when I went to one of their brunches and it was actually really friendly and really informal – one of the benefits is that everyone is in your situation that you are new to a city I want to connect with other people.
“The idea of GGI is that they don’t just meet online and want to connect people in real life,” Anne Marie explained.
Anne-Marie and Esina enjoying bottomless brunch with other members
(Image: Belfast GGI/ Submitted)
When she came back to Northern Ireland she found she missed the international connections and felt like an ex-pat moving to Belfast for the first time.
Esina, originally from Lithuania, also found herself moving to Belfast and in the search for new people to get to know and show her the ropes.
She said: “I ended up in Northern Ireland 16 years ago now which is only for a summer to improve my English but I fell in love with the culture, friends, people and the way everyone carries on.
“I moved to Belfast two and a half years ago myself after living in Newry for a long time and again, I’d made a lot of friends there but when I came to Belfast I felt there wasn’t a good way to connect with people.”
Anne-Marie decided to start a Belfast Girl Gone group as she saw a gap in the market for women trying to navigate adult friendships after moving to Northern Ireland.
“I thought I could give something back because the group helped me so much in Berlin so I thought maybe I could do the same for people here,” she added.
Within six weeks, the Belfast group had over 500 members and Esina reached out to Anne-Marie to also get involved.
Esina said: “When I saw the GGI group pop up, I thought brilliant I could do this as I was also missing something in my life to get involved in.
“If you go to these events it almost feels like you already know them because you know at least the mindset is the same.”
With now over 750 members, the group promotes positive female relationships by hosting events, online hangouts and encouraging engagement which will benefit all members regardless of background.
Esina continued: “It’s also such a great platform to ask for advice – I’ve been here 16 years and no one knows everything so it’s nice to have that save space to post questions.
“Especially with the lockdown I started a new job and ended up working from home so I’ve met friends that I will definitely keep for life from all over the world.”
The group has members from as far as Jamaica and as close as Fermanagh and does not limit itself to people who have only just moved to Belfast.
“You don’t have to be international to join the group. There are people like me who are from here and might have some friends from younger years but want to connect further,” Anne-Marie explained.
“It’s really lovely that people from the likes of Belfast just want to meet new people too, regardless of wherever they are from.
“It’s a really nice community and people can learn from each other and about different cultures as well as from the locals.”
While their online groups were a great way for Anne-Marie and Asina to connect people during the uncertainty of the pandemic and combat the added isolation of lockdowns, their monthly meetups have been proving to be a major success since the group started a year ago.
“We had to follow the rules so that was challenging as a new group so we opted for outdoor meetings. We did a walk around Stormont which we call ‘walk and talks’ so you can meet while keeping your distance,” Esina said.
‘Walk and Talks’ at Stormont Estate
(Image: Belfast GGI/ Submitted)
“Not everyone likes online events but we wanted to present that opportunity for people who felt alone.
“With restrictions, we thought of any idea we could to bring the girls together and have some structure to events.”
Anne-Marie added: “What Esina and I have found is that it’s not really the events as such but the chance to meet other people so they don’t really care what it is they are doing.
“Our events are really informal and relaxed and one thing I was worried about was we would have to do a lot of work encouraging people to chat but I never find that at all.”
The pair have described the response to the group as “rewarding” and are excited to continue to grow Belfast GGI and welcome in new members looking for a safe place to be themselves.
Anne-Marie continued: “We hope to get more volunteer hosts for events on board.
“We’ve got a very wide are group trim people in their early 20s up to people in their 60s.
“We want to have more of a diverse range and greater number of events that roles can go to – some more suitable for older age ranges, some for younger ages and different interests.”
“GGI was created over ten years ago and the fact it has grown worldwide and people still don’t know about it is surprising,” Esina added.
“We want to ensure we can give back as much as we can.”