As European Migrants Face British Backlash, A Reminder: They're Not The First
Britons could vote as early as next year on whether to remain in the European Union. The debate is caught up in rising hostility toward Eastern European migrants who come to the U.K. seeking work.
But a visitor to London's East End quickly discovers that migrants have been coming to this city for centuries, where they endured discrimination and yet managed to carve out a new life.
Walking through the Brick Lane neighborhood, Susie Symes, my guide to British immigration past, points past the Bengali sweet shops and hipster cafes to the grand mosque — a well-used house of worship that used to be a synagogue, and before that a church.
She explains the Latin inscription near the roof of the mosque: "It means: 'We are shadows.' "
Symes chairs the board of trustees for Britain's Immigration Museum, where a sturdy wooden door opens to reveal a hallway dotted with columns shoring up a structure in need of repair. The house was built in 1719 to last a century, says Symes, and is now approaching 300 years old.
When it was new, this house sheltered immigrants — the ones who came before the Bengalis, before the Irish, before the Jews: They were Huguenots, Protestants from France who were forced to flee to England in the 18th century.
"Ninety percent of the people living in these streets were newly arrived, French-speaking Huguenots," Symes says, adding that they were easily identifiable by the cut of their clothes and their food. "In fact, people complained at the time that their French food smelled horrible. People talked about them as 'a swarm of frogs.' "
Calls to deport the foreigners rose in parliament. But another famiiar argument — that immigrants were good for the country — also carried a lot of weight, and Symes says that view turned out to be right.
"We look at some of the great global corporations of the 20th century here in this country, and discover that many of them were founded by Huguenots," she explains. "And of course our central bank, the Bank of England — the equivalent of the Federal Reserve Bank — the first governor of that was one of those 'frogs' that people thought should be sent back home."
A Synagogue In The Back Garden
Moving toward the back of the house, Symes gestures toward the home's original back garden, which underwent a dramatic conversion in the 19th century.
"We're looking into a building with a balcony, beautiful candelabra hanging down from a gorgeous pastel-colored glass ceiling," she says. "We've got a tiny Victorian synagogue, a place of worship for Jews arriving from Eastern Europe 150 years ago."
One of the immigration museum's exhibits features a video showing a group of children singing a traditional Jewish song. But these children are Muslims, the boys and girls of immigrants from Bangladesh who arrived a century after the Jewish refugees.
Today the Brick Lane neighborhood is a lively mix of rundown dwellings and shabby old facades concealing renovated, extremely expensive Georgian homes.
The latest people to feel a nativist backlash are European Union migrants from Eastern Europe, coming here for work. When she hears the complaints about the Bulgarians, Poles and other migrants working in London, Symes says she wonders if the lessons of history really are destined to be relearned by each generation.
"One's first reaction is just to feel so sad that people don't know enough of their own history to realize that many of these things were probably said about their ancestors," she says. " 'Why are these people coming here? Why are they taking our jobs? Why are they talking a strange language?' And so forth. "
But she's also worried by what she sees as a return of racially tinged hostility that the U.K. did so much to overcome during the past half-century.
"So there's actually a resurgence of a kind of racism, which this country had more or less lost, and very proudly lost," she says. "So I feel very fearful about that, and very anxious about the future of Britain within Europe."
Sometime in the next 15 months or so, Prime Minister David Cameron has promised a referendum on whether Britain should stay in the EU, something he says should only happen if the EU agrees to let the U.K. restrict certain welfare benefits to EU migrants.
Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.