We are all migrants from the past

Spitalfields is a palimpsest of how history connects us to today’s refugee crisis
Susie Symes

What would you take if you had to leave home for ever? Family photos are the most mentioned item in the suitcase of memories, at 19 Princelet Street

It is 25 years since I left the corridors of power in Whitehall and Brussels for the shabby streets of London’s Spitalfields. Watching the tragic collapse of a modern multi-cultural society, the former Yugoslavia, had filled me with dread. I had seen in Europe something I grew up believing could never happen again, ethnic cleansing and desperate refugees.

There are direct ways to help in this current refugee crisis, and I suggest two I admire, below. Back then I took an indirect route, chucking away my suits and my golden handcuffs, to revitalise a refugee-founded educational project in the East End.

Brick Lane today buzzes with hipsters, and sophisticated tourists book guided walks of the area’s vibrant street art. Twenty-five years ago it was slow and quiet, a place of distinct cultures: dodgy pubs, greasy-spoon caffs, Bengali shops selling silk salwar kameez, and glorious kulfi sweets. Old Bengali men, in white, prodded piles of strange fruit on the pavement, as black-garbed, bearded, Orthodox Jews went on their way to synagogue.

No capital in Europe has been more shaped by human migration than London, no area is more resonant with waves of new arrivals than Spitalfields. For centuries, people arrived as strangers, and gradually moved on as citizens, changing from them into us.

Many of us are the descendants of refugees. A few of us – far fewer than the tabloids suggest – are refugees ourselves. All of us have benefited from refugees enriching our lives.

No building in London better captures that British story than 19 Princelet Street, an historic site of national importance, and an exceptional museum of immigration. It is a palimpsest, holding multiple histories in its crumbling walls and peeling paint. Built in 1719 as an elegant townhouse, its first inhabitant was a Huguenot master silk weaver, a refugee from France. In 1869 a tiny, beautiful synagogue was built over the back garden, by East European Jews.

As I was writing this, I sat with a confident 31-year-old woman who had first visited the museum, then volunteered here, as a shy schoolgirl of fifteen: “I realised the museum told my story,” Amanda told me. “It had nothing about my family background, arriving as refugees from South Sudan, but it was still somehow my story, and for the first time I felt a part of this country.

The more I learnt of why people sought refuge here – Huguenots fleeing religious persecution in France; Jews escaping Russian pogroms in the 1880s or from the Nazis in the 1930s; Punjabis because of brutal Partition; Bengalis and Somalis because of war – the more I felt we need to know how the past has shaped us. We need to know how today’s inward migrations are inextricably linked with yesterday’s outward colonial expansion and trade.

We can only shape a better, safer future for all if we learn from the past. History connects us to today’s refugee crisis: a humanitarian crisis, affecting some 26 million human beings in our world (only one per cent of them live in the UK). Anyone who grew up in the shadow of the Holocaust surely finds it hard to imagine this country deporting a settled population of British Jews. Yet it already did, in 1290. Jews, whose families had lived in Britain for 200 years, were forced to leave home for an unknown future. In one terrible incident, a ship ran aground in the Thames estuary, leaving its cargo of British Jews to drown. The departing ship’s captain reportedly shouted to them to seek help from Moses.

We read that story now with horror, and shame. Yet today we see displaced people on the move, cold, hungry and without shelter, on our own borders, actually drowning at our borders, as safe routes have been closed to them, and our hearts surely break.

To help, we think first of food, shelter, warmth. Yet people also desperately need to connect with their loved ones. They are scared. Where will they end up? How will they live when they get there? Refugee Info Bus (refugeeinfobus.com) is based in northern France, helping refugees to help understand their rights, discuss their plans, enabling them to call friends and families, and to access the Internet. Refugee Info Bus is a real lifeline for many. It is a sure way to give people on the move some, even if very limited, control over their lives and future.

Refugees who arrive here seldom have an easy time. Already traumatised, many are dehumanised and locked up in detention. Women for Refugee Women (refugeewomen.co.uk) found that 46% of women refugees suffer destitution in the UK. The charity publishes robust research, is a powerful policy advocate, and supports 350 refugee and asylum-seeking women to heal and develop skills. A Christmas donation to Women for Refugee Women means every woman gets a present, and loving companionship at what for some will be their first celebration in this strange land.

Susie Symes is an economist, chair of the Museum of Immigration, a graphic artist, and former official in the UK Treasury and European Commission. She has written for the Guardian, Newsweek, international policy institutes, and Outdoor Swimmer

Current Affairs

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