Letter Nineteen

I’m sitting by the window, in a corner of East London where many of my forbears once lived, listening to the quiet voices of Bangladeshi men in the park by my flat. The sky is a cloudless blue, and we tend to make the most of rare sun-soaked days like these. The park gets really busy, especially after school. But now it’s getting late and it’s just those men, huddled in groups, and a few teenagers playing football.

My mothers’ family came here to escape Cossack pogroms but also to seek a better life. Over a few generations they achieved some financial security and moved to the suburbs. As Eastern European Jews, they were among several different waves of immigrants to settle here: Huguenots, Irish, Bangladeshis, Somalis… All these people came, as you have come to the UK, to make new homes. Some stayed, some moved on; either way, their presence made the place they settled in richer in numerous ways. As will your presence, wherever you make your home.

Not everyone in the UK understands this. Many are scared, seeing immigration as a threat. For the most part, they’ve never lived in places like this, so we can’t really blame them. Everyone is scared of the unknown. Everyone seeks scapegoats for their disappointments. We had a kind of national trauma recently, when a vote over membership of the European Union divided us deeply, pitting those who see openness to the wider world as dangerous against those who embrace it. No-one can really see a solution. It’s a frightening time. Not everyone will welcome you. Some of them don’t even welcome people like me: they’d see this letter as a betrayal. If only they could get to know us, I think they’d probably change their views.

But don’t let those people put you off. While the powerful benefits of immigration are particularly visible here in East London, this entire country has, over centuries, been shaped by newcomers from across the globe; through conquest, through empire, through war, through trade and through membership of the EU, as well as through the current influx of those escaping war, persecution, poverty or climate change. In that sense it’s already your country. I don’t need to welcome you because you already belong. But welcome anyway.

Soon, in the same park by my flat, I’m performing with Jewish and Bangladeshi storytellers at a festival: the Boishakhi Mela. Our group is part of a local project I run to share stories, songs and food from our different cultures. “We already have plenty of Bangla stories,” the Mela organisers told us. “Tell us tales from other cultures that are here.” Immigration for us, if not for everyone, is a normal part of life and celebrating it is a normal part of culture. So I have an offer. The project doesn’t have an end date. When you feel ready, come and share a story with us. We’ll share ours with you in return.

Paul Burgess, London, Artistic Director of Daedalus Theatre Company.


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