Mon, Sep 05, 2016 - Page 7 News List

How ‘Brexit’ is affecting Britain’s eastern Europeans

Britain’s vote to leave the EU has left many from Romania, Poland or elsewhere feeling anxious; for groups who never previously saw themselves as victims of racism, a perceived spike in hate crimes has come as a shock

By Gary Younge  /  The Guardian

Illustration: Yusha

Father Ioan strolls the aisle of the Romanian Orthodox church in Redcliffe, Bristol, England, chanting in Romanian, English and Church Slavonic while wafting a censer of incense among the faithful. By day, he works in construction; on Sundays, he tends the flock. Families and individuals come and go, among them Orvida, an IT worker who came for three months and stayed for six years; a pediatric surgeon, who described himself as a “remain Euroskeptic,” although he did not have a vote; and Horatio, a former bank manager who found a job in the UK as a care worker and now runs his own business employing about 20 people.

Every Sunday, opposite the church, a bus bound for Bucharest waits for passengers. The journey to eastern Europe takes the best part of two days. However, many just send cargo. Big boxes, bound together by thick tape and a prayer, are weighed and paid for, so that a family can pick them up at the other end.

Since Britain voted to leave the EU, some eastern Europeans are now wondering if they should be hitching a ride.

One man across the street, who declined to give his name, is waiting for a minivan, also going to Bucharest, that will take him home for good.

He said life has become too stressful since the referendum.

At the coach, two young women whose boxes are being weighed have received worried calls from their families back home.

“They heard news about a Romanian shop that has been broken into in some city in the UK and vandalized,” one said. “And also about people being sworn at, told to go home, generally being treated badly.”

The women have experienced none of this and have no intention of leaving.

“No, I’m fine,” one said. “In Bristol it’s OK.”

Even though Bristol voted overwhelmingly to remain, it has not been immune.

In mid-July, Alex Raikes, director of Bristol-based group Stand Against Racism and Inequality, told me: “We’ve had eight referrals in the last 11 days, so that’s nearly a referral a day of an eastern European family or individual. It’s ranged [upward] from verbal abuse, and nearly all of those people have been told to go back to where they come from, or ‘go back home,’ and I haven’t heard that kind of language in quite a long time. They’ve had eggs thrown at them, windows smashed, cars vandalized. We’ve had people being verbally abused on the bus, we had a horrible case of a family being attacked in a park — the adults and children threatened to set their hair on fire and even kicked them.”

As well as animosity, there have been expressions of solidarity.

Friends of Arkadiusz Jozwik — a Polish man killed in a suspected racist attack — held a unity march through Harlow, Essex, in his memory on Thursday last week.

In Bristol, the Playfull toyshop offered a rose and an apology to all immigrants — a gesture that made the news around the world.

“My friend just thought: ‘I want to do something small, something local,’” said owner Kerstin Price, who was away when it happened.

She did not think that it would be a “mega, mega response.”

In Kopernick, a Polish shop in Sunderland, its shelves stacked with herring, hams, vodka and dried mushrooms, Marina said things have been fairly quiet.

Sunderland might have voted leave, but the only response she has encountered has been people coming in to commiserate.

“They came to say sorry because they voted to stay, and they’re sorry for us, but I didn’t hear anything nasty. Not yet,” she said.

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