‘London isn’t just one people’: the international families at home in the capital
We are Londoners, but in terms of heritage I am from Bangladesh and my husband is from South Africa. Stories about families from around the world.
This article titled “‘London isn’t just one people’: the international families at home in the capital” was written by Photographs: Chris Steele-Perkins. Interviews: Erica Buist, for The Guardian on Friday 15th July 2016 13.44 UTC
Iryna Kushniarevich, 35
I came to London in 2004, when I was 23. I never thought I would want to move away from home. The dean of my university in Minsk had suggested I study in Moscow, but I needed better English. One of my university professors lent me the money to study in London; the plan was to stay a couple of months, then apply to Moscow University.
When I arrived, I couldn’t speak or understand a word of English. My school was in Queensway, which isn’t the cheapest part of London. I found a job in a Greek restaurant in a basement which had a guy playing the piano. I studied during the day and worked at night, but it wasn’t enough money, so I got another job serving breakfast in a hotel. I would work there from 6am until 11am, then I had school until 3pm, then from 4pm until 2am I worked in the restaurant.
I went to Moscow for one year. I had already met Andrzej, who is Polish, and who stayed behind in London. One of the reasons I decided to come back was for him; there is a tension between Russian and Polish communities in Moscow, so living there would have been uncomfortable for us. I asked a business professor at my university what I should do and he told me that, with my education, the only option I had was to return to London – that was the city that would value it. I am now a strategic account director at a fashion consultancy.
I enjoy living here. I definitely do not identify as pure Belarusian, or British; I would say my identity is closest to that of a Londoner. Living here, you don’t need to travel the world; it’s so globalised, it almost doesn’t have a nationality. My parents, who are visiting us, are very supportive of me living here – my dad loves the politeness of London.
But since the vote to leave Europe, I get the feeling people don’t want foreigners where I live. I don’t feel at home. If I was English, I would probably also say, “I don’t want these people here.” I know it’s a very closed-minded view, but I don’t know how I would act given the same choice.
Panagiota Strigopoulou, 46
I lived in Greece until I was 23, so I’ve been living in London for 23 years now. I come from Corinth, west of Athens. I lived in Paris for a year, but I found it hard to integrate, so I decided to come here and work as an au pair. I’m now a full-time mother, though I’m looking for a job at the moment. Before that, I was an office manager at a business advisory service.
For me, London is the European capital. I found Greece a bit traditional, and felt more accepted by British people; I felt my personality and my work were valued here. I didn’t hang out with Greek people, and even now I’ve got friends from many countries. I find it interesting, exciting and positive that we’re like the United Nations – I didn’t find that in Paris. I was also very interested in the arts, and there’s so much going on here.
Now I’d say I feel partly British, partly European, partly a Londoner, partly Greek; I’ve got four identities. Five, really, since my son, who’s four, is half Nigerian and I’d like him to learn Yoruba and embrace his culture.
The last time I visited Greece was three years ago, so my mother could see my son. I don’t think I could live there. I really feel London is Europe’s America,because there are so many opportunities, but I don’t know what’s going to happen now. I feel very sorry for the people who voted to leave, because it shows narrow-mindedness and bigotry, and I think the Murdoch press pushed a lot of that.
Agnes Lennon, 41
In Austria, I did a dressmaking apprenticeship, but after five years I didn’t want to touch a needle or thread again; I’d had enough of it. So in 1995 I came to London to study contemporary dance and choreography. One of my first impressions was how many people there are here; I remember ending up with a massive headache because I couldn’t process it all.
I didn’t intend to stay, but then I met Danny. I started making costumes for the National Theatre, then I worked in the Royal Opera House’s costume department. After we had the kids, I decided not to go back. We run a business together now, building scenery for theatre and television. It’s a big adventure, and we’re really proud of it.
When Danny and I got married, I thought, oh God, there is a decision being made. I was really aware that the fact I married Danny probably meant I would stay: he was born in east London, to an English mother and Irish father. When I turned 40, I had lived 20 years in Austria and 20 years here. When I go to Austria now, I notice my parents and sister often don’t understand the topics I talk about. Yet being here you always get identified as the Austrian – you never quite escape that. People hear your voice and say, “Oooh, I can’t quite place your accent. Where are you from?” I speak German to the kids, but sometimes find it hard to have the energy at the end of the day. My parents visit, and we go twice a year.
I like living in London a lot, so I’m hugely disappointed about Brexit. I’ve felt really low for two weeks. My gut reaction was, “I’m not sure I want to live in England any more.” But I didn’t think of going back to Austria: our business and family are here. Before the referendum, I’d never have entertained giving up my Austrian citizenship for British, but I can’t vote here, and the longer I stay, the worse I feel about it.
Ana Tordecilla, 50
I arrived here when I was 10. My dad, a miner, was imprisoned under the Pinochet regime for being a communist. He was tortured, electrocuted; he had nails put through his fingers. I remember when we visited him in prison, I had to smuggle in limes, because he wasn’t allowed them and kids didn’t get searched. I will never forget my mother saying, “Put these under your jumper – your dad needs them for a salad.”
When we left the country, all I knew was we had to pack our stuff and wait for my father at the airport. I remember seeing him being escorted by police; he was wearing navy blue trousers, a green jumper my mother had knitted and a stripy blue shirt.
I didn’t know what London was. I had never seen an aeroplane – I just knew we were getting into something that would fly in the sky. We stayed in Shepherd’s Bush, in a hotel with other Chilean asylum seekers. Families took turns to cook. We didn’t speak any English. My dad went out and bought tins of what he thought was beef, and we made a casserole. We later found out it was dog food.
We’ve been in London for 40 years now and it’s my home, but I don’t really feel like a Londoner. I still speak Chilean Spanish and I cook Chilean food. I think once Chilean, you’re always Chilean.
I’ve lived here all my life. London isn’t just one people, it’s a mix; my mother is Chilean and my father is Jamaican-Chinese, so I’m basically a Londoner.
But we want to move to Spain, so my partner and children are learning Spanish. Brexit has made us want to leave sooner. I am a personal trainer, but I could be a fitness instructor or a lifeguard in Spain. The British embassy there has released a video saying foreigners living in Spain can stay, but I’m worried that in two years they will decide we need visas.
I am a Londoner, but I’m more Chilean than anything. When it comes to the World Cup, it’s Chile. I have the Chilean flag on my wall. I know my country’s history and what my family have been through.
Joe Ogunmokun, 28
Mum moved here from Nigeria when she was 19, predominantly for educational purposes, though quite a lot of extended family were here already. She married my dad, who is also from Nigeria, in 1987. He left the country and never came back. I was born in Hackney, near enough to the Bow bells that I can call myself a cockney. My last visit to Nigeria was when I was about 13.
When you’ve got immigrant parents, they tend either to want you to immerse yourself in British culture and almost forget your heritage, or they isolate you and bring you up as strictly from their part of the world. The way my mum went was “immerse yourself”.
Most of my pals are white. We moved to quite a middle-class area in Muswell Hill. But, as I grew up, I started to realise being black did make me different: racial profiling, racist abuse, attitudes towards you because of the colour of your skin – the things my mother had warned me about and I had dismissed.
When I was 17, I was coming back from a party with a couple of white female friends. We stopped off at a kebab shop and some coppers asked to speak to me. They said that down the road a car window had been smashed and I fitted the description given by a witness: black male with black jacket, black trainers and black jeans. Based solely on that, I was arrested – I didn’t even get to eat my kebab – and spent 15 hours in a cell. That was my first real incident of being pigeonholed as a black male.
But, overall, London is a haven. My ex-girlfriend’s parents lived in Devon and everyone is nice and polite, but it’s also obvious that you are one of the few black people they have seen.
I’m conscious of not jumping on the bandwagon that Brexit has been a win for the fascists, but it is scary to see the fallout. A black friend who lives in Leeds posted that he was on the bus, accidentally brought out the wrong pass, and while he was looking for the right one someone said, “We didn’t let you in this country to waste our time.” It’s scary that people are using this as an excuse to vocalise their insidious thoughts.
Michael Yee-Chong, 51
My grandfather was Chinese. He migrated to Mauritius when he was 12, by himself. He wanted to travel, conquer the world, find money and return home – but he never did. He made his way through China to Hong Kong, and got a right of passage to Mauritius, which was a British colony. I was always proud of my name, Yee-Chong, but I found out a few years ago that when he landed in Mauritius, they said, “What’s your name?” and he just made it up.
He had 11 kids, and sent the five boys to Europe to study medicine. At the time, Britain was crying out for people to study medicine, especially dentistry. So my father came to the UK from Mauritius on a boat that took about 36 days, studied dentistry in Durham, then came down to London where he met my mother; she’s London Caucasian.
Most people see me and think I’m Chinese or Thai; they don’t see the mix. I remember as a kid feeling alienated and just wanting to blend in, but I’m proud of my mixed heritage now, and so are my children. But I wouldn’t stick my neck out further than saying I am a Londoner. I remember when I was a kid, filling in my passport, and my mother said, “You can’t say you’re English.” I said, “Why not?” and she said, “Because you’re not 100% Caucasian, you have to say you’re British.” She denies it now, but I remember.
I went to Mauritius as a child, and eight years ago for my grandmother’s 100th birthday; a little TV company turned up to film her and give her a cheque for . She passed away six months later. I’m hoping to get my children and my dad, who’s 84, over there for Christmas.
The vote to leave Europe is a shame. It just became a race vote, middle England saying, “Pull up the drawbridge.” We’re an island, but we are affiliated to the rest of the world and part of Europe. To isolate yourself from all that is really bad, and just gives people permission to be xenophobic. I haven’t experienced any racism since the vote. If anything, I’m worried about travelling round Europe. I wonder how they’ll put up with English people now.
Edita Becvkic-Solak, 46
The war started 12 days after Vivien was born. We arrived with three suitcases, £100 and a baby. Vivien’s father is half Catholic, half Serb, and I am Muslim, so there was no life for us there.
When we got to London, we had just a bedroom and shared the kitchen and bathroom with other people, but it didn’t really matter. The main thing was to be safe and for Vivien to have a normal childhood. We had £75 a week. After buying nappies and this and that, you were left with £5, and you’d think, “Should I call home? What’s my priority?” Frozen burgers from Iceland was the cheapest thing you could buy: from 24 burgers you could make meatballs, pasta – it was tough, but you got on with it. I’ve never bought frozen burgers since.
Until she got the paperwork, my mother never felt safe. If I bought something, she would have a go at me: “Why are you buying that when you’ll just have to leave it behind?”
Vivien I have always known why we came here, but I didn’t understand the importance of it until a few years ago. I’d look it up and think, I was involved in something huge that changed the course of history and politics in my region for ever.
My father came here as a tea boy, serving the corporate world; now he’s a boss at a global news company. Mum moved here with a baby; now she’s a senior retail manager. Neither has formal qualifications: it was all through determination and hard graft. That’s quite inspirational.
I’ll never feel 100% English because, although I grew up here, I had a very different upbringing from my British friends. I never understood the Sunday roast – we don’t do them. I won’t ever feel 100% Bosnian, either, because when I go back I’m an outsider. I speak the language fluently but not colloquially, so can’t always understand. Even our clothes are different.
I am angry about Brexit. It’s scaremongering, lies, nationalism and psychological manipulation. I met a Scottish guy at a party. “We voted Brexit – we want all the immigrants out!” he said. I told him I was an immigrant. He said, “You can stay. You sound English.”
Rosemarie Joy Fernandez, 37
I moved here from the Philippines 10 years ago. I went to Bournemouth to study photography, because the fashion photographer Nick Knight went there. I’m now working for his longtime printer, which is amazing; I ended up working for the person I wanted to work for.
I’m going back to the Philippines this month for work, launching a small publishing project. It’s a collaboration with a photographer who lives up in the mountains and has been documenting the tribes for more than 30 years. I’m trying to bring whatever I’ve learned here in England to the photographers over there, who don’t have the same production values.
My family in the Philippines think I have an English accent; English people think I have an American accent. There is an Elvis Presley song, Stranger In My Own Home Town, that I often think is quite apt: everything can feel so familiar, but at the same time everything has changed, and it’s what happens to London every day. Places become more gentrified; buildings are there and the next day they’re gone, but the people stay the same.
My husband is a sound engineer, so both our industries are based in London – for now. I don’t know how the vote to leave Europe will affect our work. My boss’s daughter and his wife both voted out, my colleague’s wife voted out – and I’m really, really gutted, because I love working here. Now I feel, “Am I meant to be here?” It feels like a general rejection of what London is: an international city, with people coming in and out. I feel disheartened.
I am a Londoner because I have a family here. I am married to somebody from Leeds, and our little boy was born here. London is a place of possibility – where if you have your heart set on something, it can happen.
We are Londoners, but in terms of heritage I am from Bangladesh and my husband is from South Africa. He left because he had exposed corruption in its arms industry. I came to Britain in 1971 during the war of independence, when I was five. My parents and grandparents also had a history here going back to the 50s. My mother came to school here; my father studied law and was a barrister here.
I don’t really remember Bangladesh. My brother does, because he was torn away from primary school. We had to learn English; my first memory of London is watching Play School, the kids’ TV programme, and seeing the images and not understanding a thing.
I was just telling my son how different London is now. I know there is still a lot of racist abuse, but he doesn’t experience it in his daily life. I remember being called a Paki and running after kids who were picking on my younger brother. My mother remembers feeling gutted once, when I was very young, and I asked if I could go into the washing machine so I could be less brown. Yet she can’t remember anything negative when she was first here, before the 70s; people would stop her in Golders Green and touch her hair, saying, “Such beautiful black hair.”
I visit Bangladesh regularly for work and to see family, but I absolutely feel a Londoner. What makes you you is really more about your values, and I feel at home here. It’s hackneyed but true that London is a big mix of diversities: my daughter has just left the house with a group of friends, one of whom has Jewish and Muslim parents, one has Korean parents, one has English parents, one has two mothers – I think that’s wonderful. There’s a level of diversity that really is exceptional.
I think Brexit is a sad moment. As an economist, I have despaired at how the EU has functioned; it is not transparent, it is frankly corrupt, so there are a lot of things about the EU I don’t approve of. But the sentiment that has driven the exit is really worrying. I feel depressed about the underlying “us and them” attitude that has driven people to this.
• Are you a Londoner and willing to be photographed for this project? Chris Steele-Perkins has so far photographed families of 120 nationalities living in London, and has 73 to go to include every nation recognised by the UN. Go to gu.com/witness to check those still missing: send a snap and tell us why you would like to take part.
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