Migrants speak out on Brexit

One year on from Britain’s vote to leave the EU, Graham Millington meets migrants living in Waltham Forest to get their views

Kemal Yamen

Kemal Yamen, originally from Turkey, owns a cafe in Leytonstone (credit Graham Millington)

A large proportion of the population of Waltham Forest are migrants.

One year after the referendum vote to take Britain out of the European Union, I decided to find out more about these people. Why did they come to the UK, what are their aspirations, and what are their thoughts about Brexit?

My first interviewee is Kemal Yamen, a Kurd and owner of the San Marino café in Leytonstone High Road. At the age of 15, Kemal’s family were living in Turkey, where Kurdish people are often not well treated. Kemal explained: “One day I was beaten by my teachers and suspended from school after being blamed for writing on a desk.”

Kemal says he was “blacklisted” as a troublemaker and so was likely to face further intimidation in Turkey. In fear, the family moved to Germany, before eventually ending up in Haringey with his father working in a restaurant. In time, they opened their own coffee shop, prior to taking over the San Marino café in 2001. Kemal is now 37 and happily married with two children, and feels life is going well. He has a thriving business and likes the area and the people. He says he is grateful for the opportunity to live in our free society but is puzzled by the vote to leave the EU: “England has the best economy in Europe and so why leave?” Nonetheless, Kemal owns a cherished British passport and does not expect Brexit to directly affect him.

Fleeing a country for safety and freedom is a common motivation for many migrants, but for Englishman Adam and German national Tina, matters were quite different. They first met on a school exchange visit and after a few dates they returned to their respective countries. However, twelve years later Tina made contact with Adam through social media and consequently their relationship began to flourish via Facebook. Eventually they decided to make their life together in the UK and are now married with a two-year-old daughter.

Tina is very happy in London but makes it clear that many Germans are perplexed by Brexit. She said: “From what my family and German friends say, the UK will not have an easy time with the negotiations. Brexit could be very damaging.”

If anyone needed evidence of the energy, commitment, and drive of many of our migrants, the following people I’ve met are good examples.

Llana is Romanian and arrived in Leytonstone to stay with her sister and learned English. She began volunteering in a charity shop, where her potential was quickly identified, and now she is the manager. Talking to Llana it is easy to see why she has progressed. There is a confidence and determination about her, and she is very happy working within the charity sector; helping homeless people, drug addicts, and other vulnerable people.

“We are not benefit seekers, we work hard and pay our way,” says Llana, referring to the unpleasant comments she has heard people say about Romanians living in Britain. Although Llana makes clear that she considers local people to be friendly and generous towards migrants, she says that “Brexit is a big mistake”.

Another migrant I meet is Demi, who left an economically-depressed Bulgaria in 2003 to search for a better life and more opportunities. Although trained as a plasterer, Demi had to accept lower wages while learning British techniques. He now runs his own highly-regarded business.

Regarding Brexit, Demi says: “You have done so well inside Europe, why change now?” Returning to Bulgaria periodically, he says the country has improved since joining the EU in 2007, and cannot understand why Britain would want to leave.

Two Spaniards I meet reflect the determination and sacrifice migrants often display. Pat trained as a fashion designer for five years in Spain but felt London was the place to pursue her dreams. She had no English but was prepared to “start from zero” by taking low-paid jobs while developing her fashion and artistic skills and making contacts within the industry. Gradually she is making progress as an artist and takes any and every opportunity to move forward.

Miguel Souto

Miguel Souto migrated to Waltham Forest from Spain and designs lamps (credit Graham Millington)

In a similar vein, Miguel Souto arrived from Albacete in Spain with degree qualifications in interior design and architectural photography, but spoke almost no English. To earn money Miguel helped refurbish houses and eventually found himself employed helping disabled and vulnerable people. He explored any opportunity to get a foothold in his preferred industry and is currently collaborating with a small company to manufacture a lamp stand which he designed. He says: “Many people in Spain do not like the EU but we accept we are in Europe and we feel European. Maybe the British don’t feel the same way, but business should come first.”

Underlining Britain’s ability to attract talented EU nationals is Lukasz from Poland, who came to the UK as a trained paramedic but entered the hotel industry “just for the money”. In time he expressed an interest in food preparation and through hard work and dedication “climbed the ladder” to become a head chef with a major hotel chain.

On Brexit, Lukasz tells me that potentially being forced to leave Britain does not phase him: “If we have to go we’ll go and start again – no problem.”

Lukasz, Miguel, and the others I’ve met in the past few weeks, are clearly making a positive contribution to the UK’s economy. They seem grateful for the chance to excel and thrive on our shores, and think Waltham Forest is a good place to live. Brexit is a disappointment to them, but perhaps surprisingly, few expressed fears that they would be negatively affected. While some said they knew of friends with concerns, as Lukasz suggested, having previously left their country for a better life, the idea of doing so again does not always phase them.

It reflects an underlying self-belief shared by many migrants living in Waltham Forest. To make progress in a foreign country takes courage, determination, and many other skills and qualities. It follows therefore that such people are pretty special and should be cherished. Happily many are.

Ewelina, a young Polish woman in the borough, became very emotional the day after the referendum on 23rd June 2016. A lady gave her a card, apologised for the result, and said: “We can’t do without you.”

She could well be right.