Immigration: The bigger picture

While the politicians try to score points on the subject, those involved just get on with it. Kunal Dutta and Jane Merrick investigate the reality of the immigrant experience, while eight newcomers tell their stories
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Indy Politics

Tomas Jurjonas was 18 and had just finished school when he and a friend jumped into a car and drove to England from Lithuania. When Tomas first arrived in Worthing, West Sussex, the British-born postman who delivered his mail every day helped him with the English on his CV. His first job was in the kitchens of a Turkish restaurant on the town's Marine Parade. Six years later, he is head chef.

"Worthing is a small town and I think it is difficult when you are new and people are not expecting you. After they get used to seeing you, they don't insult you any more," he says.

Tomas's experience of living in the UK has not always been happy – early on he suffered abuse and prejudice. "There have been times where I have been so lonely that I remember going to the end of the pier and crying. I remember once being down to my last 100 euros given to me by my mother in case things did not work out. I was so close to cashing it in and going home.

"But she urged me to stay, and said things would get better.

"Nowadays I feel very friendly towards the local community and love hearing their stories. I also have made many English friends."

Tomas's account – and the stories of other immigrants living in Britain that we publish today – paints a much more complex picture than that portrayed by David Cameron last week.

The Prime Minister spoke of immigrants' unwillingness to learn English, clashing with local residents, and creating "discomfort and disjointedness" in communities following the "largest influx" in British history. Mr Cameron sparked a cabinet row by pledging to reduce annual migration from hundreds of thousands to tens of thousands a year, a limit which was not in the coalition agreement.

Behind the figures and cabinet infighting, in towns across the UK, the story is richer, and more nuanced. From Tomas's helpful postman to the woman from Nairobi living in Falkirk whose nine-year-old son would rather play for Scotland than Kenya, we reveal how immigrants are integrating with local communities.

Our stories confirm, however, that immigration in Cameron's Britain is not without problems. The people we spoke to have experienced racism, abuse and alienation, while a number of reports have shown that immigrants from all over the world have faced significant hostility and even attacks from their neighbours in the UK.

Writing in this paper today, the former Labour minister Margaret Hodge agrees with Mr Cameron that the previous government failed to tackle immigration. Mrs Hodge says Labour failed to "respond to legitimate frustrations felt by those working-class communities".

And a new report by the University of Brighton, examining racism in seaside towns, finds that while some centres have become more multicultural a "dated, uninformed attitude to diversity" still prevails. "What might be celebrated as 'tradition' and 'nostalgia' for some people in the seaside towns ... is often perceived differently by minority ethnic groups," the paper's author, Daniel Burdsey, argues.

"These notions are frequently perceived to have racialised connotations, sustaining the whiteness of [certain] towns and contributing to feelings of exclusion among minority ethnic groups," he says.

During our research, we spoke to a number of businesses. Some, for example, a taxi firm in St Leonards, East Sussex, were forthright in their views. "I'm sorry, mate, we only have British drivers here," one operator said. "Most ethnics don't speak good enough English and tend to want to stick together anyway. Especially in times of recession, they're simply not worth the risk."

But the stories also hint at the economic and cultural benefits immigration has brought. Immigrants contribute £6bn to the UK economy, according to Treasury figures.

One of the more surprising elements of the interviews is a sense that many immigrants are more focused on their own goals and ambitions than concerned about being the victims of racism or community tensions.

Despite seven attacks on his shop in the past two months, Nanda Vayanaperumal, a shopkeeper in Portsmouth, was determined that he would stay open and maintain good relationships with his local customers. "We have chosen this track in life and these are simply the risks we face. It's not a big problem. I am educated and have big plans for the future, but I can only get there if I make this work first."

This weekend there are calls for a "larger narrative of the migrant debate" in the wake of Mr Cameron's speech, in which he called for "good, not mass immigration".

Rob Berkeley, director of the Runnymede Trust, said: "The Tories' lack of interest in the reality behind the numbers has done very little other than to confuse people further and triangulate the BNP.

"Whether 200,000 people have arrived in the UK in the last year or not is simply not the issue. Nearly a million people are out of work and the bigger structural issues of the government are being disrupted by an immigration debate that suggests short-term thinking and electioneering."

Nanda Vayanaperumal, 33

From India. Newsagent, Paulsgrove, Portsmouth

It would have been easy for me to land up in one of the bigger cities like London or Birmingham. But you cannot just arrive and set up a business anywhere. You have to think strategically. The competition between retailers is fierce, particularly in large multicultural cities like London or Birmingham. So I have to choose this area because it is much smaller and there are not that many shops here.

This is the way of making my living and making a better life for myself. I am educated and have bigger plans for the future but can only get there if I make this work first.

This is a small community, and many people have strong opinions. I don't want to cause any problems. I just want to run a peaceful business. Many of my customers know that, and I keep good relationships with them.

Sometimes you do get frustrating incidents. The shop has been attacked nine times in the last two months. I recently had a guy come to the door with his face covered with a scarf. He came in with a tub of paint and splashed it in my shop. That's really bad and can make me really worried to be here.

Most people, though, are just glad a shop like this is in the community, and appreciate it for providing what they want, on their doorstep. The majority of people want to shop here, and I have some really good customers, many of whom are trying to help.

Shahid Ali, 40

From Pakistan. Taxi driver, Newport, Wales

My family moved over to Newport in 1964 and there I was raised. Someone from my parents' village in Pakistan had come over to Wales and a stream of others had followed. At that time it was usually just the men. Newport is generally OK. There's less crime here than many of the big cities. Growing up here I didn't really notice racism. But as soon as you get older, leave school and go into the workplace, then it starts to become more prevalent.

Racism and discrimination go on all the time. The laws are in place for racism – it's just that it's done under the carpet, isn't it? What can you do? If you go to a place for a job or for work and they're racist, they're not going to say it's because of your colour. It's institutionalism, isn't it?

Wales is my home. You never fit in 100 per cent, but it's still classed as home. Generally in workplaces and when you're out and about, you do notice racism. You just get on with it; I'm not going to ponder over it. Most times you have to work twice as hard to get the same position. You have to prove yourself twice as hard for the same thing as anyone else.

Serah Kimuyu, 46

From Kenya. Acting general manager, Falkirk, Scotland

In March 2006 I left Kenya with my two children to join my husband who was working in the Scottish Highlands as a chef. We lived in a nice, beautiful village called Tyndrum. It was a lovely place to live and everyone was friendly, but it was in the middle of nowhere. I wanted to get a job in something I was trained in.

So we moved to Callander, which was completely different from Tyndrum; it was a busier place, where everyone minded their own business, so it was harder making new friends, and we felt very isolated. No one called you names or anything, but you'd just feel uncomfortable.

I moved to Falkirk where I felt even more isolated because people were even more distant with us. I kept wondering: "Why? At least give me a chance."

My 17-year-old daughter hasn't really had any problems with racism. It's harder for my nine-year-old son. Sometimes his friends can be playful and then they will ignore him. That said, he loves this country. He's obsessed with football and he said he'd rather play for Scotland than Kenya. When I asked him why, he said it was because his friends are here and this is his home.

Ahmad Samar, 28

From Iran. Taxi driver, St Leonards-on-Sea, East Sussex

I remember when Saddam dropped chemicals in my city of Sardash, where I lived. I was a little boy holding my father's hand during the Iran-Iraq war of 1988. I am still affected by that moment, and it makes many of the problems here very small by comparison.

I have been all over Europe and spent time in Birmingham and London. But I have always returned to St Leonards. Eight years ago, this was the place for rich people. Now it feels like a dumping ground for some of the poorest people in the country. There is also a big drug problem here. Things can be rough. I frequently see robberies and experience racism. A lot of this has become worse under the government of David Cameron. Now it just seems like everyone is struggling and unhappy.

Of course there is racism here – but it happens all over the world and you choose whether or not you want to take it seriously. But I think it's all about how you deal with that and your own emotions. That's how you earn respect.

Life is not hard. Life is what you make it. One thing I know is that if you have brains and a strong mind, no one can take that away from you. No matter where it is you stand and make a go of life, it is the same sky that is above you.

Ibrahim Harbi, 33

From Somalia. National co-ordinator for Somali Integration Society, Cardiff

When we moved to England, we faced all of the difficulties someone faces when they move to a new country, the language, the culture. Where we moved in London there were a lot of people with an Asian background. I went to school there. It wasn't easy, but I think it would have been more difficult if I had moved to an area only full of indigenous people.

I moved to Wales because I went to Cardiff University and there were contacts to the Somalian community, one of the oldest minority groups in the UK. I realised how isolated they were and they felt they were the victim of negative press. Somalis have made a large contribution to the fabric of Wales, and I don't think that was understood by the mainstream community. People felt there was a lack of understanding.

I have never experienced people shouting at me in the street, however. Things are getting better but we still have a long way to go.

Jalf Ali, 36

From Bangladesh. Property investor, Newcastle

My father came here in 1962, and for the first few years he was in Manchester and Stoke. He then moved to Newcastle in 1968, and in 1969 he set up his own business. He went back to Bangladesh to get married and I was born there. In 1980, when I was five years old, we came to England.

My father was one of the first Bengali people to settle in Newcastle, but we moved to a place called Fenham, which had more Asian people than other areas. The community was pretty small in Newcastle. We all knew each other well.

Growing up, I was constantly faced with racism. We used to go to a youth club in Newcastle and we had to go as a group so that we were less likely to be attacked. There's still racism in the area, but many people are just naive. They don't have black or Asian people in the area and their only contact with them is through shopkeepers or taxi drivers.

Last week I was walking through town, and outside the pub people started shouting "Mohammad". I go to a lot of football matches, and in the past black players used to get ripped to pieces. Now, I've noticed a definite shift in the language. There's less open racism.

James Fayiah, 24

From Sierra Leone. Support worker at Asphaleia, a youth welfare charity in Worthing, West Sussex

In Sierra Leone there was another war, so we decided to come to Britain for a better life, on 16 June 2004. I arrived at Gatwick airport and was seeking asylum, and they told me if I came to Worthing they would be able to help me. I have experienced racism many times over the years, but now I don't care. I feel part of a community so it does not bother me.

I used to work in Subway and people would come there as they were leaving nightclubs and would say "You nigger, go back home" and "Go back to your country. We don't want you here." It still happens occasionally, but while I used to take it personally, now I don't care. I just ignore it.

I have English friends and people from my country, but I hang around most with people from other African countries. But I feel 100 per cent safe as people know if something was to happen the police wouldn't take it easy. They would be hard on it.

Two years ago, as I was going out of work, there were bouncers outside this one place hitting a guy from my country. He said, "Please call the police" so I went to try and one of these two bouncers attacked me.

I was happy when I saw the police coming, but they didn't ask me any questions and arrested me. After 15 hours in the police station they watched the CCTV and realised I didn't do anything wrong. That made me very sad.

Everywhere you go in the world there are two or three people doing stupid things anyway. It is not the majority.

Agnieszka Tarajko, 29

From Poland. Hotel manager, Manchester

I arrived in the UK in 2006. There were no more career opportunities for me in Poland, so I decided to join my husband and start a new life in the UK.

I was really scared when I first arrived. Every day at work was a little scary, as I was going to be told that I was from Poland and taking other people's jobs, so I was terrified and scared at the beginning. But I think the mentality has changed in this country.

I own my own beautiful house and I have passed my driving test which I wasn't able to do in Poland ever. My confidence has been built up a lot and I am not scared any more.

It was quite upsetting at the beginning [the comments] especially when you are not confident and don't know how to respond. But after speaking to my colleagues and British people who liked me or loved me I got used to it. Eventually the comments just stopped.

I would agree that there are a lot of people coming into the country. It is not as much as it was a few years ago but I understand that it could be a problem, and I understand why [Cameron] says that about immigration.

I think we had too many people and there was a competition for jobs, you can physically see that. If the numbers we had five years ago were going to start again, then something needs to be done, but if it stays at the same level as now, we are fine.