Welcome, asylum-seekers: former mining town proves racial tolerance benefits all residents relations

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The Independent Online

Affection for southerners who come to live in the former mining towns of south Yorkshire is scarce, so it might be expected there would be little for asylum-seekers. A run-down district of central Doncaster is, however, proving an impressive breeding ground for multicultural tolerance.

Affection for southerners who come to live in the former mining towns of south Yorkshire is scarce, so it might be expected there would be little for asylum-seekers. A run-down district of central Doncaster is, however, proving an impressive breeding ground for multicultural tolerance.

Ernest Cotton, behind the counter of his newsagent shop, demonstrates the community's open-minded approach. Yes, Mr Cotton had heard those rumours about local African lads being offered £800 apiece by the authorities to buy a car (one of the most abiding urban myths about British asylum-seekers), but their presence was fine by him because they had tidied up the flower beds, moved into derelict houses and done their bit to help his flagging trade. "They buy those mobile phone cards too," Mr Cotton said. "It's good trade for me, so I do my bit back. I'll help them when they want to send letters back home."

Down the street, Alan Crossland embellished the picture as he emerged from the bookmaker's shop. Men in their mid-70s, like him, tend to preface their thoughts with "I've nothing against them but ..." Yet the former clerical worker professed himself content to be five doors down from a young Iraqi and Kenyan. "Nice lads," he said. "Do their bit about the place."

Jillian Jones said they had helped her carry her shopping; another woman told of the mutual affection between her mother and an asylum-seeking African. "He's started calling her mum," she said.

These prosaic stories are the largely unwritten realities of how asylum-seekers can co-exist with communities in British towns and cities. In Doncaster, the good relations are widely attributed to a recently completed five-year housing project that has revitalised the run-down district of Wheatley.

In the late 1990s, the labyrinth of red-brick terraces on the fringe of a red-light district in the town's old quarter was becoming uninhabitable and property prices for a two-bedroom home plunged to £30,000 as more houses were boarded up. The council then told private landlords that if they equipped the homes for asylum- seekers the Home Office would guarantee a rental income.

The boards have gradually come down from the windows and terraces and prices have recovered to as much as £150,000. As much a source of surprise to the landlords has been contact with thoughtful, intelligent tenants such as Julien Makiese.

The 19-year-old son of a Congolese political activist and doctor, he fled to Britain two years ago after his father, also Julien, joined a Congo opposition party and was pursued by General Sese Seko Mobutu, then the president. Mr Makiese's family moved from the capital Kinshasa to the northern Katanga province; his mother was killed, and he was imprisoned before fleeing to Britain with his brother Didier, 14. He has been granted asylum.

In the circumstances, enhancing a cramped terraced property in Doncaster seems an unlikely priority, but £2 rugs and even a fish tank, bought from the Sunday market on Doncaster's historic Town Moor, deliver the kind of comforts he says are a necessity. "There is thinking time for me out here, just space from all the trouble," Mr Makiese said.

The quality of his English attests to daily lessons at Doncaster College. He wears a Blackburn Rovers shirt and, as he speaks, a car with African friends goes by, sporting an England flag. "We see ourselves as English," Mr Makiese said. "We want to fit in."

Down on Broxholme Lane, Mr Crossland's neighbours, Alvin Thuo, 18, a Kenyan, and Iraqi Garib Ahmed, 26, want the chance to work. The front garden is neat and the house as well put together as Mr Makiese's, but life is not how it ought to be. "Doncaster is more friendly than London but my family taught me how to work, not to claim allowances," Mr Thuo said. "I am awaiting the Home Office decision on whether I may stay. Only then may I try to find work."

Doncaster's mayor, Martin Winter, said this oasis of multi-culturalism was born of Doncaster's history of receiving outsiders, despite having only a 3 per cent ethnic-minority population, "Our mining heritage means we received a great number of people from Scotland and Durham. Local people have seen the benefits of different people living together. [The problems other towns have] are not about immigration. They are about racism.

"The houses in this district would be empty if asylum-seekers had not moved in. They have offered landlords income and security of tenure and local people see they have nothing to fear. These are respectable people with strong community values, work ethics and they are adding to our communities."

Mr Winter's theories may help explain the British National Party's miserable record here. The party fielded eight women candidates in nearby Barnsley this week, but all has but ignored Doncaster, having failed in five wards at last year's local elections.

But manipulating multiculturalism is fractious. Three white women hear Mr Winter and make a beeline for him. "This is our street, not yours," Katrina Rogoz, 45, tells him. She is the daughter of a Polish immigrant, but she believes landlords are paid to refurbish houses for immigrants, but whites cannot get a penny. "I've nothing against them [the immigrants] and the black Africans are fine, but we have problems with the Middle Eastern types," she said. "My father's view was 'I'm living in England now so what do I have to do to fit in?' It should be the same for this lot."

For Mr Cotton, however, the situation is simple. "You can only speak as you find and I say they're welcome, whatever some people say."