As European Migrants Face British Backlash, A Reminder: They're Not The First Before the Bulgarians, there were the Bengalis, the Irish, the Jews and even French Protestants. Each wave of newcomers was at first rejected — before they went on to transform London's long history.
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As European Migrants Face British Backlash, A Reminder: They're Not The First

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As European Migrants Face British Backlash, A Reminder: They're Not The First

As European Migrants Face British Backlash, A Reminder: They're Not The First

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RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:

In the next year or so, voters in Britain will decide if that country stays in the European Union. And the debate is heating up now because of rising hostility toward Eastern European migrants who've come to England seeking work. This morning, NPR's Peter Kenyon takes us to the East End of London, where, for centuries, migrants have come, endured discrimination and carved out a new life.

PETER KENYON, BYLINE: Walking through the Brick Lane neighborhood, a cheerful Londoner points past the Bengali sweet shops and hipster cafes to the Grand Mosque, which used to be a synagogue and before that a church, depending on which migrant population was dominant that century.

SUSIE SYMES: We can see a sundial clock right up on the top, 1743. It's in Latin, but it means, we are shadows.

KENYON: This is our guide to British immigration past. Her name is Susie Symes, and she chairs the Board of Trustees for Britain's immigration museum, located at number 19 Princelet St. Inside, temporary floor-to-ceiling columns shore up a structure that was built in 1719 to last a century and is now approaching 300. When it was new, this house sheltered immigrants. The ones who came before the Bengalis, before the irate, before the Jews, they were Huguenots, Protestants from France who were forced to flee to England in the 18th century.

SYMES: Ninety percent of the people living in these streets were newly-arrived, French-speaking Huguenots. They dressed differently. They ate different kinds of food. In fact, people complained at the time that their French food smelled horrible. People talked about them as a swarm of frogs.

KENYON: Calls to deport the foreigners rose in Parliament, but another familiar argument that immigrants were good for the country also carried a lot of weight. And Symes says that view turned out to be right.

SYMES: We look at some of the great global corporations of the 20th century here in Britain and discover that many of them were founded by Huguenots. And of course, our central bank, the Bank of England, the first governor of that was one of those frogs that people thought should be sent back home.

KENYON: Moving toward the back of the house, a former garden was dramatically converted in the 19th century.

SYMES: We're looking into a building with a balcony, beautiful candelabra hanging down from a gorgeous pastel-colored glass ceiling. We've got a tiny Victorian synagogue, a place of worship for Jews arriving from Eastern Europe 150 years ago.

(SOUNDBITE OF VIDEO)

UNIDENTIFIED CHILDREN: (Singing in Hebrew).

KENYON: One of the immigration museum's exhibits features a video showing a group of children singing a traditional Jewish song. But these children are Muslims, the boys and girls of immigrants arriving from Bangladesh who arrived a century after the Jewish refugees.

(SOUNDBITE OF VIDEO)

UNIDENTIFIED CHILDREN: (Singing in Hebrew).

KENYON: Today, the Brick Lane neighborhood is a mix of run-down dwellings and shabby old facades concealing renovated, extremely expensive Georgian homes. The latest people to feel a nativist backlash are EU migrants from Eastern Europe coming here for work. Symes says sometimes she wonders if the lessons of history really are destined to be relearned by each generation.

SYMES: One's first reaction is just to feel so sad that people don't know enough of their own history to realize that many of these things were probably said about their ancestors. Why are these people coming here? Why are they taking our jobs? Why are they talking a strange language and so forth?

KENYON: But she's also worried by the timing of the rising anti-immigrant sentiment, coming after what she calls a half-century of improved race relations here.

SYMES: So there's actually a resurgence of a kind of racism, which this country had more or less lost and very proudly lost. So I feel very fearful about that and very anxious about the future of Britain within Europe.

KENYON: Sometime in the next 15 months or so, Britons will vote on whether to stay in the EU, a vote that seems inextricably tied up with concerns over migrants and what rights they should have. Peter Kenyon, NPR News, London.

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