‘We’ve come a long way since the dark days’ - Migrants share stories of first experiences in Ipswich
PUBLISHED: 11:30 01 April 2019 | UPDATED: 07:52 02 April 2019
As part of our series of reports on multiculturalism in Ipswich, we look at the experiences of new arrivals from the Commonwealth countries through to recent EU arrivals.
Migrants who travelled the world to start new lives in Ipswich say huge strides have been achieved since the “dark days” of their first arrival.
The first newcomers said they were shocked by what they found in the so-called “mother country”.
During post-war years, thousands of Commonwealth migrants came to boost the UK’s depleted workforce, many working in factories such as Crane’s, Ransomes or Manganese Bronze in Ipswich.
Although work was plentiful, new arrivals struggled to find housing, were banned from pubs and battled for years to gain equal rights. At first, cultures clashed and tensions grew, but the Ipswich and Suffolk Council for Racial Equality, which was founded to resolve such challenges, claims the town responded better than many.
ISCRE’s Hamil Clarke, who came to Ipswich from Barbados in 1955, to study and work, said the first arrivals faced greater challenges than today.
“When you were growing up, you heard about the ‘mother country’ and you saw England as this lovely place where you could live comfortably and feel welcome,” he said. “But it wasn’t like that at all. Firstly, the weather was not what you had expected and the welcome was not what you’d hoped for either.
“You could get jobs, but you couldn’t get anywhere to live. People wouldn’t rent you their homes.”
Mr Clarke said the Ipswich community was more curious than hostile towards the newcomers but it took years to overcome cultural differences.
As black people were not allowed in pubs, Caribbean immigrants had few opportunities to socialise, other than to gather on the street.
“You’ve heard the phrase ‘no blacks, no dogs, no Irish’, well that literally happened here in Ipswich,” Mr Clarke said. “For a while it felt like we just couldn’t make any progress. It was hard; very hard.”
As Ipswich ‘natives’ and migrants became friends through working together, the slow process of integration began.
“When people see you’re also human it starts to break down barriers,” Mr Clarke added.
Over time, migrants managed to secure council housing, founded the Caribbean Club and finally began to make progress.
Mr Clarke set up his own business and later became elected to Ipswich Borough Council, twice being appointed mayor.
He said the Race Relations Act in 1976, which was intended to prevent discrimination, was when “things really began to change”.
“It made it much easier for black people to survive over here, but it also meant the racism went underground,” he added.
“It wasn’t as blatant but it was still there, you still couldn’t just walk into a pub as you could do now.
“So, yes, it was tough, but Ipswich has changed considerably, since those dark days, it’s become more tolerant.
“The problems still haven’t gone away completely, though; the same things that were happening to the black West Indians are now happening to the Eastern Europeans.”
Imani Sorhaindo, who came to Ipswich from Dominica in the Caribbean in 1976, when she was nine, said she suffered racism at school.
“As a child coming here, the only thing I knew about England was from the story books,” she said. “There had been a massive recruitment drive in the Caribbean at the time for people to come to what they called the ‘mother country’ and it was advertised as being a better life.
“I was really looking forward to the new adventure and finding lots of opportunities.
“But at school, my twin and I were the only black children in my class and we were stereotyped as not being clever enough and placed in lower sets, when actually, when they assessed us later they found we were capable of the higher sets.
“There was an apology but in a way it had already done its damage to our self esteem and we had a bit of an inferiority complex.
“I wonder how many other children have gone through that same stereotype.”
Ms Sorhaindo was told she would never fulfil her ambition to become a teacher, but says it only made her more determined.
She has since visited schools as a poet and storyteller and also worked as a youth worker.
While she says opportunities today are better than when she was growing up, the perception among people from ethnic minority backgrounds is still that you have to work “five times harder to get the same acknowledgement”.
“If you’re having to prove yourself all the time, that’s the kind of institutionalised racism that can be very hard to overcome,” she said,
“But there are a lot of really positive role models out there; people who have made it in spite of all the challenges. I think the key to this is people need to see all of that and realise that they don’t need to settle for less.”
Shayra Begum, whose father was one of the first Bangladeshis to take up the invite to work in the UK, moving to Ipswich in the early 60s, said there had been little integration to begin with, as few spoke English. Most lived in shared homes, with many people to one room, rotating according to shifts at the factory. Mrs Begum said most migrant communities in Ipswich began in the same way, with groups of men seeking work. By the 70s and 80s, however, those first arrivals began to bring their families over.
“They realised, after a while, that no matter how much money they sent back to their families at home, it was never going to be enough,” she said. “There was a light bulb moment, and I think lots of immigrant communities go through this. They come over, thinking it’s just going to be for a short period of time, and then they realise they’ve built roots in the town and they might as well have their families come to stay with them.”
When Mrs Begum came to Ipswich as a young girl in 1975, hers was one of very first Bangladeshi families. The immigrants tended to be middle class farmers and landowners. Although they had status back home, few could read or write in their home language, let alone English.
Having learned English at school, Mrs Begum began helping her fellow Bangladeshis with translation.
“I’ve been supporting the community since I was seven,” she said.
“As soon as I started to learn English that was it.
“There were a few men who had a smattering of English and they did a lot to support the early Bangladeshi settlers,
“Then people like me took over interpreting and, even aged seven, I was interpreting tax fraud, hospital records, births, deaths.”
Today Mrs Begum is still helping her community through the Bangladeshi Support Centre, which marks its 20th anniversary next year.
Mohammed Mainul Alam, who also works at the BSC, came to Ipswich after his family first moved to London, where they faced racism in the 1980s.
“My brother had business in Felxistowe and we thought this was a lot safer place to bring up our children than London,” he said. “So although I came to England in ‘81 we moved to Suffolk in ‘94 to give my children a better place to live. Even now, if I go to London and come back to Ipswich, there seems to be much more friendliness here in Suffolk.”
“There are lots of good people here, and we need to carry on integrating, and sharing the message that as a society we need to live together.”
Mrs Begum also found Suffolk more welcoming than her father’s experiences elsewhere in the UK, where he was confronted by members of the British National Party. “For me, growing up in Ipswich, there’s been some issues with racism but generally I’ve found people went out of their way to be supporting and loving,” she said. “I’ve had very positive experiences here in Ipswich.”
Lydia Tse, who set up the Anglo Chinese Cultural Exchange in Ipswich 10 years ago, said the challenges for her community had been based around language.
While the first arrivals tended to be from Hong Kong, reflecting its time as a British colony, more people now come from mainland China, many to work for technology giant Huawei at its Adastral Park offices in Martlesham Heath.
Mrs Tse said some of the earliest migrants had struggled to integrate, even after many years.
“That’s what the ACCE is about,” she said. “We want to gather together and break down the barriers. Some older Chinese had lived here for years and still did not know any English. They just spent their time working in takeaway restaurants and going from home to work to home to work. The problem was that they did not know English and when they finished work they did not feel comfortable doing anything.
“So depression has been a big problem in the Chinese community as well as gambling. But step by step ACCE has taught many people simple English and taught them about UK culture. We must come together to make a society in harmony. That’s my idea, that’s why I set it up.”
KK Wong, 58, who is married to Mrs Tse, and cooks the food for ACCE’s lunchtime gatherings, first came to Ipswich from Hong Kong in 1980 to study at Suffolk College, and returned again 10 years ago. “The people were quite nice and friendly and I made a lot of friends here,” he said. “I like it here - it’s relaxed and not so fast as everything was in Hong Kong.”
Marisa Leung, 65, has lived in Hong Kong and London but moved to Ipswich 10 years ago. “I wanted more space, and the rent was cheaper,” she said. “I thought Ipswich might not be very mixed in its cultures and I might not like it but I’ve found it quiet, peaceful and very easy going.”
EU migrants who came to Ipswich with a dream of a better life
New arrivals to Ipswich from the EU describe the town as a place of opportunity.
Around half of Ipswich’s foreign-born population came from EU nations, many of them from central and eastern parts.
Marius Daniel Banceanu, 22, came from Romania in 2015 with the dream to become a doctor, having faced discrimination back home as a Roma person.
Although he said life was “very difficult” to begin with, things improved when he took English courses with Ipswich Community Media. He has since become a “cheerleader” for his community, motivating more than 100 others to take ICM’s classes. He was crowned “winner of winners” at the 2017 Suffolk Adult Learners’ Awards.
Since then he has worked for GYROS, supporting migrants in Suffolk, set up the Ipswich Roma Support Group, and is studying health and social care in London.
Mr Banceanu told ICM, Roma people had better access to services in the UK. “In Romania, many children didn’t go to school because their parents used to move city to city,” he said. “There wasn’t that pressure to go to school like there is in England, The government here really wants our children to go to school to have a better future.”
He said education could help Roma people learn their history and find new opportunities.
“Our future depends on our past,” he said. “School can give us the opportunity to show our talents. Many of our children are talented. In Romania they didn’t have the opportunity, but here we have this opportunity.”
Father Pawel Nawloka, priest at St James Church, where around 250 Polish people attend, said he had felt welcomed in the town.
After moving from Warsaw,he spent a year in Northampton before arriving to Ipswich in September, which he says is “cleaner and friendlier”. “There’s a good waterfront, nice pubs and it’s near the ocean,” he said. “The people are very kind and helpful.”
Father Pawel said most of his congregation came to the UK after Poland joined the EU. Many work in transport as mechanics and health workers. “Everybody seems very happy here,” he said.
His only complaint was about traffic – a view shared by much of the town’s native population.
His assistant priest Father Michael Lukaszczyk, added: “People here are friendly and I think it’s a lovely town, the people have been good to me. I think we have similar cultures, I like the English sense of humour and I like how people are polite.”
If you value what this story gives you, please consider supporting the Ipswich Star. Click the link in the orange box above for details.