June 14, 2007

Overcoming barriers to integration

Towns and cities across the UK are expected to be far more ethnically diverse in future.

Most are unlikely to end up resembling the Wood Green district of Haringey in north London, which ranks among the most culturally mixed boroughs in the country.

As a government-appointed commission comes up with new recommendations to improve relations between migrants and local communities in England, what do its residents feel about integration? The commission considers the inability to speak English to be the single biggest barrier to integration.

John Okono, 28, came to the UK from Nigeria - an English-speaking country - three years ago and can see how some of the immigrant friends he has made have become isolated because of a lack of language skills. Mr Okono, who is working as a security guard as he studies for a masters degree, can see himself applying for British citizenship one day.

"Whenever you come to a different country you have to integrate yourself with the culture and speaking the language is a very important part of that," he said.

It is a point not lost on charity worker Patricia Rodgers, who was brought up in Glasgow in the 1960s and 1970s and has lived in Haringey for three years, after a spell in Spain teaching English.

"It's definitely important for people to learn the language," she said. "I have taught it here to a lot of the Polish community and I'm going to start doing it again on a voluntary basis as there's a big need for it."

New shops

The shops of Wood Green, like most suburbs of London, offer clues to the changing make-up of its population.

Greek and Turkish-run grocers sit side-by-side Afro-Caribbean food retailers, Halal butchers and stores selling eastern European provisions. Accommodation advertisements in Polish, Russian and Chinese now appear in newsagent windows.

According to the 2001 Census, about 33% of Haringey's population of 216,000 were born outside the UK. White British people made up 45% of its residents.

Another message from people in Wood Green is that mixing with other residents is the key to becoming a more integrated community.

Emerging from a bagel shop is technician Mohammed Ali Hassan, 45, who came to the UK from Somalia in 2006 and has been granted asylum.

"I've only been here for a year so I don't really have friends of different nationalities yet - but when our children go to school, the parents have meetings and discussions so there integration takes place," he said.

Peter Cercek, 33, a computer worker who arrived from the Czech Republic in 2004, highlights a position communities moving to less diverse areas may find themselves in.

"For the first six months I only knew people from my country, but now I have friends of all different nationalities," he said. "If I lived in a small town I probably wouldn't mix, but there are so many different people it's impossible not to."

Sheraz Ahmed, 26, who came to London from Pakistan just five months ago, is working part-time on a stand selling telephone cards and studying English, ahead of starting an MBA. Friends he has made through work are from Mauritius and Albania, but his housemates are also Pakistani and he says he does not really know any British people.

"It's difficult to mix with other cultures when I've only been here for a short while," he said. "But that's why it's important to speak English."

The comments of student Christopher Lewis, 16, suggest that promotion of a common language more than Britishness is the most effective way to integrate communities in 2007. The UK-born son of Greek immigrants said he was not entirely at ease with being described as British.

"I've friends from Latvia and Africa but at the end of the day families always have tradition. You can socialise but your roots are going to be closer to you than your outside contacts," he said. "Some parts of me are British and some parts are not. The UK is a multi-cultural society now - it is not 'just British' anymore."


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