Amid Brexit tumult over immigration, Leicester offers a different path

Part 9 of Who is 'Europe'?, a weekly series on how European natives and residents are responding to pressures from terrorism, migration, nationalism, and the 'European project.'

Fans attend a parade celebrating the Premier League championship of Leicester City in Leicester, England, on May 16, 2016.

Thursday's referendum on Britain’s membership in the European Union has kicked up a storm of questions over sovereignty, identity, and especially the threat that migration poses to both. In public opinion tracking by YouGov, voters supporting “Brexit” consistently say immigration is their driving motivation. And the immigrant question here has often been framed as a zero-sum game where Britain stands to lose.

But amid a polarizing and often xenophobic debate, there stands Leicester.

This former manufacturing hub in the 1970s showed an anti-immigrant reflex that's not unlike the sentiments driving Britain to the brink of leaving the EU today. But waves of newcomers came to the city anyway, from Indians to Somalis to Eastern Europeans, transforming Leicester into one of the most diverse places in all of Europe. Based on census data from 2011, it is one of a handful of cities with white Britons as a minority population.

And now, everyone – from religious leaders to elected officials, restaurant owners to taxi drivers – agrees that Britishness here hasn’t been chipped away by newcomers, but rather expanded by absorbing them. In fact, the city that once sought to keep Leicester sealed off from a foreign influx today gets lauded for the “Leicester model” – the harmonious co-existence of different faith and ethnic communities.

“If modern British identity is people from lots of different backgrounds kind of rubbing along together without any serious issues, that is what Leicester tends to do," says Nick Carter, the former editor-in-chief of the Leicester Mercury newspaper. "It’s not some kind of utopia. It has lots of challenges. But at the moment, the problems seem to be ones that communities tackle in a harmonious kind of way, rather than becoming divided by them.”

Unwanted immigration

About one hour north of London at the heart of England, the terraced housing and brick chimneys give testament to Leicester’s role in the manufacturing of hosiery and footwear. In the 20th century, it was said that “Leicester clothes the world,” and outsiders always came to find work here.

But defenses didn’t go up until Ugandan dictator Idi Amin expelled his country's Indian population – at a time in Britain when colonial immigrants who arrived after World War II were changing the make-up of the country. They were drawn to the textile jobs in Leicester, but locals feared that newcomers would take spots in schools and beds in hospitals. The town council even placed an ad in the newspaper in Uganda admonishing the evicted Indians not to come here.

But the migrants came anyway. From 1968 to 1975, the ethnic minority population in the city grew from 5 percent to 25 percent. The white supremacist National Front held rallies here. It became known as a place where race trouble was rearing its head.

Ibrahim Mogra arrived here from Malawi in 1982. “Go home Paki,” he heard often. He says he remembers feeling like an outcast. He went from being “white” in Africa, to being “black” in England, he says, although he’s never been either – he is of Gujarati Indian descent.

Mr. Mogra came here with plans to study medicine. Instead he studied theology, and is now an imam and leading figure in the Muslim community of Leicester. And that’s put him on the forefront of bridging the “white” and “black” divide here.

Building bridges

A cornerstone of the “Leicester model” is interfaith work that began in 1986 between Anglicans, Muslims, Hindus, Sikhs, Jews, and others and continues today, addressing the various tensions that arise between groups over time.

St. Philip’s Church, a simple redbrick edifice, faces the walls of Masjid Umar, one of the largest mosques of Leicester, where men are congregating after prayers during Ramadan on a recent day. It is here that St. Philip’s Center, an interfaith group, was founded 10 years ago, at a time when suspicions fell over the Muslim community after the terrorist attacks of 9/11 and later the London bombings. The juxtaposition of the church and mosque tells the story of the center's aim, says the Rev. Tom Wilson, the director. When a building like a mosque in what was predominantly a white, Christian community rises, it can seem threatening, but it can also be an opportunity.

Their work is always ongoing. Most recently, the group brokered encounters between Leicester's small Jewish community and its much larger Muslim one, after the terrorist attack on a kosher supermarket in Paris raised concerns about anti-Semitism in Muslim communities.

“Because we have the concept of the 'Leicester model' of everyone getting on well ... we assume that [bridge-building work] is just going to happen,” says Fr. Wilson. “It happens because a relatively small group of people work very hard to make sure that is happening.”

The local newspaper also has played a major role in tempering ethnic conflict. Carter, who ran the Leicester Mercury from 1993 until 2009, says that when Somalis started arriving during his tenure, there were turf wars between the Afro-Caribbeans who were already here. But while the paper's reporters covered it, they never sensationalized it. It never went on the front page.

He recalls one incident in which a Somali woman’s headscarf was pulled off and a knife fight ensued. Reporters followed the arrests and court case with names, not nationalities. Editors never splashed headlines that could prove fear-mongering, like “Is this the beginning of racial trouble?” “There was a certain element of news management going on,” says Carter.

Leicester rising

Leicester has traditionally had a reputation for a certain dullness, but that has changed in recent years. Queen Elizabeth launched her Diamond Jubilee tour here in 2012. Later that year the bones of Richard III were found under a parking lot and reburied last year in spectacular pageantry. And the Foxes, the city’s soccer club, against 5,000 to 1 odds captured the English Premier League title this spring.

The city's rising, optimistic profile has also meant that as the migration debate has become shrill in Britain, many are looking more closely at the “Leicester model.”

Upon the Brexit referendum, the debate has centered on Eastern Europeans, who as EU members since 2004 have the right to live and work here. But with the refugee crisis and looming threat of terrorism, fears of EU migration have been easily conflated with all immigration. Nigel Farage, the leader of the UK Independence Party, issued a poster last week with a queue of refugees that read: “Breaking Point: The EU has failed us.”

In some ways, Leicester doesn’t have transferrable solutions. The first significant group of newcomers, Asians from Africa, had already been successful entrepreneurs – and migrants – and quickly became part of the answer as textile jobs got displaced to Asia. The "Golden Mile," a stretch of Indian restaurants, goldsmiths, and spice shops, bears witness to that today.

“They came to Leicester bringing very little more than a suitcase, but a lot of ambition and very considerable entrepreneurial skills,” says Leicester Mayor Peter Soulsby.

And that entrepreneurial spirit remains the backbone of the economy today. Leicester has the fastest business growth rate outside London, and its population continues to grow. With an unemployment rate of 1.9 percent, a 10-year low, Leicester can absorb the most recent Eastern European migrants without resentments seen elsewhere.

Not 'Great' Britain

One of Leicester’s challenges is that its neighborhoods tend to be ethnically monolithic – with exceptions such as Narborough Road, which the London School of Economics deemed the most diverse in the UK with at least 22 cultures operating small shops along it. Still, there is such diversity – religious and ethnic – within the minority groups that it’s easier to integrate everyone, as opposed to a minority bloc within a settled community.

And the Leave camp finds supporters here too. Dharmesh Lakhani, who runs the restaurant Bobby’s, a vegetarian Indian restaurant established by his family in 1976 on the “Golden Mile,” says he is voting Leave not to stop immigration but to control it because too many Europeans have come here escaping their economic woes.

As he shares his views he recognizes the contradictions in his position. His family arrived from Uganda after the advertisement warned them to stay put. And they have been an undeniable success story. His eldest son is studying medicine at Oxford University. But he worries about the path of his country. “The ‘great’ is not in Great Britain anymore,” he says. “I find it difficult.”

Still, he abhors Mr. Farage’s anti-immigrant tactics and says it has gained no traction here. This time when Britain First, the far-right nationalist party, set up stalls in the town center during the Brexit campaign, they were told to go home by locals and the mayor.

'I'm English'

Most people here don’t subscribe to the fact that Britishness has been lost by new customs or flavors arriving. Suleman Nagdi, of the Federation of Muslim Organizations, says that when he hears that the United Kingdom “is not like the way it used to be,” he often tests the statement.

“What do they mean by used to be?” he asks. "How far back do we go to the history of this great country? Do we talk about when the Vikings were here? Or when the Romans were here? Which part of history do we freeze in time?”

Mogra says he is proof that identity can simply continue to expand. He is of Indian descent and Muslim, African-born, and now British living in England. “For a number of years I have been saying I’m English. Some English people might say, ‘Are you sure?’ ”

His answer is “yes,” though he doesn’t have an easy time answering why. Some things are banal, others perhaps universal. For starters, English courtesy comes naturally to him, whether that means holding a door or refraining from honking his horn if someone cuts in front of him. “Putting up with the rain and getting on with it,” he adds. And most recently no one could deny his Englishness when he headed out to the streets to celebrate the Foxes’ improbable victory. “Leicesterians of all colors celebrated,” he says.

“If you allow yourself to be positively influenced and enriched by what other cultures have to offer, you end up with a hybrid culture that will be the best one because you end up with the best of it all.” Which is essentially what he thinks Leicester has to offer, here and in a changing Europe.

But Mayor Soulsby, in line with what is often described as a humble city that keeps its head down, is wary of the term the "Leicester model."

The victory of the Foxes, and the burial of Richard III, has thrust Leicester into an unaccustomed spotlight. Soulsby marvels that on a recent trip to Austin, Texas, people actually knew how to pronounce his city's name: Le-ster. And he is willing to concede that the queen's choice of Leicester as a launching point for her tour "did not happen by accident.”

But he quickly reverts back to understatement. “We think Leicester says something good about modern Britain.”

This was part 9 of Who is 'Europe'?, a weekly series on how European natives and residents are responding to pressures from terrorism, migration, nationalism, and the 'European project.' See all of the stories on the series homepage.

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Britain, immigration, and Brexit

The city of Leicester is not alone in its diversity. Most former industrial cities of England are a cosmopolitan melting pot. And identity has expanded over the decades, folding newcomers into British culture. Unlike many parts of Europe, if you ask a second- or third-generation son of immigrants where he is from and he says “Britain,” it doesn’t automatically lead to the follow-up, “Yes, but from where?” There is nothing more British than going out for a curry.

So why has the question of immigration – specifically the Europeans from within the EU – been so unsettling here, fueling the Leave campaign in the upcoming referendum on European Union membership?

Sunder Katwala, the director of British Future in London, says that questions about race and identity, while not always easy, were largely settled in the 1990s. “I think the immigration debate is much less about race than it was,” he says. “The anxiety [today] is about the pace of change rather than the fact of change.”

Britain started changing after World War II, when the battered and impoverished country needed workers. Across Britain’s worldwide network of colonies, British employers and the government itself began advertising jobs – and better incomes – in the United Kingdom. Colonial residents, who had British citizenship and often spoke fluent English, responded, moving to Britain by the tens of thousands to work as bus drivers, factory workers, post office clerks, military support staff, and seamstresses.

The migration stream kept up until 1962, when Parliament passed an act restricting it, but by then society had already changed dramatically. In 1945, Britain counted only a few thousand non-white residents. By 1970, the number of non-white residents had risen to 1.4 million.

As Britain turned into a multicultural society, it was not without significant tensions. Pakistanis, many of whom settled in clusters in large numbers in northern industrial manufacturing towns where segregation remains a problem, have struggled economically. Some 60 percent of Pakistanis live in poverty compared with 25 percent of Indians. And with new threats of terrorism, Muslims generally are under new scrutiny.

But by-and-large Commonwealth immigration has been settled – and is considered a success.

Yet questions over EU migration – particularly from poorer Eastern European countries that joined the bloc in 2004 – have led to a novel divide in British society. Despite often looking very different from Anglo-Saxons, colonial immigrants are now part of the British fabric, while fair-skinned eastern Europeans are the targeted "immigrant class."

In 2014 256,000 EU citizens moved to Britain, far exceeding government targets. Many call 2004 a new turning point in Britain's immigration debate.

While xenophobia has marked the Brexit referendum, many would argue that concerns over immigration policy are more about fears over a loss of control over borders – not renewed racism.

Mr. Katwala uses the term “anxious middle" for these voters. They are not anti-immigrant – and are even proud of Britain’s diversity, and especially its history helping refugees – but they are worried about the impact of large numbers of new arrivals and a seeming British impotence to do anything about it.

Still the times are just as divisive between groups of "them" versus "us." The parents of Londoner Michelle Safo arrived from the Caribbean nation of St. Vincent in the 1960s and worked as a seamstress and a bus conductor. Now Ms. Safo’s mother wants Britain to leave the EU. “I asked her why,” Ms. Safo explains. “She said: ‘Because of all the Eastern European immigrants.’ I said, ‘That’s what they said about you when you came.’ ”

Elisabeth Braw / Correspondent and Sara Miller Llana / Staff writer

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