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Iram Sarwar Headshot

The Death of Multiculturalism?

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Multiculturalism is dead in the UK. Or, that seems to be the message delivered by some of the highest figures in British politics.

Gordon Brown once stated that multiculturalism had "become an excuse for justifying separateness" and called for a "stronger sense of patriotic purpose." In 2011, David Cameron denounced multiculturalism, claiming that it had "encouraged different cultures to live separate lives" and has recently stated that he intends to stop printing welfare paperwork in foreign languages in a bid to end the 'The Benefits Street culture.'

The Mayor of Newham, Sir Robin Wales, followed suit towards the end of last year and 'declared war' on multicultralism in one of the most multicultural and diverse areas of Britain, in a bid to increase integration. The Mayor cut translation services by 72%, removed all foreign language newspapers from libraries and refused to fund single community events. All in a borough with a white population of only 17% and where almost 150 different languages are spoken. The effects of the policy are now hitting the community.

The aim of the policy, according to Wales, is to create "greater community cohesion" and to encourage the people of Newham to learn English. However, think tanks such as Migrant Watch UK and organisations that work closely with migrant communities question whether such a move will encourage people to learn English or further isolate the most vulnerable, leaving them without the help they need.

In theory this policy does make sense. However, what I've seen as a resident of Newham and as a reporter for London360, a Community Channel magazine show, where we created a special report on the topic, is that cutting these services does nothing for community cohesion, and only isolates those who have sought sanctuary in the borough.

In my quest to find out what affect such a policy has on multiculturalism I stumbled across 79-year-old Priyonath Daniel Singh; a man who has lived and worked as a nurse in hospitals around Newham since the late 1960s. Life for Daniel has been far from easy. After family tragedies and increasing pressures, Daniel became an alcoholic. His addiction meant he replaced his home, his children and his wife with alcohol.

"The nearest and dearest to my heart was alcohol, I used to live in the gutters and was arrested a few times."

20 years later, Daniel has fully recovered and he has the multicultural services in Newham to thank. "In the place of drinks, as I used to carry drinks in my bag, I turned myself to books. I used to visit every library in Newham and look for Indian papers." The removal of these services has left vulnerable people like Daniel feeling isolated.

"I was shocked when everything was removed, I was very depressed, very depressed, they have taken our roots away from us."

The removal of services like foreign language newspapers may not seem like a big deal. At a time when services are being cut left, right and centre and when there seems to be bigger problems in the world than a few elderly people wanting to read some newspapers in their local libraries when the same papers are said to be available online. However, the question is, are these services being cut to actually save money or to fulfill the ideological motives of one man who is on a quest to make his borough more integrated and "British?"

Estelle Du Boulay, the director of the Newham Monitoring Project, an anti-racist organisation based in Upton Park, argue that the removal of these services, especially the papers,"is diluting what is beautiful about our borough." Having translation services and foreign language papers, the organisation adds, "is a sign of the very diverse communities that live here and is an acknowledgement that people come from other countries and have come and contributed to Newham. It's part of the richness and value of people here."

Daniel is not the only person left reeling from the effects of such a policy. The Ekta project, a group for vulnerable asian seniors, is just one of many groups left isolated. The group regularly met at local libraries to read language papers to combat the loneliness and isolation often felt by the elderly. Yet since the cuts, the group has broken down and many of the project's members have stopped attending services. Dr Ramesh Verma, the project's CEO has spoken out against the cuts: "The Mayor said that he wants people to learn English, that's fine, people should learn how to read and write English. But you can't just force people who aren't even well, who have mental health problems and dementia to learn English and read newspapers, that will take another 20 or 30 years and it's already too late for them."

David Goodhart, Director of think-tank Demos boldly argued, "Why should there be a public subsidy for celebrating your cultural heritage?" But why shouldn't there be? Shouldn't we be celebrating the diversity of this country, even in places like Newham? The same diversity that was prominently put on display when the Olympics came to town? Instead of suppressing it in the name of integration. Does integration mean an Indian face that thinks, talks and walks like a true Brit (whatever that may be), with no real differences, no real diversity and with no culture or 'Indianess'? Translation services need to run side by side with English lessons. It can't be one or the other. The truth is that a truly liberal society is in fact a multicultural one.

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