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Milena Popova

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What Have Immigrants Ever Done For Us?

Posted: 10/10/2011 15:00

Apart from a ten-line blip in a seven-page speech David Cameron made back in April, whenever immigration comes up in the news in this country it is in a negative context. Ed Balls says Labour let too many of the likes of me in, and Theresa May seems to think that the country is overrun by evil immigrant cats - or something like that. Yet every day, millions of immigrants work hard, pay our taxes and try to contribute to the British economy and society as best we can - much like everyone else in the country. Here are some examples of what immigrants do for this country.

Work hard

The lady who cleans my house every couple of weeks is Bulgarian and works for an agency where the majority of the staff are from my native country too. This is not because of some Great Immigrant Conspiracy; but when I was looking for a cleaner I left voicemails for about five different companies, and by the time I got to this one I was so fed up I didn't even bother. Five minutes later my phone rang: "We're sorry we missed your call, madam. How can we help?" It was only when the proprietor turned up at my house to assess it that we found out we were from the same country.

My cleaner works hard. Sometimes she gets in at 7.30 in the morning, before I've left for work, and sometimes she leaves my house at 6pm and goes to yet another client. She puts up with all my idiosyncrasies, the constant mess that is my house thanks to my full-time job and numerous extracurricular activities, the occasional last-minute request for her to rearrange her entire schedule and please come back later. On top of that, most of the staff at the agency are doing NVQ qualifications in order to improve the service they give customers.

My cleaner and her colleagues are not the only ones who work hard. Claudia is from Germany. She works with autistic people. Michelle is American. She works as a producer and project manager for performance artists. Currently she is working on a project involving the performance of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in various languages, including Sign. The nuclear physics group of a certain Scottish university is made up of 15 people of ten different nationalities. Immigrants can be found in every profession and walk of life, working hard to contribute to the economy and make a better life for themselves and their families.

Play hard

Sometimes even when we play, we work. When my Scottish friend Morna put out a call on Twitter earlier this year for developers, marketers and media professionals to help her start up her business using the unique "Sweatshop" method, I am not sure what she expected. What she got was a motley crew of 30 or so passionate professionals. While there were sizable English and Scottish contingents among us, immigrants were disproportionately represented. About a third of the Founders' Team came from all over the world: Slovenia, Poland, Italy, Israel, Australia, South Africa, Denmark. In exchange for free food and lodgings and a small number of shares in the start-up, we travelled to Dundee and put three weekends' worth of hard graft into bootstrapping a business from nothing. We didn't do it for the money, nor for the glory. We did it because it was fun and because we believed in the project: a social platform with the potential to revolutionise adult and higher education in this country.

The FlockEdu crowd aren't the only ones combining work and play. Kathryn, who is Canadian, uses her skills as a musician and composer to run her local church choir. Iman, a writer of Pakistani origin who grew up in Saudi Arabia, donates her time and skills to various campaigning groups and political publications. Even in something as British as the recent referendum on the voting system, we had a fair number of immigrants doing their bit to improve democratic representation for UK citizens.

Care in the community

It often strikes me how disproportionately engaged immigrants are in the communities I'm involved with. At the Star & Shadow, a small, entirely volunteer-run cinema and arts space in Newcastle where I occasionally help out, people from all over the world are at the heart of the community, side by side with our British friends. Stephanie from France runs great seasons of foreign films or cult British television sci-fi. Yaron from Israel puts on gigs with the most weird and wonderful local bands, giving them a much-needed opportunity for exposure. Cathy from China pulls pints like a pro behind the Star & Shadow bar.

Edinburgh, too, has its own volunteer-run arts space. After the bankruptcy of their landlord, the Forest Café is currently on hiatus while trying to raise enough money to buy the building they have called their home for over a decade. Yet you only need to listen to the voices in their fundraising video to understand the passion of all their volunteers and the important contribution immigrants make to the project.

I spoke to Margarida, a 23-year-old Portuguese woman who is a Volunteer Coordinator and member of the Forest Action Team. For her, the Forest is a home and a family. Even after her European Volunteer Service funding ran out, Margarida chose to stay in Edinburgh.

"I couldn't leave the Forest behind in such a crucial moment. Right now, the Forest needs everyone and I'm here to help bring the Forest back with everything I have to give, be it time, energy, creativity."

She wants to make sure that the Forest lives and continues to provide a unique and amazing space and service to everyone in Edinburgh. At the same time, she is making new friends, learning new skills, developing projects old and new. Margarida finds Edinburgh as a city and the Forest as a community warm and welcoming - only the British press with its persistently negative coverage of immigration worries her; though, she adds cynically, it doesn't surprise her.

Not only arts spaces but also charities which provide vital services often benefit from the contribution of immigrant volunteers. Mara, from the US, runs the Abortion Support Network - the only charity which provides practical help and funds to women from Northern and Southern Ireland who need to travel to England for an abortion. She and her small volunteer team provide a non-judgmental listening service, factual and impartial information, and much-needed funds and accommodation for women who otherwise would not be able to access safe and legal abortions. Immigrant volunteers are at the heart of the "Big Society".

An experience many of us immigrants have in common is a kind of multiple personality disorder we observe in the country we have chosen to make our home. One on one, as individuals, we are welcomed by our British friends. We find communities we can contribute to and integrate in. We find people who reach out a helping hand, like the English Language Conversation Group at the Star & Shadow. We find our contributions valued. When, however, it comes to political gain and newspaper circulations, things turn quickly to an "us and them" mentality which is healthy for no one.

Recognising immigrants' contributions to this country is the first step towards recognising how much we all have to learn from each other - and how much we can all gain from truly being "in this together".

 

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