The immigration debate has fixated on hotspots such as Eastern Europe. So how do new arrivals from Tibet, Tristan da Cunha and other countries feel when they land on these shores?
Unurmaa Janchiv, Mongolian Translator and art manager, 46. Now in central London, Janchiv has lived in Britain since 1998
‘Mongolia was quite a closed Communist country when I was growing up. But, though I lived in a rural village, I loved Shakespeare and Sherlock Holmes and was intrigued by Europe – even if government propaganda told us that no one could enjoy their lives because of the tax burden.
“After studying in Russia, as it began to open up, I was able to come here to do a masters degree at the University of Westminster. I was quite exotic to some people. They wanted to know about our harsh winters and whether I lived in a ger, a Mongolian yurt (I did!). At school, people would call my little girl Chinese, much to her annoyance. ‘Please talk to my teachers!’ she protested. So I gave them some information about Mongolia and asked them to talk to the children, which helped.
“In about 2004, though, when my daughter was eight, a man in his fifties confronted us in an empty Tube carriage. He was from some sort of far-right group, and was putting their leaflets on all the seats, so we moved them and sat down. ‘Go back to Japan!’ he shouted in my face. We got off, but though people on the platform had heard what had happened, no one did anything. My daughter is still surprised by that.
“But I think Britons are becoming more tolerant. They read and travel more and I’ve put on exhibitions of Mongolian art that have been very well received. I do understand some worries about immigration, though. The UK has limited resources.
“I work with so many people of different nationalities, and I consider myself a global citizen, but I love living in Britain. It’s so well organised and democratic, with respect for human rights. Hopefully, in 100 years, Mongolia will be the same…”
Paulo de Almeida, Brazilian Indian Delivery driver, 43. Now in west London, Almeida has lived in Britain since 1999
Paulo de Almeida: ‘I only feel about 80 per cent Indian these days and 20 per cent British’ (David Vintiner)
‘I come from a village near the city of Campo Grande, and I love my Indian background [coming from the Terena tribe], but Britain is so much friendlier than Brazil. If you catch someone’s eye over there, they’ll say, ‘Why are you looking at me?’ Here, things are much more relaxed. There’s more respect.
“I realise it’s unusual for someone from an Indian tribe to be living in London – I know of only one other girl who does – but I came here to learn English while working in a kitchen. I later became a head barman, married a local and stayed. It’s nice.
“I remember when I got here, places like Brixton could be quite violent. But I think a lot of money has been put into regenerating buildings and making parks smarter and, even where the ethnic make-up is very mixed, people take more care of their areas now.
“People have mistaken me for Nepalese or Chinese, but when I tell them I’m a South American Indian, they say, “Ah, OK!” I think it makes me more interesting and they always treat me well. I have long black hair with no grey bits and people can’t believe how old I am. Good genes!
“But I only feel about 80 per cent Indian these days and 20 per cent British. I’m taking on more and more local characteristics – the way I dress, the way I talk. I’m even applying for citizenship.”
Rev Lorna Lavarello-Smith, Tristanian Church of England vicar, 51. From Tristan da Cunha, the world’s most remote inhabited island, Lavarello-Smith has lived in Britain for 16 years, currently in Northampton
Rev Lorna Lavarello-Smith: ‘There’s still too much negativity towards people coming here, particularly from the press’ (David Vintiner)
‘I’d always imagined Britain to be cold and drizzly, but also something of a utopia where everyone lived together in harmony. When I arrived here –initially, just to stay with my aunt for a bit – it was definitely cold and drizzly, but there was a lot more prejudice than I imagined.
“What’s always struck me as funny is that if you come to this country, you’re called an immigrant, but if you move from here to somewhere else, you’re an expat. There’s still too much negativity towards people coming here, particularly from the press. A black friend, who was born here, was even called a ‘nigger’ recently. It’s odd, because without foreign workers, things like the NHS would collapse.
“Most Brits don’t treat me as an incomer, because I look and sound English [Tristan is a British overseas territory, most of whose 300 residents have a West Country-sounding accent], and I stayed here because I married an Englishman. If I tell them where I’m from, I understand if they don’t know much about it – but it can be annoying if they say, ‘Oh, that’s like Pitcairn,’ or, as someone did the other day, ‘Isn’t the tiny gene pool making you all retarded?’ Still, that’s just their ignorance. Everyone in my community treats me very well.
“I have a British passport now, but I’ll always be a Tristanian. It’s my heritage, my home. Oddly, for such a remote community, we’re a very tolerant people, with a history of hospitality to all nationalities. That’s good training for a priest in a parish like mine, with such a diverse population.”
Anniell Olsen, Sami Theatre art student, 23. From Harstad, Norway, Olsen has lived in Britain since 2013
Anniell Olsen: ‘I think how you are treated as an incomer maybe depends on how well you speak the language’ (David Vintiner)
‘I came here to experience a big city; to get away from my little hometown of 23,000. But Brits really didn’t know what a Sami was – until Frozen came out, that is. ‘Kristoff is a Sami!’ I’d tell them. ‘He wears our national clothes and has a reindeer.’
“I couldn’t say that anyone has been rude to me because I’m foreign, though. I think how you are treated as an incomer maybe depends on how well you speak the language. One Eastern European girl in my class [at the University of Middlesex], whose English wasn’t that good, had to leave a university in the Midlands as she felt the other students didn’t accept her. But generally, I think Brits are quite tolerant.
“I’ve tried to maintain some Sami traditions while I’ve been here – such as making a sweet flatbread called bidos. I’d like to have had things like my kofte, the Sami national suit, with me, but it’s heavy, made from wool and very hot, so not terribly practical to pack or wear in this climate.
“I tried too hard to make friends with everyone in my first year in London. I’m more relaxed now, focusing on a smaller group of people; but when I finish my degree, I will go home. I miss walking around the mall and bumping into people – along with the snow, the Northern Lights, the midnight sun and sitting by the ocean eating shrimps and drinking wine with friends!”
Tsering Passang, Tibetan Charity sponsorship co-ordinator, 39. Now in Bexley, Passang has lived in Britain since 1996
Tsering Passang: ‘It’s sad when politicians play up the problems of immigration and certain nationalities’ (David Vintiner)
‘Though I am Tibetan, I was born and raised in a refugee camp in Nepal. My father, a nomad, had fled the Chinese regime.
“The Tibet Relief Fund was organising scholarships for young Tibetans to come and study at Weston College in Somerset, and I was lucky enough to get one. I did a BTEC diploma in computer studies.
“I think meeting me was a bit of a culture shock for some people in Weston-super-Mare. I had to explain to them that Tibet was the place with the Himalayas and the Dalai Lama. But that didn’t worry me. After all, as a Buddhist, I was ignorant about Christianity when I arrived here.
“I’ve read about racism in Britain in the papers, but I’ve not encountered it myself. I have easy access to lots of Buddhist centres and temples here to practise my beliefs, and I’ve never sensed any religious tension. Sometimes you might have teenagers throwing something at a bus you’re on. But when you’re a teenager, you’re just playing; you don’t mean anything by it.
“It’s sad when politicians play up the problems of immigration and certain nationalities. Nigel Farage and Romanians, for instance. If we focus on the positive stories and people in these communities, it will give their members more role models – and that will benefit everyone.
“I feel very fortunate to be able to live in and contribute to this country. I now work for the Tibet Relief Fund and I’m chairman of the Tibetan Community UK association. There are only about 700 Tibetans living here, but we are trying to share our Buddhist teachings, language and performing art and, as a peace-loving nation, I think we’ll help build a stronger society. I’m a proud British Tibetan!”