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Wednesday, 27 June, 2001, 17:06 GMT 18:06 UK
Britain's newcomers celebrated
Suitcases and sanctuary
Spitalfields is a highly diverse area ethnically
By the BBC's Jo Episcopo

The area of Spitalfields, a stones throw from London's prosperous financial centre and home to Brick Lane the heart of the capital's Bangladeshi community, has long been a sanctuary for newcomers to Britain.

In an unrestored 1719 Huguenot silk merchant's home which later became a synagogue for exiled Russian Jews in the 19th Century, an exhibition called Suitcases and Sanctuary has opened to mark Refugee Week.

It was the idea of putting the hysteria of the moment into a historical context and say, look we've coped with immigration for more than 300 years

Suzie Symes of the Spitalfields Centre

Suitcases and Sanctuary explores immigration to this area from the time of the Huguenots right through to the present day Bangladeshi and Somali communities.

It also encompasses the experience of the Irish, Jewish and commonwealth communities who came in search of refuge be it from famine or religious and political persecution.

Perfect opportunity

The exhibition has paintings, video installations, poetry and artwork that spills out of battered brown suitcases to underline the experience of arriving in an alien land with little more than the contents of a suitcase.

It has been put together by local schoolchildren with the idea of giving them a better understanding of other cultures.

But it has also proved the perfect opportunity to show how over the centuries immigrant communities have shaped Britain as a nation and contributed to British society out of all proportion to their numbers.

Susie Symes who chairs the Spitalfields Centre believes the exhibition is more than timely - given the current climate where certain sections of the media and politicians scapegoat refugees and asylum seekers.

Powerful exercise

"It was the idea of putting the hysteria of the moment into a historical context and say, look we've coped with immigration for more than 300 years, and a lot more than that we've benefited from it," she says.

The exhibition mirrors the history and ethnic diversity of Spitalfields and is essentially a powerful exercise in tolerance and understanding.

Suitcases and sanctuary
Plans are afoot for a museum of immigration
Artists, poets, and actors worked in schools getting the children to borrow the histories of each other's immigration experiences to tell the story of Spitalfields.

Somali children made diaries about the Irish exodus to this area following the potato famine, Bengali children wrote poems about recent refugee arrivals, while in a video children from a predominantly Moslem school act out a Russian Jewish folk tale.


Within the next four years this historical site is to become Europe's first ever Museum of Immigration.

The aim is to make it into the kind of museum of immigration which in America or Australia promotes mainstream awareness of minority groups' experiences.

Funding and a full awareness of the issues are still along way off but Susie Symes believes Refugee Week is a powerful stepping stone towards that goal.

She says it helps "projects dispel some of the misconceptions and to talk about the issues honestly and openly, while it also helps all of us to celebrate the presence of refugees here, their survival and the positive things they bring to us".

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See also:

08 Jun 01 | Arts
Photos capture British ethos
02 Jul 99 | South Asia
Skilled immigrants 'create jobs'
10 Apr 00 | Scotland
Asylum-seekers policy under fire
23 Jun 01 | UK
Events celebrate refugees
20 Jun 01 | Scotland
Asylum relations on the menu
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