What Do London's Poles Feel About Brexit?

Will Noble
By Will Noble Last edited 27 months ago

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What Do London's Poles Feel About Brexit?
Eva and David, who run Sówka on the Old Kent Road

Poles have been an intrinsic part of Britain since joining with the Allies during the second world war. Since then they've enriched our country — particularly London, where Poles account for about 4.5% of the foreign-born population — with their culture, cuisine and construction skills. From the Polski sklep to Polish jazz to bathroom fittings to our greedy appreciation of pierogi, they've given us a lot. There's something about London they love, and the feeling has been by and large mutual.

But in the aftermath of Brexit, London has witnessed an undercurrent of uncharacteristic xenophobia bubble to the surface, with hate graffiti appearing on Hammersmith's Polish Social and Cultural (POSK) centre for the first time in its 49-year history.

Many Londoners have responded with a combination of embarrassment, warmth and bouquets of flowers. But what do London's Poles themselves make of the unfolding events? And was POSK an isolated incident?

"Friday morning, people were panicking," says David, who runs the Sówka Polski sklep on Old Kent Road with his wife Eva.

"Personally I was very calm. I knew nothing's going to happen soon. But the two other girls that work here were like 'oh my god, what we gonna do now?', and the customers were the same.

"I said 'calm down, it was a vote of the people. They said what they wanted to.'"

David and Eva have lived in south London for about 13 years, and had the shop since 2014. Around 90% of their customers come from Poland and Eastern Europe, but there's a strong base of Colombians and English too, who come for the sausage and cuts of meat — at this time of year to barbecue in nearby Burgess Park.

As David explains to a customer what kind of sour cream Sówka he stocks, there's not the slightest hint of turmoil in the air. But doesn't the Brexit vote mean an uncertain future for David and Eva, and their child, here in London?

"I've been here for 13 years and I don't think they will kick me out, says David, "there's no way. They can't really kick all the people coming from other countries...if they kick them all, who's going to work here?"

Aga has lived in London for five years, and is eligible to apply for British residency from November

That's the opinion of Aga too. She works at the trendy budget Polish restaurant Mamuśka! in Elephant and Castle.

"Nobody really knows what's going to happen," she says, "so we panic a little bit and we speculate what's going to be the rules now.

"People are saying that they're going to send us home. But I don't think they will, because you can't kick anyone out. It'll probably be more restrictions and rules for people coming in."

You always find people who are going to do something stupid. There's no way you can stop this.

It's true that in the nascent stages of Brexit, it's unlikely much will happen regarding the country's stance on immigration. But Brexit has speckled the minds of Polish, and many other immigrants, with uneasy questions, and perhaps the sense they don't quite belong here quite as much as they did last Thursday. Aga, for instance, admits a distant concern that one day she may take a trip to Poland, only to find she isn't allowed back into England.

Meanwhile, what about the country's apparent surge in overt racism, particularly towards Poles?

"Things like this happen," says David, "You always find people who are going to do something stupid. There's no way you can stop this. It doesn't matter if it's English people to Polish or Polish to Russia. This kind of thing happens.

"I used to work for Addison Lee, so the people are always saying we are 'hardworking people', so it was more in a good way than a bad way.

"I personally haven't experienced anything bad."

Ian Coll's business has received a threatening phone call since Brexit

But to suggest the POSK incident is a London one-off would be folly. Everyone from the Polish Embassy to the outgoing British prime minister have spoken about their concerns of racism finding a voice again. And while Londoners might want to believe that's the sort of thing that only usually happens Anywhere Else in the UK, that isn't the case.

As the Scottish-Canadian owner of Mamuśka! Ian Coll explains, Brexit has prompted an alarming reaction from some dark corners of the city: "We've had threatening phone calls," he says. "Somebody called up saying saying 'Isn't it great that you're going to have to go home now.'

"We've taken precautions to ensure that my customers, most of whom are not Polish, and my staff, most of whom are Polish, are going to be safe."  

The Poles are keeping calm and carrying on.

If Brexit is a wake-up call for the UK, it's ringing extra loud for London — a city which only just voted in a Muslim mayor, and must have thought it had boarded the high-speed train to progression.

Still, the same kind of people sympathised with POSK over the past few days are the same who will help to heal the wounds, and galvanise support for London's Polish community, places like Mamuśka!, and indeed, immigrant communities all over the city.

"I had my busiest week ever last week," says Ian, "that's partly because of the football. But it's also because people are voting with their feet and they're voting with their mouths and they're eating the food."

And says Ian, the Poles are, somewhat ironically, retaining a stiff-upper lip about the whole situation:

"Our staff are showing their support too by not panicking and showing that fantastic British wartime piece of mind that says Keep Calm and Carry On.

"That's what the Poles are doing now. They're keeping calm and carrying on."

Last Updated 29 June 2016