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Migrant Community Network: What does culture mean to you?

After presenting the ideas behind a new approach to a new Culture Strategy at the Health and Wellbeing Board, Mick Ward, Chief Officer for Adult Social Care suggested that I should speak to migrant and refugee communities. With more than 30 groups across Leeds it would be interesting to know how their culture is represented, if at all.

Every Tuesday morning an open drop-in is hosted at Tech North in Chapel Allerton. The drop-in session is run by Pria Bhabra as part of the Migrant Community Network bringing together a myriad of groups who are very different but share the common challenge of being from outside of the city, and trying to integrate whilst maintaining their own culture. As is the way with drop-ins there is no agenda and no list of expected attendees. There is a two hour slot, you come if you want, and when you want.

My knowledge of migrant communities and in particular refugees is naïve at best. I have never worked with these communities before and only have the erratic and polarised view of the media on which to build a perception of what their culture might be. I went along expecting a room of vulnerable people, with a limited understanding of the city’s cultural offer. I was expecting lots of questions about housing, education, employment and the issues of daily life which often come before a conversation about culture.

Instead I found kind and generous people offering help to others despite their own challenges. People for whom culture was first and foremost, not something that happened once the practicalities are sorted.

Ethiopia, Eritrea, Sudan, Swahili, Slovakia, Syria, Iran and the Dominican Republic were all sitting around the table and noting others who couldn’t make it that week. They took turns to talk about what was on their mind as one person presented a challenge another in the group was quick to offer support. “I want to start a women’s group, but I don’t how” was met with “I have a free time slot on Thursday mornings and have done this loads of times, I’ll help you.”

Martyn Butler, Courtesy of I Like Press and Leeds Indie Food
Martyn Butler, Courtesy of I Like Press and Leeds Indie Food

When the conversation slowed Pria introduced the topic of culture and asked what it meant to people.

People started to rattle off a list of things that they take part in – language, crafts, sports, skills and education in the form of practical English lessons (how to understand letters that come home from schools, as opposed to how to order a Flat White), and computer courses.

Food is ever present, a connection to another world, one that wasn’t always hard. Whether celebrating or comforting it’s present in every event. The food is often the first step in bringing people together. Many of the social groups – men’s groups, women’s group, after school clubs, meetings and briefings – include food in some form. It’s not intrusive it’s just there in the background quietly uniting people and taking some of the sting out of what needs to be discussed.

There were some cultures that I expected, sewing, knitting, crocheting in women’s group to name a few, but I wasn’t expecting the reason behind why some of these cultures are so important to the communities who engage in them. One lady recounted her memory of being with a group of people in an unfamiliar village with no money to pay for the hotel. Her skills in arts and crafts gave her an income and protected her family. Everybody understood, it’s in their heritage and their recent history. Culture in this instance has become security, something that nobody can take away from you.

It’s still raw for many in the room and the conversation focuses on the sense of community. Having nothing, but sharing everything, helping each other and getting through it. Using culture, from poetry, visual art, creative writing, singing and dance to express how we feel, to unite with others who feel the same and to uplift despite the content of those cultural activities telling stories of oppression, prejudice and difficulty. It’s also a way of remembering, passing on the stories to the next generation and never forgetting where you came from, regardless of where you are now.

Tom Joy, Courtesy of I Like Press and Leeds Indie Food
Tom Joy, Courtesy of I Like Press and Leeds Indie Food

We spend a long time talking about community as a culture of sorts. Someone in the room says that where they are from the community raises children. Everyone nods. Each person has a story of children staying at home while parents go to work, of being outside all day, of children running the household and caring for the elderly. If read in a newspaper in the UK it would be unthinkable, but it’s a different way of life not a form of abuse and many have fond memories of their own childhood. There is a consensus in the room that British and other European communities are broken. That trust doesn’t exist among communities here and that the rules are difficult to understand.

Someone in the group makes the point that African cultures identify very strongly with being African as opposed to Kenyan, Nigerian, Sudanese. They have these individual traits but the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. European cultures don’t have this – you’re French or German, or British not European, maybe this is why the communities in Europe feel broken and disparate?

Gaining employment and therefore self-respect is also difficult. People don’t know how to apply for jobs, even if they are skilled they end up in low paid jobs because they don’t understand the UK system. This becomes a vicious cycle as people feel that if you are low paid people perceive you differently and assume that you are unskilled.

Family life is different here too. There is a feeling that children and young people are portrayed as a nuisance. There is fear and mistrust. It’s difficult to explain to a child from a different culture where children run free outside and spend hours unsupervised, that you have to stay indoors and that shouting in the street isn’t welcome. No one knows why, it’s just how it is here.

Cultural difference is a problem, the British expect please and thank you. People aren’t being rude they just don’t know that that is the custom and it feels alien and can feel silly at times. I imagine myself going to a different country and never saying please or thank you and think how strange it must feel and how I wouldn’t be able to keep it up for long. We are who we are, to be constantly asked to change that must feel like a discrimination of sorts.

Racism and persecution is a present memory, and the people in the room are alert to it. Our cultural differences are sensationalised in press and social media, rather than celebrated. The group spends a while sharing stories of racism. It isn’t an angry conversation just a matter of fact. Interestingly the racism isn’t necessarily black versus white, it exists across all cultures and communities. This community has a perception of that community painting them as thieves, scroungers and worse. One man is very pragmatic. He says that people don’t understand rules and often come from a place of dictatorship where the rules were clear but enforced with fear. Democracy is new and unknown. Some people go too far with it.

We continue to share the cultures from around the table. One man runs and Ethiopian radio station called Lucy Radio, after the first human skeleton which was found in Ethiopia. It also turns out that this isn’t 2016 at all, in Ethiopia it is only 2008. Others have different calendars too and different religious celebrations. The group don’t go into detail about religion focusing more on the way it is celebrated than the customs and cultures of it. The group finds its stride with the idea of celebrations. Everyone in the room knows how to celebrate and values it as a huge part of their culture – music, food, dance, community, people, and family.

We talk about Christmas and how strange it is for many. Apparently the UK is the only European nation to celebrate on the 25th December – everyone else celebrates on the 24th. It’s also strange for many that on the 25th December our streets are quiet, save for a few people showing off their new bikes. Everyone else is used to a carnival atmosphere, a special time when the community is at its strongest.

At points the conversation has been funny and surprising (who knew we were eight years ahead?!) but at others it has been an uncomfortable account of migrant cultures in Leeds. The group are full of life, generosity and warmth but have very real challenges that affect their quality of life and their experience of the city and don’t see their cultures reflected back at them and celebrated as part of the life and vibrancy of Leeds.

Many of the people in the room have left or lost their life as they knew it for many reasons. Some hoped to build a better life, while others fled the horrors of war. It’s perhaps not surprising then the most important element of culture for this group is the one that cannot be taken away.

“Culture is about people. The city should fight for people not buildings.”


The Migrant Community Network is an award winning migrant and community training programme working with groups from across Leeds. The network has an open meeting every Tuesday morning from 10am at Tech North.


  1. Mick Ward Mick Ward

    Great piece Leanne

    Keep in touch with the groups as they form their own Leeds culture, informed by their past, present ad futures

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