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City’s Eastern European community praises ‘magnificent’ response to racist poster

PUBLISHED: 16:32 05 February 2020 | UPDATED: 16:32 05 February 2020

Winchester Tower's entrance in Norwich covered in heart-shaped messages of support and dozens of people turned up to stand up against racism. Picture: Denise Bradley/Getty Images/Victoria Pertusa

Winchester Tower's entrance in Norwich covered in heart-shaped messages of support and dozens of people turned up to stand up against racism. Picture: Denise Bradley/Getty Images/Victoria Pertusa

Denise Bradley/Getty Images/Victoria Pertusa

A group supporting the region’s Eastern European communities has penned a letter of thanks to the people of Norwich for their “magnificent” support after a racist poster was put up in a city tower block.

Winchester Tower's entrance covered in heart-shaped messages of support. Picture: DENISE BRADLEYWinchester Tower's entrance covered in heart-shaped messages of support. Picture: DENISE BRADLEY

But the Norfolk Polonia CIC has also offered an insight into the abuse and problems its communities face, including being insulted on the street for speaking their native tongue, or being ordered to speak English during work breaks.

The group said its Polish members had asked it to express their "alarm and anger" at the notice, which appeared in Winchester Tower, on Vauxhall Street, on Saturday and demanded residents of the block speak only English after the country's exit from the European Union.

It was swiftly removed, and has since sparked an outpouring of support from people living in Norwich and further afield.

The group, a body which works to support immigrants living in Norfolk, has expressed its gratitude for the "heartfelt expressions of support" since - but warned the community's fears remained.

Directors Dorota Darnell and Pawel Jelenski said: "Many of my fellow countrymen and other immigrants live in Winchester Tower and I humbly speak on their behalf.

"I will not address the cowardly anonymous authors of this notice as they deserve no such recognition but I would like to thank the population of Norwich at large which has reacted magnificently to this provocation, including the council, the police and the MP.

"Your heartfelt expressions of support and sympathy to our community are greatly appreciated."

The police continue their investigations at Winchester Tower. Picture: DENISE BRADLEYThe police continue their investigations at Winchester Tower. Picture: DENISE BRADLEY

But they said the outpouring did not alleviate the community's fears, adding that despite generally friendly relations, "many of us have had bad experiences of occasional discrimination or random public expressions of abuse in the past, especially in the political uncertainty of the last few years".

MORE: How city bit back at controversial 'Happy Brexit Day' poster with love and defiance

In a letter, they said the note evoked memories of Poland's troubled history, citing a Nazi leader who once said Polish people must "evolve" to speak, act and ultimately become a German.

They said history books were "brimming" with decades of nationalities who had forbid them from speaking their own language.

"That sounded too similar to the hateful notice in Winchester Tower," they said.

A poster put up in Winchester Tower in Norwich. Picture: SubmittedA poster put up in Winchester Tower in Norwich. Picture: Submitted

The letter continued to say that "in an ideal world" everyone would learn to speak English quickly and easily, but that in reality it was not so simple, with some people fearful of "being ridiculed", hindering their learning.

"The fact is that so many immigrant families living here, perhaps even the person washing your car or caring for your relative, speak on average at least three different languages," they said.

"Not so many British people living abroad find it so easy to speak the language of the country in which they are living. Nevertheless, it is our mission to encourage every single immigrant in Norfolk and Suffolk to learn English, talk and live it as much as possible as it is a doorway to integration and peace."

But they said they maintained their right to speak in their native language and encourage their children to hold onto their first language, which they described as their "tradition".

"We remain proud of being Polish, or whatever happens to be our country of origin, and even though we may not have supported Brexit, we have a right to acquire or have already acquired settled status and we will make the best of it, as we continue to live, work, study, pay taxes and bring up our children here," they said.

They said: "Our community feels particularly angry when employers insist that we speak English to each other during lunchtime breaks or being insulted for speaking in our native tongue on the phone or with our children in the street. Every Polish-speaking child should feel safe to walk the streets of Norwich and take a call from their mother."

But on behalf of their members, they thanked the city and citizens of Norwich.

Dozens of people turned up to Winchester Tower in Norwich on Sunday to stand up against racism. Picture: Victoria PertusaDozens of people turned up to Winchester Tower in Norwich on Sunday to stand up against racism. Picture: Victoria Pertusa

"This is what makes our city such a truly diverse, vibrant and resilient community. Onwards and upwards."

MORE: 'Everyone is welcome here' - Tower block residents hit back at 'Happy Brexit Day' poster

The Norfolk Polonia CIC's letter in full

I have been asked by my Polish colleagues who are members of the Norfolk Polonia CIC to express their alarm and anger at the anonymous printed notice which appeared in the corridors of Winchester House in Norwich on January 31st (Brexit Day) warning the council building's tenants to speak only in English in the future or else to either "evolve" into being British or move back to their country of origin.

As a co-founder and volunteer member of Norfolk Polonia CiC, resident in the UK since the year 2000, I share the same feelings of anger. Our organisation consists of volunteers and members who work hard to promote integration, personal development and self-awareness amongst East European communities living in Norfolk and Suffolk. We mainly consist of members of the local Polish community, but we are open to everybody who would like to join us.

Many of my fellow countrymen and other immigrants live in Winchester House and I humbly speak on their behalf. I will not address the cowardly anonymous authors of this notice as they deserve no such recognition but I would like to thank the population of Norwich at large which has reacted magnificently to this provocation, including the Council, the police and the MP. Your heartfelt expressions of support and sympathy to our community are greatly appreciated.

However, these positive reactions do not completely alleviate the local Polish community's fears for themselves and their families. Despite our generally friendly positive relations with our British neighbours and with council services, many of us have had bad experiences of occasional discrimination or random public expressions of abuse in the past, especially in the political uncertainty of the last few years.

This sense of vulnerability is made worse by Poland's recent turbulent history when it suffered a hundred years of repression of our language in the XIXth century and, in particular, more recently under Nazi German occupation. For example, the German governor of Western Poland, Albert Forster, stated that in order to be human, a Polish person must "evolve" to speak, act and ultimately become a German. That sounded too similar to the hateful notice in Winchester House.

Polish history books are brimming with decades upon decades of different nationalities forbidding us to speak our own language to our own children or even to pray in Polish. We had to speak Russian or German and could be arrested and imprisoned or even killed for promoting our language. We used to have secret schools where children as little as six learned Polish literature, history and could speak Polish to each other. At that time Poland and the UK fought against the same enemy so that British people too did not have to undergo the same humiliation as Poles.

Of course, in an ideal world we would learn to speak English here with every immigrant assimilating quickly and stress free. In reality, it is not so easy as most people are comfortable in speaking the language they know best and feel discouraged if they try and speak English in a different accent and are mocked or discriminated against as a result. As a teacher who organised English classes here at different levels, including beginners, I found that while students understood a lot, they feared being ridiculed which prevented them from speaking English more often.

The fact is that so many immigrant families living here, perhaps even the person washing your car or caring for your relative, speak on average at least three different languages. Not so many British people living abroad find it so easy to speak the language of the country in which they are living. Nevertheless, it is our mission to encourage every single immigrant in Norfolk and Suffolk to learn English, talk and live it as much as possible as it is a doorway to integration and peace.

However, I must stress that we still maintain the right to speak in our native language to each other and to encourage our children to maintain their family's tongue, even when learning English at school. We remain proud of being Polish, or whatever happens to be our country of origin, and even though we may not have supported Brexit, we have a right to acquire or have already acquired settled status and we will make the best of it, as we continue to live, work, study, pay taxes and bring up our children here. The Brexit debate is now over and all the negative emotions associated with it should be gone too. Within our own community and our own families we will continue to use our native tongue, whether at home, in the lift, in the shop or in a car park, just as most of you would continue to speak English amongst yourselves in France or Spain. Our language is part of us. It makes us who we are and shapes the way we think. It is our tradition. Talking in English to each other in public could be our choice and ours alone, but it cannot be imposed upon us.

Our community feels particularly angry when employers insist that we speak English to each other during lunchtime breaks or being insulted for speaking in our native tongue on the phone or with our children in the street. Every Polish-speaking child should feel safe to walk the streets of Norwich and take a call from their mother. We also believe British people living in Europe should have same right to express themselves in their own language. Of course, I am sorry that certain individuals feel sufficiently insecure to compose such hateful notices in public but let us assure them that their British way of life is not under threat from us.

On behalf of all immigrants, I thank the city and the citizens of Norwich for standing firmly with us, during and after the Brexit crisis. This is what makes our city such a truly diverse, vibrant and resilient community. Onwards and upwards!

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