The terror attacks in London have put Britain's multicultural society to the test. But the example of the London suburb Southall shows that a local network of ethnic groups can successfully work toward integration. By Petra Tabeling
If you take the train to the West London suburb of Southall, as soon as you get out you realize that things are very different here than in the inner city. The smell of exotic spices lingers in the air, the columns on the train tracks are colorfully decorated in an Indian style, the "Welcome to Southall" sign is translated into Punjabi.
Not far from the train station is Southall's main street, a strip of shops that serves as the heart of this district with a population of 70,000.
Sari shops are lined up next to traditional Indian restaurants, Bhanghra music drones from the loudspeakers of the many music stands, Pakistani mango vendors offer their wares along the street. The Catholic church is right next to a huge Hindu temple, the pub at the other end of the street only looks traditionally British from the outside, inside guests can pay with rupees.
Immigration with tradition
Southall, not far from Heathrow airport, is considered the multicultural face of London's metropolis of millions. More than seventy percent of inhabitants in this lively district are from the Indian subcontinent: Sikhs from the Punjab, Muslims from Pakistan, Bangladesh and Afghanistan. It is no coincidence that Londoners call Southall "Little Punjab."
This district has a long tradition of immigration. Welsh and Irish steel workers came to Southall in the 1920s, a time when heavy industry still had jobs to offer; in the 1950s until the 1970s many immigrants from the Indian subcontinent arrived here, and the second and third generation of their families are still living here.
In recent years migrants from war-ridden regions have settled here, from Somalia, Uganda, Afghanistan, or new arrivals from Eastern Europe.
Help in finding self-help
Here the many different ethnic groups help each other—in questions related to aging, caring for family members, and health, says Janpal Lasran, a social worker from the neighborhood. But as in other London districts, there were still many here who were at a social disadvantage. So a few years ago the city initiated a renewal program for the Southall district.
An office building was erected, for example, where Janpal Lasran is now stationed as a network and community manager, organizing work for the district. He offers the different religious and community groups office space, computers, telephones, and copy machines so that they can coordinate their work better and more effectively among themselves.
Southall still attracts many immigrants, not only because nearby Heathrow airport has jobs to offer and because housing and the cost of living is cheaper than in London's decadently expensive inner city, but also because people seek contact with their own countrymen here.
Here life among the many different ethnic groups has been largely free of conflict for centuries, although there are occasionally tensions between the various groups, Janpal Lasran admits. In recent years young people are increasingly discovering their religious identity, whether they are Sikhs, Hindus, Muslims or Christians. And more and more religious festivities are being celebrated.
"Unfortunately people have recently also been confusing their religious and their national identities. When members of the Pakistani community began to wave their national flag during the festivities marking the end of the Islamic fasting month of Ramadan, other ethnic groups also got out their flags. That led to conflicts and tensions," says Lasran.
But it is the declared goal of the state-funded program to solidify and improve the cohesion between the different ethnic groups, step by step.
Intercultural dialog on the airwaves
This is also the goal of "Westsideradio," the first multicultural radio station in Southall, situated in the newly erected office building and constituting an important part of community work efforts. Many of the young people working at the station are Somalis, Indians or Pakistanis—including newcomers in the United Kingdom as well as those born and raised in Southall.
In the past few weeks they have piloted a community radio program, a project financed by the city of London and private sponsors. Thirty-five dj's and moderators broadcast world music and news from Southall for eight hours a day—in English, Hindi, Urdu, Punjabi, and Somali.
"Westsideradio" informs listeners about counseling available for refugees, full-time daycare for children, practical tips on integration, participation in city committees, and about inter-religious events and festivities. The radio editors want to address problems that affect the daily lives of people living in Southall, issues that are not tackled in the supra-regional media.
Reflecting the multicultural diversity in Southall is the strength of the new broadcast, according to one of its coordinators, Harmi Palda. He sees in this initiative not only a chance for ethnic and religious groups to reaffirm their identities, but also a great opportunity for dialogue between the various groups. Especially since the terror attacks of July 7.
"It is a shame that a finger is now being pointed at the Muslim community," says Palda. "That's why we would like them to tell more about themselves in our program, so that we can better understand their religion."
Palda, who studied in Germany and whose family immigrated here from Pakistan, has a simple message: "We are a happy community here. And if more and more immigrants come to this country, it is not only a chance for us to live together, but also to experience different cultures. Let us just hear their stories and share in them."
© Qantara.de 2005
Translated from the German by Christina M. White