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Birmingham and the Refugee Experience

By Malcolm Dick

"In a multi-cultural society, the various individual cultures all have something to give to the whole. I would like to be part of that." (Birmingham computer technician and son of Polish refugees) (1)

Refugees are hot news, but criticism of so-called "bogus" asylum seekers is often misplaced, diverting attention from the persecution that people have experienced and the contributions that newcomers make to Britain. Birmingham has been a home to those escaping from hostility and violence for over two hundred years. The history of these communities and individuals provides the content and structure for the article.

Those escaping persecution have come from many places. Jewish people fled discrimination in Eastern Europe during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Serbian and Belgian refugees were temporary residents during World War I. Basques escaping the Spanish Civil War in the 1930s came to the West Midlands, as did Polish Catholics and Jews fleeing Nazi persecution before and during World War II and refugees from communist Yugoslavia after 1945. Conflicts and persecution in Chile, Indo-China and East Africa in the 1970s and 1980s resulted in the arrival of Chileans, Vietnamese, Sudanese, Somalis and Ugandan Asians. More recently people from Afghanistan, Bosnia, Iran, East Africa, Kosovo and Kurdistan have escaped from war, genocide and tyranny.

Like economic migrants to the city from other parts of the United Kingdom, Ireland, Europe, the Caribbean, Indian subcontinent and elsewhere, they have contributed to Birmingham's history. To illustrate this argument, three continuous themes are explored. First, reasons why refugees left their countries and came to Birmingham, secondly, the relationships of Birmingham people to these newcomers and thirdly, an indication of the contributions made by refugees to their own communities and the economic, social and cultural fabric of the city. (2)

The first refugees

Jewish people were Birmingham's first refugees, escaping from religious persecution. Pogroms or organised massacres in Tsarist Russia led to an increase in refugees in the late nineteenth century, but a settled community evolved and by the early twentieth century half of the city's 6,000 Jews were British born. The Jewish experience shows how a refugee community can develop and contribute to the city's history.

The first Jewish migrants lacked capital and were denied access to higher education and certain professions. Like many contemporary refugees they relied on personal resources and mutual support. In the eighteenth century they survived by street selling and small-scale trading.

Not all were poor. A prosperous community developed focused upon the Singers Hill Synagogue, and luck, frugality and industry enabled a class of Jewish entrepreneurs and professionals to emerge, benefiting from Britain's international economic leadership, Birmingham's growing prosperity and increasing toleration. Prominent nineteenth-century Jewish people included Jacob Jacobs who revived the jewellery trade and chaired the company which built the Great Western Arcade, Birmingham's focus for fashionable shopping. Merchants included David Barnet from Russia, a passionate campaigner for civil rights and Jacob Phillips who pioneered Birmingham's export links with Hong Kong.

By 1914, a strong community spirit and the lessening of discriminatory practices had enabled the Jews to emerge from poverty and insecurity into a significant community contributing in diverse ways to Birmingham life. (3)

Belgians in World War I

Many Belgians lost their homes and livelihoods in 1914 after Germany invaded their country. In Birmingham, the Belgian Refugee Committee, which included Elizabeth Cadbury amongst its members, raised money and provided food and shelter. Supported by trade unions, adults were able to secure employment. In 1919 the Belgians returned to their devastated homeland. Monsieur Van Schoenbroek said: "I will never forget all you have done and in the hard struggle which I shall have to face, the remembrance of your kindness will remind me of still harder times, through which, with your help, I passed smoothly." (4)

Basques during the Spanish Civil War

A powerful image of the Spanish Civil War is Picasso's painting "Guernica". It portrays the bombing of a Basque town in 1937 by German aircraft supporting Franco's fascist and nationalist forces. Birmingham's response is less well known. Many citizens, including the Lord Mayor, the Quakers and the Women's Co-operative Guild provided support to refugees from the conflict. Money was raised to establish three homes for Basque refugee children in the West Midlands, at Avoncroft, Elford and Aldridge. Local craftsmen helped to renovate the buildings and women gave their time to teach English, staff the homes and organise games and trips for the children. There was hostility from local fascists, Oswald Mosley's Blackshirts, who wanted the children sent back. When the war ended the children returned home, but their story showed that many people throughout Birmingham and the Midlands had responded to their suffering with humanity. (5)

Refugees from Nazism

Zoe Josephs has recounted the history of Jews who escaped persecution in Nazi Germany and occupied Europe. Some escaped before the Holocaust, others experienced concentration camps. Amongst them were Lisel Haas, the photographer, Kossi Strauss, a chemist from Germany and his business partner Eric Weiss, who created the firm of Foseco in Nechells. (6)

One refugee was born in Vienna but left when Hitler occupied Austria in 1938. She remembers being forced to sit at the back of the class because she was Jewish. In this way she sees her experience paralleling that of many black people who internalised hostility from others because of the way they were treated. Coming to Britain was difficult. She arrived as part of the Kindertransport system, which enabled some Jewish children to escape from Nazism. The family, including her sister was separated in different parts of England, but eventually reunited when her mother came to work for the Cadbury family. She remembers the generosity shown by the Quaker family and the people of Selly Oak.

She qualified as a teacher and embarked on a career in schools, colleges, child psychology and art education. Her experience as a refugee made her sympathetic to the experiences of other refugee groups and minority communities generally. With the Ockenden Venture, she worked to help the settlement of Polish children after the war. In education she promoted the widening of the school and college curriculum to extend the appreciation of the arts of different communities and she has been active in supporting dialogue between Christians and Jews. (7)

The Poles

Birmingham has been home to a Polish community since World War II. In 1939, Germany and Russia partitioned Poland and refugees came to England to fight alongside Britain's armed forces.

Individuals with extraordinary experiences as survivors of war, occupation and labour camps made journeys across continents and seas. One man interned as a teenager in one of Stalin's labour camps, was released when Britain and Russia became allies. He came to British India via Iraq and Iran, embarked for South Africa, sailed to Britain in a ship that was torpedoed off Sierra Leone and eventually joined an aircraft squadron at the end of the war. His journey to Birmingham involved piloting a Mustang fighter plane to Castle Bromwich airfield to begin an engineering course at what is now Aston University!

Local priests and the Catholic Church linked 6,000 people across the West Midlands. In 1947 a Polish Catholic Association was formed, later moving to Digbeth where a purpose-built centre was created in 1958 paid for by individual contributions. A school was formed to teach Polish, history, geography, singing and dancing to children. The centre sold Polish food, provided a social facility and offered support to older people. Today the centre maintains a national culture for new generations and enriches the city's identity. (8)

The Vietnamese

The Vietnamese presence in Birmingham dates from the aftermath of the Vietnam War. By the late 1990s approximately 3,000 people of Vietnamese origin had settled in the city.

When the Americans left Saigon in 1975, many refugees fled Vietnam. Thousands went to the USA and France. Only a few hundred settled in the UK. In the late 1970s and 1980s, communist Vietnam experienced instability and economic hardship. Refugees leaving the country increased because of ethnic persecution and attacks on the business classes. Hundreds of thousands of 'boat people' fled at great danger to their lives, settling in overcrowded refugee camps in Hong Kong. Responding to a major human crisis, Mrs Thatcher agreed to take quotas of refugees; 12,000 came to Britain during the 1980s.

In Birmingham, resettlement took place largely through charities such as the Ockenden Venture and the Midlands Vietnamese Community Association. The Catholic Church, particularly through the efforts of Father Peter Dao Duc Diem acted as a magnet for many Vietnamese. Like all refugees, the Vietnamese arrived after traumatic experiences. The lack of an established community in Britain created settlement problems and integration was difficult. Learning English was not easy; there can be few more diverse languages than English and Vietnamese. Since the 1980s however, growing numbers of Vietnamese have gained both professional and academic qualifications. (9)

The Sudanese

The Sudan is the largest country in Africa. It gained independence in 1956 and has great potential for the development of agriculture and mineral resources, but its contemporary history has been blighted by dictatorship, chronic indebtedness, civil war, the repression of minorities and famine.

Links between Birmingham and the Sudan are long established. Sudanese scholars and professionals came to Birmingham universities to study and contribute to their country's economic and social development. About 200 refugees from the Sudan currently live in Birmingham and the West Midlands. They reside here because of persecution and intend to return when there is an end to the troubled political history of their homeland.

Between 1986 and 1989, a new democracy was established in the country. In 1989, however, a military coup led to the persecution of intellectuals, religious minorities and a horrendous human rights record. Many Sudanese scholars in Birmingham were unable to return home. Mayom Malek, a former MP and Minister of State for Agriculture and a graduate of Birmingham University was forced to leave his family behind, but now lives with his children in Birmingham.

The Sudanese formed a community church, linked with the Balsall Heath Church Centre. In response to the man-made famine in 1998, they organised the Sudan Emergency Relief Fund. Community members are involved as stakeholders in the Midlands Refugee Council. The Sudanese have been active in Birmingham, providing a model of self help. (10)

An Oramo refugee

Mesfin is an Oramo from Ethiopia, one of about eighty nationalities in the country. Mesfin's father was a businessman and landowner, but as a student Mesfin became a socialist, supporting the tenants on his father's land. In 1974, he participated in the revolution against the Emperor, Haile Selassie. The new military government came to power to provide democracy and equality, but what resulted was the opposite and Mesfin found himself to be a victim of the revolution he had supported. He was jailed in Addis Ababa for five years. Mesfin remembers a "horrible and disgusting time" where 70 prisoners lived in a tiny room. Ventilation was appalling and there was not enough to eat. Many of his fellow prisoners disappeared to be shot. Eventually released, Mesfin went to university and graduated in accountancy in 1986. In 1991 the regime was overthrown and Mesfin expected a new democracy. In the first three years things improved but then things changed. One of the minority groups, the Tigreans, dominated the government and discriminated against the Oramos.

In 1997 Mesfin was awarded a scholarship to pursue a diploma in Development Finance and a MBA in International Business and Finance in Birmingham. In March 1998 Mesfin received a letter from Ethiopia indicating that the Government wanted to send him to prison. A number of his friends had been imprisoned or had died and it was now dangerous for Mesfin to return. Since applying for asylum Mesfin is not allowed to work, despite being a well-qualified accountant. The support of the Methodist Church and the friendship of local people have made his life in Birmingham more bearable. Mesfin engages in voluntary work and runs a support group for refugees and people seeking asylum. (11)

A Hutu Refugee from Burundi

Francine had a miraculous escape with her family from Burundi. In 1993 she and her husband were teachers and he was awarded a scholarship to study in England. The assassination of the President led to the slaughter of anyone belonging to the majority Hutu tribe and Francine's family were potential victims. Francine escaped with her children. Travelling on foot through Burundi, Rwanda, Zaire and Kenya, they witnessed horrific scenes and threats to their lives. Her father was killed during the troubles, but Francine and her family were reunited in England in 1996.

Life in England was hard, but Birmingham was a friendly place. The local Methodist Church provided support and Francine was able to make friends with people from different countries and obtained indefinite leave to remain as a refugee in 1998. Her children adapted well to English schooling, but as the only family from Burundi in the area it is not easy to sustain their culture. Another problem was finding a job. In Burundi, Francine was a professional, but her qualifications were not recognised in the UK. However, at last Francine obtained the employment she loves, working with children. (12)


Somalis live in the Horn of Africa. During their history, Somalis have been influenced by many foreign powers, including Egypt, Turkey, Italy, France and Britain. They have a history of invasion, partition and occupation. The Somali Republic dates from 1960, but political instability, military government, conflict with Ethiopia and civil war have devastated and divided the country. Many thousands of people are refugees in nearby countries and further afield.

Birmingham is home to about 4,000 Somalis. Frequently they have lived elsewhere and are attracted by local Islamic support networks and Birmingham's reputation as a tolerant and multi-cultural city. Many do not speak English and require help to access housing and health services. These people find it difficult to move out of poverty and obtain work. For refugee professionals like Saeed Hassan and Abdi Y Farah, obtaining employment in teaching or accountancy is virtually impossible. Saeed, a former maths teacher, runs his own business, whilst Abdi is using skills acquired at university in North America to produce a detailed report into the needs of the community. Both work to support Somali people and are concerned at the waste of talent when so many could be playing a larger role in society. (13)

Ethnic Albanians

About 2,000 Ethnic Albanians, mainly from Kosovo, live in the West Midlands. Their presence dates from the 1990s when Serb authorities in the Yugoslav Republic systematically denied human rights to Kosovan Albanians and engaged in a programme of "ethnic cleansing".

The Ethnic Albanian community association was formed in 1998, with a full-time community worker in 2001. Casework includes helping people with immigration, benefits, interpreting, housing and employment. The association supports a football team and cultural activities. Members would like to set up a woman's group and secure a centre for activities. Ethnic Albanians have adapted well to living in Birmingham and hostility has rarely been overt. Many have excellent English and are obtaining jobs, usually in factories. (14)

People from Afghanistan

Afghanistan is located in the heart of Asia. This historically rich nation has been destabilised by foreign intervention. Soviet Russia invaded the country to impose communist rule in the 1980s. Two million people were killed, millions were displaced, the economy was devastated and the resulting political chaos led to civil war. Taliban, the fundamentalist group currently controls most of the country. More people have been murdered and much of the country's historical, educational and economic infrastructure has been destroyed. People are dying of starvation and disease in refugee camps and land mines left by the Russians are still killing and maiming thousands.

Gulam Reza Sherahmad comes from Kabul, the country's capital. Commited to human rights, Reza worked for Save the Children and secretly organised classes for Afghan women who are denied education by Taliban. During a political clampdown, his classmates, mother and other family members were killed. Reza escaped to Pakistan, but he was not safe, Taliban agents were looking for him. He came to England in 2000 and is claiming asylum. Arriving in Birmingham, Reza joined an Afghan community of about 1,000 - 1,400 people. He works as a volunteer for the Refugee Council and is helping his community to provide cultural activities, sports events and education. (15)

The Kurds

About 4-5,000 Kurdish asylum seekers and refugees live in the West Midlands, the vast majority from Iraq. Kurdistan does not exist as a separate country, it is divided between several states. With their distinct language and culture, Kurds live in Iran, Iraq, Turkey, Syria and Russia. They form the largest nationality in the world that does not have its own homeland.

The first Kurdish refugees came in small numbers to Britain in 1958. In 1982 and 1991 numbers increased following uprisings, the aftermath of the Gulf War and the brutal actions of Saddam Hussein's regime. Kurds have survived chemical warfare, deportation from their homes, the denial of freedom and mass terror from the Iraqi government.

Sarwar Mohammad's three brothers were killed and at the age of 12 Sarwar was imprisoned and tortured. His nose was broken and he was forced to witness the rape and torture of others. Close to death he was released from prison and was lucky to receive hospital treatment to save his life. Escaping to Iran, he was able to get a passport and fly to England where he was hospitalised and granted refugee status in 15 days. Sarwar now spends much of his time helping other Kurdish refugees.

Kurdish community groups in Birmingham provide welfare support and advice to Kurds. The groups create a focus for Kurdish cultural and artistic activities. One group is seeking publishing openings for a Kurdish-English dictionary and an opportunity to make a film about their experiences. (16)

Shamal Mustafa is from Kirkuk, an oil-rich city where Saddam Hussein's government forcibly removed large numbers of Kurds. Encouraging debate and free discussion, Shamal was arrested, imprisoned and tortured. Shamal escaped to England, arrived in Birmingham and was granted leave to remain. Now employed as a translator and interpreter he appreciates the warmth shown by Birmingham people and the Council's commitment to equal opportunities. Shamal is worried about the negative portrayal of people seeking asylum in the media and the hostile language used by politicians. Shamal believes that education and the promotion of Britain's tradition for hospitality and liberalism can counter these beliefs. (17)


"Celebrating Sanctuary" provided the theme for Refugee Week in 2001, culminating in events in Centenary Square on 23 and 24 June. It provided an opportunity for refugee groups, their descendants and people seeking asylum to enjoy and present their cultures. Many Birmingham organisations including the Council, the Red Cross and other organisations provided support and encouragement. For centuries, Birmingham has been a home to people escaping persecution. Their presence is a testimony to Birmingham's significance as an international city with a reputation for diversity and tolerance. Hostility has existed, but Birmingham's businesses, religious organisations, politicians and ordinary citizens have befriended many newcomers.

Refugees have contributed to Birmingham's economic and professional life, its religious pluralism and social and artistic diversity. In their homelands, they experienced levels of persecution that most British people cannot imagine. Crucial to their survival and success has been self-belief. As the Kurdish refugee, Sarwar Mohammad said: "It does not matter who you are or where you are, if you believe in yourself you can do anything you want." (18)


1) Millennibrum Video Shorts. Interview with Rafal Kobic at the Polish Community Centre, 2000, Tape 88 (Birmingham City Archives subsequently referred to as BCA).

2) There are few secondary sources on the history of refugees in Birmingham. Some books explore the Jewish experience (see footnotes 2 and 3). An overview of local refugee history was provided in "Rebuilding their lives", in the sixth Millennibrum Supplement, The Birmingham Post, Wednesday 5 July 2000. Kevin Myers at the University of Birmingham is conducting research (see footnote 5). The material in this article is an adapted version of Malcolm Dick, Celebrating Sanctuary: Birmingham and the Refugee Experience (Birmingham 2001), and is largely based on transcripts of interviews conducted by the author. The Millennibrum Oral History and Video Shorts strands also recorded interviews with seekers of asylum, refugees and their descendants. These are currently (June 2001) being catalogued and will shortly be available for public consultation in Birmingham City Archives. The Archives also contain some existing material relating to local refugee history. I am grateful to many people from past and present refugee communities and groups working with refugees and seekers of asylum for their assistance.

3) Zoe Josephs et al, Birmingham Jewry vol. I 1749-1914, (Oldbury, 1980) and Zoe Josephs (ed), Birmingham Jewry vol. II, 1740-1930, (Birmingham 1984). Malcolm Dick, "A haven from persecution", Millennibrum Supplement, The Birmingham Post, Wednesday 5 July 2000.

4) Gillian Roberts, "Hard times pass smoothly", Millennibrum Supplement, The Birmingham Post, op.cit. Chris Upton, "Belgians get a warm welcome", Birmingham Voice 4 July 2001.

5) Kevin Myers and Ian Grosvenor, "Generous Help in Hard Times: Basque Refugee Children in the Midlands 1937-1940", Birmingham Historian, No 14, 1996; Kevin Myers, "Children in danger brought to safety", Millennibrum Supplement, The Birmingham Post, op.cit.; K. Myers, "Englishness, Identity and Refugee Children in Britain, 1937-1945", unpublished PhD thesis, Coventry University, 2000.

6) Zoe Josephs, Survivors: Jewish Refugees in Birmingham 1933 - 1945. Oral history recordings located in the City Sound Archive at Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery provide a record of their experiences.

7) Transcript of interview, 26 April 2001.

8) Millennibrum Video Shorts. Interviews with members of Birmingham's Polish Community at the Polish Community Centre, 2000, Tapes 87 and 88 (BCA). K Sword et al, The Formation of the Polish Community in Great Britain, 1939-49 (London, 1985), provides an examination of Polish migration and experiences in Britain, but little is said about Birmingham. Theresa Dubicka supplied the author with information about local Poles.

9) Birmingham City Council, The Vietnamese in Birmingham: a Community Profile Birmingham, 1997); Mike Beazley et al, A Brighter Future? A feasibility study of the Vietnamese Community in Birmingham (The University of Birmingham School of Public Policy, Birmingham, 2000). The Oral History and Video Shorts strands of the Millennibrum Project also conducted interviews with members of the Vietnamese community.

10) Malcolm Dick, "Sudanese Connection", Millennibrum Supplement, The Birmingham Post, op.cit. This article was based on information supplied by Mayom Malek.

11) Transcript of interview, 2 April 2001.

12) Transcript of interview, 1 April 2001; Barry Weetman, "Mother tells of miracle escape from Burundi", Methodist Recorder, 26 September 1996.

13) Transcript of interviews, 11 May 2001. Vicky Valescchi, Somali Community Development in Birmingham: Summary of Baseline Study to meet the Economic and Social Needs (Birmingham City Council, n.d.)

14) Transcript of interview, 27 April 2001.

15) Transcript of interview, 10 May 2001.

16) Transcript of interview, 26 April 2001.

17) Transcript of interview, 10 May 2001.

18) Transcript of interview, 26 April 2001.

The author would like to hear from readers of this article who can supply further information about the history of refugees and seekers of asylum in Birmingham.

Please Contact:

Malcolm Dick
Millennibrum Project,
6th Floor, Central Library,
Chamberlain Square,
B3 3HQ
Tel: 0121 464 0578

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