We Stand on Common Ground

Dianna Djokey is a young migrant woman living and working in Portsmouth. So much of the current election campaign is based on discussions about people like Dianna, but her story and her experiences as a migrant in Portsmouth might surprise you.

My journey began in 2002 when I left California USA and became a military kid. I was 11 years old. Germany was the first posting for my family and I, but we moved back and forth between there and Britain. We finally settled here in 2006, leaving army life altogether a year later and becoming civilians.

I went to College to study Musical Theatre, and followed it up with a degree in Music and Musical Theatre. I graduated in 2013 and my mother was so proud. I was the first in my immediate family to get a degree.

After University I began applying for jobs, sending out hundreds of CVs and receiving just as many rejections, an experience typical for many UK graduates these days. I eventually landed a part-time job calling families to see if they qualified for boiler installation, depending on what benefits they were receiving. I worked long hours and beyond the call of duty, but when the company could not pay me, I had to quit.

My mother was volunteering for a project called The Gateway (In Thuse) Project at the time, aimed at migrant women living in Portsmouth and funded by the EU. I was interested and she asked if I wanted to join, so I did.

I was nervous and had no idea what to expect. I went along to a little room packed with women in the Victory Business Centre in Fratton, where the project was based. It was intimidating to begin with, but the women welcomed me with open arms and I felt more comfortable. I began training as a Community Adviser, helping other migrant women and their families on the path to integrating into the Portsmouth community and sign posting them to public services that would ease their transition.

I loved it, I was learning so much, connecting with so many like-minded women and growing as a young woman at the same time. Finally I felt as if I really belonged to something. As a military kid, your life is unpredictable. I never knew where I could end up next. Bonds were made and broken, which became isolating. I had trouble connecting with people.

By contrast, the Gateway Project was filled with migrant women all wanting to belong and settle in. We became each other’s support system. When someone was successful we celebrated, if someone cried we were there to see each other through.

The project was a rewarding experience that not only trained me but gave me a voice. I became a co-editor for the Voice of Diversity Blog as part of a course I took with the Gateway Project. Our teacher Kathy and researcher and journalist Sarah Cheverton taught us how to create and maintain our own local blog. The Voice of Diversity was created to allow people from different walks of life to tell their stories, connect and to know what is going on in Portsmouth. The blog is still going today and recently celebrated its first birthday.

The Gateway project ended in 2014, and as the old saying goes when one door closes another one opens. Someone I worked with sent my mother an email regarding an opportunity to apply for a Strengthening Our Common Lives trainee-ship with Cultural Co-operation. The programme aims ‘to increase workforce diversity across the heritage sector’ by creating opportunities for young people from under-represented groups to receive paid training in museums and other cultural institutions.

I applied because engaging with communities in different creative ways is one of things I am passionate about. A few interviews later I got a museum placement at the National Museum of the Royal Navy here in Portsmouth. Since then I’ve worked hard to bring local communities into the Museum who might not even know it’s there. I’m getting ready to run a Multicultural Coffee Morning there in April.

I tell you all this so that you know a little bit about me before I share a recent experience I had while coming home from the Museum, which made me think about social attitudes to immigration in the UK, particularly in the current election campaigns.

The situation I am going to share with you happened, by coincidence, after I had recently watched a BBC documentary series called Too Many Immigrants.

I was walking to the bus station to catch the number 8 bus home, as I normally do after work. I was waiting at the bus stop when a heavy set 6ft white man walked towards the bus stop, picked up a piece of litter on the ground and put it in a nearby bin. He caught my eye, this man, not because of the litter but because he looked at me as if he was disgusted as he did it, as if it was my fault the rubbish was there in the first place.

After a few more people came along and stood under the bus stop waiting for the buses they needed to take, one young man (who looked to be in his late teens and somewhat lost) walked towards the 6ft man and asked, “Er, Is this the, uh, bus stop to the, uh, ferry port”?

When he spoke I realised he was foreign as his English was not strong. Pointing to the number 4 bus the man said, “Yes it is, the number 8 and number 4 takes you there, I am waiting for the 4”.

The young man said, “Oh ok, Thank you”.

He walked to the side of the bus stop, and a woman close by who had heard the conversation gave him more information about when he arrived at the ferry port.

The 6ft man suddenly blurted out, perhaps joking, “Get these foreigners out of here!” and he laughed.

No one said anything; you could cut the awkwardness with a knife.

As I stood there one of the many thoughts that came to my mind was: In every joke there’s a bit of truth.

I was taken back by what the man said, not because I was ignorant of people who think that way, but because it felt like I was revisiting the documentary I had just watched.

I thought back to the documentary I had been watching 15 minutes before and realised that the issue I’d be learning about – prejudice towards immigrants – had just happened in real time, but in the place where I live, the place I call home.

This situation is not surprising considering the political climate we are in. UKIP are using the tired old “migrants are the cause of all our problems” card for political gain and deflecting from the real problems the UK is facing.

Many people in Portsmouth are starting to show their true colours on immigration and migrants living in the UK. It is increasingly concerning to see shops and flats plastered with I’m voting UKIP stickers.

But that’s an article in itself. The issue I’m interested in is the reality of life in Portsmouth for the many migrants who live here and how it relates to the history of Portsmouth and the UK.

I work in a community outreach-learning department. The team and I work all over Portsmouth, Fareham and Gosport, showing people objects and artefacts and engaging in conversation with community groups about the heritage that museum collections reflect.

I firmly believe that the museum should not only reflect society but also shape it. Museums can be at the centre of starting conversations that matter to people and can play a huge part in helping us to think about contemporary life.

Many of the artefacts and objects in the collections of the National Museum of the Royal Navy relate to migrants and their historic relationship to the UK. Just by showing people such items, I’ve had amazing conversations with local people that have helped to break down some of their preconceived notions about immigration and migrant communities in Portsmouth.

These preconceptions do not come from nowhere. Hit hard by the economic downturn and heavily affected by the government’s austerity programme, the media is filled with politicians happy to blame anyone and anything for the problems the UK is facing.

But the reality is that migrants are at the very heart of British history. The British Empire’s economy was built on the hard labour of West African Slaves. You all have sugar because of them.

It’s conversations about historical facts like these that allow people cut from different cultural cloth to understand each other a little bit better. I’ve seen conversations like these enable a group of very different people to connect and form a common ground.

The reality of the ‘melting pot’ where different cultures meet is that such groups will not always agree on everything. But learning, engaging, talking – these things can go a long way to discovering how we can live together.

Britain has always been an ever-changing society. This is not the first time that issues of racism and immigration have raised their head in an election campaign.

Channel 4’s recent documentary Britain’s Racist Election highlighted 1964’s General Election, showing the racial backlash against migrants into the UK, including in Smethwick, Birmingham.

Conservative candidate Peter Griffiths was a man who had a political dream not unlike that of Nigel Farage. Like Farage, Griffiths used the migrant card to gain political glory, win people’s affection and become an MP. He campaigned under the slogan, If you want a nigger for a neighbour, vote Labour.

Although he won that election, in the end people saw Griffiths for what he was. The people of Smethwick protested, and Griffiths lost votes. Some of you reading might remember what happened next because he went on to be the MP for Portsmouth North for 18 years. He died in November, 2013.

The Channel 4 documentary in which I learned about Griffiths seemed to highlight a real concern that history is now repeating itself with UKIP.

The community outreach work we do at the museum has shown me how different communities can engage with and understand each other, providing both sides with a chance to break down the negative perceptions of migrants that the media and many politicians are happy to spread.

From March 30th, we can no longer talk about the election campaign because a period of political purdah begins that prohibits it. Until that finishes our lips are sealed.

But yours don’t have to be.

I wish I’d had the courage to ask that young teenager what his thoughts were on the uncomfortable situation that took place at the bus stop that evening. I will never know, but the one thing I do know is that if I had another chance to see that 6ft man again, I would tell him respectfully: If you are rejecting migrants you are rejecting your British history.

And never does a proud Brit want to do that.