A great British welcome?
Time Out finds two cultural landmarks under threat
London is gearing up to celebrate the tenth anniversary of Refugee Week (June 16-22 ), which Hannah Ward of the Refugee Council describes as a ‘celebration not only of the contribution of refugees to British society, but also the British culture of welcome – something we don’t recognise enough’.
Nineteen Princelet Street, just off Spitalfields, encapsulates the experience of immigration better than any other. The unrestored former home of an eighteenth-century Hugenot master weaver, over the years, the building has housed a synagogue, a trade school and a Polish friends society. But since 1981, this Grade II-listed building has distinguished itself as Europe’s only monument to immigration. Alongside artefacts from the building’s history, such as stained glass windows from the synagogue, lives a series of exhibitions made by young people (many themselves the children of refugees) seen by the 10,000 or so visitors who make the pilgrimage to Princelet Street each year.
But the house, which ranks alongside museums in South Africa and Russia as part of the International Coalition of Historic Sites of Conscience, desperately needs to raise £3 million to save it from collapse. Former EU and treasury economist turned chair of 19 Princelet Street, Susie Symes, explains: ‘We are one of a handful of places like this in the entire world. People come to London especially to see this place. And yet we are still struggling for this incredibly small sum of money.’ She feels Ken Livingstone missed an opportunity to support the museum and considers Boris Johnson’s tenure as the last chance to save this crucial landmark. ‘If we don’t get the money we simply won’t be able to continue. This is not a Bengali project or a Jewish project or even a refugee project – it’s absolutely about all Londoners.’
In Bethnal Green another cultural landmark faces similar challenges. Established in 1884 to help local, deprived communities, 200 years later, Oxford House is still fulfilling that remit, providing immigration advice as well as youth and arts projects.
‘We serve communities that are cut off from the economic life of the City and the cultural life of Shoreditch, even though they’re just down the road,’ explains Ayan Mahamoud, head of youth and arts at Oxford House. But the organisation has recently lost its core funding from the Arts Council and now only receives funding on a project-by-project basis.
Until recently, Oxford House was the only organisation in the country to receive Arts Council funding to work with Somali communities. ‘Somalis in London are struggling,’ says Mahamoud. ‘Art can play a big part in social change. But economic support is vital. We cannot do this alone.’
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