Birmingham & Black Country

Brexit six months on: How do Birmingham's Polish expats feel now?

Polish shop
Image caption Polish shops are a regular sight on Erdington High Street

In the immediate aftermath of the momentous vote that signalled the end of Britain's membership of the EU, the BBC visited Erdington, which has been described as a "Little Poland". The voters of the Birmingham suburb emphatically rejected the status quo, causing Poles to react with shock and fear for what the future might hold. Six months on from that surprise victory for Brexit, how does the expat community feel now?

"They're here purely for money. They're not here for the social aspects of life. They don't contribute to the community spirit."

Gerard Goshawk, a minister of Erdington Six Ways Baptist Church for over 10 years, was watching TV at home when he heard this withering verdict given by a Leave voter from Erdington to the BBC's Panorama programme.

He was incensed.

"It really made me angry," he said. "To suggest that people from Poland and other communities do not add to the community is nonsense.

"I wanted to do something positive - something that would be a visible public statement showing what a great place Erdington is."

The result was #EverythingErdington, a community celebration that culminated in more than 100 people from many of the town's nationalities - including English, Polish, Bulgarian, Nigerian and Ghanaian - holding hands along the High Street in a show of solidarity.

Image copyright Gordon Snelgrove
Image caption "We thought it would be great to literally stand together with people from different sections of the Erdington community," said minister Gerard Goshawk
Image copyright Gordon Snelgrove
Image caption More than 100 people held hands along the High Street in a show of solidarity

"We did it to show that people from all communities are welcome here," said Mr Goshawk." Just for a few minutes, and then we finished with a round of applause.

"I know there are a lot of people in Erdington who need convincing it's OK to have people from across Europe here, but there are many others who can see the positives."

About 50,000 Poles have made the West Midlands their home, with Erdington, a suburb five miles north of Birmingham city centre, a popular destination

The 2011 Census recorded 2% of Erdington's population speaking Polish as their first language, but 2015 figures suggest the number may be closer to 4%.

Image caption Erdington has one of the largest Polish communities in England

The struggling retail sector and a changing, diverse community has seen the High Street transform in recent years.

Marks & Spencer, Dorothy Perkins and Game are among the big names to shut up shop since 2014.

Charity shops, pound shops and discount stores fill a large number of the units, with at least six Polski skleps among them.

The Polish Expats Association, based at the Erdington Welcome Centre, has made the street its home.

"Erdington as a constituency is rich in talent and diversity, but is one of the poorest in the country," said the local MP, Jack Dromey.

He cited Slade Road in Stockland Green as the perfect example of a diverse community in action, with white, Eastern European, Afro-Caribbean and Kashmiri families living side by side.

"Racist attacks went up 40% in the wake of the vote," he added. "But there was very effective work by the police and the different communities working together across the faiths who were determined not to allow the community to become polarised.

"The statistics now show that the spike in racist attacks has fallen back to levels of six months ago. But that does not mean that the risk of a repeat has gone away."

How Erdington's wards voted in EU referendum

Source: Birmingham Mail

So how do members of the Polish community feel living in Britain now?

"After the Brexit vote, people were scared," said Anna Bilyk, 32, who has lived in the UK for nearly 10 years.

"We did not know what was going to happen. But this is my home. I work and have a mortgage to pay. I want to stay and I have applied for citizenship."

Miss Bilyk had a dream of coming to England after watching Cartoon Network as a child growing up in the city of Bydgoszcz. She learnt the language while watching her favourite programmes.

"My brothers laughed when I said I will move to UK one day. I wanted to be able to visit London, find the Cartoon Network shop and get myself a mascot of Dexter from Dexter's Laboratory."

Image caption Anna Bilyk dreamed of coming to England as a child watching Cartoon Network

She is now a manager, has bought her own house and car, has many English friends and loves her way of life.

"The UK gave me the chance to be more than a factory worker. It gave me a chance to grow, learn and develop."

The political wrangling over Brexit means many people feel they are still in limbo.

Wojciech Szcotka, 27, lives in Stockland Green, Erdington, with partner Agata Chrzamowska and their daughters Izabela, four, and Eliza, two.

"We are still waiting to see what will happen, but we hope it will be OK and our lives will not change.

"We are happy. We have our family here. We are a bit worried but we hope everything will be alright."

Image caption "We hope it will be OK and our lives will not change," said Wojciech Szcotka

New mother Magdelene Gedlinske, 24, said she hadn't seen much of a change in the community since the vote.

"I haven't been abused or anything. Some people I know have decided to go back to Poland after having problems at work - their colleagues saying things to them.

"I have been here many years now, I have work and a one-month-old girl, so I am planning to stay if I can."

Shop assistant Marita Dobosz, 18, who arrived in Birmingham aged eight from Kwidzyn, is more wary.

Image caption Marita Dobosz said she had been abused in the street since the referendum

"I was a little bit scared at first. People did not want us here. I was attacked at a bus stop - someone saying 'Polish bitches, all of you need to go home, then we will be clean'.

"A lot of my friends have gone back to Poland since the vote, and I know more are planning to.

"I have been here since I was eight. England is my country. But I do see things changing. I'm not sure I feel safe any more."

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