My family has always had an interest in learning about other cultures and meeting people from around the world. For many years, we hosted foreign students while they spent a year studying in the local high school. We had always said that we couldn’t afford to take our children round the world, so instead we brought the world to them!
Once our children left home we changed from hosting high school students to hosting university students through the HOST scheme. HOST is a charity which promotes international friendship and cultural exchange by arranging for adult international students to spend a day, weekend, or a few days at Christmas in the homes of volunteers across the UK. We have loved meeting students from all over the world, of all ages and all types of personality. Many have kept in touch, some have made return visits, and we hope to continue hosting, learning and making new friends for many years to come.
In July 2015, my husband and I moved to a small village in the north of Northumberland. Having been so heavily involved with international people for many years, it was rather sad for us to see the negative attitude of a number of the residents towards people who aren’t from the UK. It was a feeling that intensified in June 2016, when the EU referendum took place.
I was a polling clerk at the village polling station on the day and approximately 60 per cent of the village’s voters told us how much they resented “all the immigrants” living in the UK and “taking our jobs”; how overcrowded we are – ironic in a village with little over 300 residents; how “they” make no attempt to integrate. There are two Polish families living locally and their lifestyles were criticised, despite them being hard-working, family-orientated, polite and cheerful people. I was greatly saddened that they were being used as a verbal punching bag, not through any fault of their own, but simply because certain groups prefer to regurgitate negative and discriminatory rhetoric rather than getting to know one another.
On the day after the referendum, one of the main complainants greeted me with: “Well, we won!” When I pointed out that this was a matter of opinion, I was treated to a volley of abuse. It was like watching a 60-something throw a temper tantrum more appropriate for a six-year old and would have been laughable had it not been for the sheer nastiness of his language. He concluded with “now they can all be sent back home”; an ignorant phrase which has been bandied about by many similar “Little Englanders”.
Later in the day I bumped into the two Polish families, both of whom greeted me warily. By this time, reports had already been broadcast of xenophobic attacks around the country and I felt it necessary to apologise and emphasise that not everyone felt or behaved like that. Whatever the overall opinion of EU membership was, everyone is still human and deserves to be treated with friendliness, kindness, and respect.
I decided that day that I would definitely continue to host. It was now more important than ever to extend a hand of friendship to overseas people, and I was determined that the ignorant, xenophobic, and abusive people in the village would not win. It may only be a small gesture, but it can make a huge difference to individuals who may otherwise feel isolated and unwelcome. If we continue introducing more overseas students to the village, maybe some opinions here will change, too.
My family and I will continue to be open minded, open hearted and will operate an open house policy for all. If you would also like to offer the hand of friendship to an occasional international student guest, I recommend contacting HOST on 020 7739 6292, or visiting their website for more information. Whatever your opinion of the EU, and whichever way you voted in the referendum, it is important that friendships continue to be built, and knowledge exchanged.
A side note: the villager concerned in the abusive tirade is himself a migrant to the village, having moved there from Lancashire. I think the irony is lost on him!
Photo: copyright HOST UK