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Inside Bedford: a fragile success story of multiculturalism, home of Yarl's Wood

What do Mabel, Joanna, Ali, Rana and Peter have to say about their home city, one of the most diverse in the UK?

A couple of miles north of the outskirts of Bedford lies the most controversial of Britain’s many immigration removal centres, Yarl’s Wood. At the back of a business park stranded in the middle of the Bedfordshire countryside, it is one of Europe’s largest immigration facilities, holding 410 people, mostly women and families, awaiting deportation from the UK.

Getting in as a journalist is next to impossible, but during visiting hours I go through the metal detector tests with a pen and pad to meet Mabel Gawanas who has been detained in Yarl’s Wood for nearly three years, the longest serving detainee.

An orphan, she fled Namibia after a childhood of awful abuse and violence. But Yarl’s Wood is not a happy place. “I long for peace,” she tells me. The mother of two continues: “I want to be a mother, I want to be normal, to live a normal life like everyone else. I want to be a human rights lawyer to help other people in my position. I want to study more.”

Yarl’s Wood has attracted streams of protesters to the Twinwoods Business Park over the years. A recent protest drew up to 2,000 campaigners.

Mabel says her only interaction with the city nearby, however, is when she is taken to Bedford hospital for a medical emergency. “But in Bedford hospital they don’t treat detainees properly, they want to get them out quickly. I was taken there in handcuffs."

  MabelBedford, which is home to 170,000 people, is a strange location for Yarl’s Wood to be placed because it is actually one of the most diverse cities in England: the different colours and cultures you see walking around it remind of London.

Bedford borough is one of the most diverse authorities in the east of England, with up to 100 different ethnic groups living within its boundaries. The most recent census found that 28.5% of the population was Black and Minority Ethnic (BME), with significantly higher proportion of Other White and Asian people than the rest of England.

At the Bedford Swan hotel which sits on the river cutting the city in half, Joanna Kazmierczak works as a waitress in the morning buffet. Originally from the Polish seaport of Szczecin, she has lived in the UK since 2012, first in Peterborough and then Bedford for work. “It’s a very quiet city but it’s not too bad,” she tells me. “The people are friendly and nice. If someone likes a quiet place then it’s a good place to live.”

JoannaRace relations in diverse Bedford might not be as good as pitched, she says. “Myself, I didn’t get any racism, nothing, but I heard too many stories in Bedford about attacks on Polish people or Asian people.” But do the immigrant communities get on well together? Do the immigrants get on well together? "No. There is, like, Polish together, Asian together, they don’t want to be all immigrants together, this thing doesn’t happen ever.”

Bedford itself, despite its diversity and progressive history on immigration, voted Leave in the EU referendum by a margin of 51.8% to 48.1%. But the Brexit vote doesn’t scare her. “Actually, I don’t think it will be too much change for people who are already here. People who are here 5 years already, working, studying, they don’t need to be scared about anything, maybe it will change who come here now. There is a big Polish community here.”

At the market in downtown Bedford, Ali Asadi, a 21-year-old refugee from Afghanistan, sits selling carpets and household essentials.

“I like Bedford a lot, it’s nice and clean with good people and it’s a quiet place as well,” he tells me. “Lots of nice people here, I’m quite happy living here. These are good people here, they gave us respect, and they respect other cultures as well.”

He says he didn’t vote in the EU referendum because he wasn’t registered, but if he was he would have voted remain. For him Bedford is the ideal place to live. “I feel like I will stay here forever now, it feels like home now,” he tells me. “I am used to Bedford now, I have been to other places but I prefer Bedford to the rest. I went to London as well but I like Bedford more.”

Asadi came from Afghanistan in 2009 at the height of the occupation by US and UK troops. His parents were already in Bedford but he managed to join them.

“There is a big Afghani community here, there are quite a lot of people here in Bedford from Afghanistan.” Why? I ask. Bedford seems like an odd place to coalesce around. “I don’t know, maybe because we like to stay together and live together, and have a good community. There’s people in London as well but not as much as Bedford, we have a lot of people in Bedford."  Ali

Bedford’s most famous immigrant community is from Italy. The city is dotted with Italian restaurants with locals still speaking Italian at the tables. There are Italian delis, social clubs and flags fluttering. The city even has its own Italian Consulate. About 14,000 Italian descendant people live in the city, mainly because after the Second World War the local Marston Valley Brick Company needed workers as it produced for the post-war reconstruction. The company recruited in the work-starved villages of southern Italy between 1951 and the early 1960s. More than 7,500 men were brought over to Bedford.

A significant amount of men were also recruited by the Brick Company from the Punjab region of India. Descendants of that wave of immigration now constitute about 8% of the population. Since the early 2000s there has been a high number of immigrants from eastern Europe.

I find Wajeeha Rana, 34, is reading a book in Urdu in Bedford Central Library. “It’s a novel from a very famous author, her name is Umera Ahmed, it’s a book from here, they have a good world literature selection,” she tells me.

Rana moved to Bedford in September after visiting the city for a number of years because her husband is from Bedford. Previously in Malaysia, she was born in Pakistan. “Bedford is a well integrated community,” she says. “There is a big a Pakistani community here. They give a lot of opportunity to everybody, they do a lot of programs for different groups.”

She says she doesn’t encounter racism. “There are actually a lot of halal food places you can go and eat. It’s a good place to be, in fact, I’ve heard a lot of people are moving from London to Bedford, it’s much more affordable. They say it’s because obviously London has become really expensive, and Bedford is more commutable. So they are moving over here and there’s a multicultural community here as well."  RanaShe continued: “We recently met someone (from Pakistan) who had moved from Ilford to Bedford because their husband got a job over here and they are doing very well over here actually. It’s a good option for a lot of people. And even a lot of white people too, their community moved over here from London just for that reason. And we spoke to a few estate agents as well, and they are saying that a lot of people are coming over here, moving over here.”

Peter Redman is selling vacuum cleaner bags at Bedford market. He voted out in the EU referendum. “Why not have a change?” he asks. “We’re called Great Britain why can’t we be great again instead of Europe basically telling us what to do, set our own laws, tell them to stuff it really.”

“I didn’t like the Brexit campaign, I didn’t the mudslinging, or the shitslinging. No just Farage, it’s Conservative, Labour, Lid Dems, they are all a bunch of wankers, they are all a bunch of wankers.”

But he states his vote had nothing to do with immigration. “Nothing at all. It was done on Dispatches, they did something about Europeans coming over here doing lettuce picking, and they had a British bloke doing, and the farmer said the European done, the English one picks about 10 lettuces an hour and the European a 100 so who do you employ? The English bloke kept on stopping to have a fag because he was knackered.”

PeterRedman was born in a little Bedfordshire village called Turvey and now lives in another village called Harrold just outside Bedford. He comes into Bedford three days a week for work on the stall. I say that Bedford seems to be successfully integrated. “It’s working but you still get the odd arsehole,” he says; “There’s good and bad in everybody.”

Redman was a firefighter in Bedfordshire for 33 years before getting injured and taking retirement early. “I don’t make any money out of it. This has been on Bedford market for over 42 years and I had the chance because I have the money in my bank from my lump sum, the bloke got to 74 years old and he thought he had enough of it, so I bought it off him.”

What does he think of Yarl’s Wood? “Technically, one, it shouldn’t have been built in the first place, two, it should have been built differently, so they couldn’t set fire to it, so it didn’t risk not only security lives, but firefighter lives, plus as well as police officers’ lives.” But, he adds, “If the people up there don’t like it, go back to your own country. You’re getting fed, watered, bedded, for nothing, and I’m paying for it, it’s coming out of my council tax. But if can prove that you’ve got the right to stay here and you’ve got no criminal record or any other crap luggage in your other country where you come from, then stay. But if you’re naughty boy or naughty girl, piss off back. Is that fair enough?”

Bedford has quietly become one of the most positive stories of integration and immigration in England, but it is riven with contradictions. From the Brexit vote to Yarl's Wood looming presence on its outskirts, Bedford is a warning that multicultural England is still precarious.

* Travel funding for this article was provided by the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting

About the author

Matt Kennard is deputy director at the Centre for Investigative Journalism in London, and author of Irregular Army and The Racket. Follow him on Twitter: @KennardMatt.


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