Hull is not the sort of city that victims of a despotic regime might choose to call home. Recently voted the worst place in Britain to live, it is a cold, deprived and mono-cultural port town.
Yet under the government’s ‘dispersal’ programme, this is where thousands of Iraqi Kurds have been re-housed. Often, they end up cramped en masse, in blocks of flats described by one taxi driver as “like targets with rings around them; the refugees are the bulls-eye”.
This summer, local racists and neo-Nazi groups have been taking aim. Hull’s battered streets have seen a spike in racial tensions, with stabbings, gang fights, fire bombings and angry protests. A Sudanese refugee has also been murdered in unclear circumstances.
“Nearly everyone here has been a victim of a racial attack,” says Lynne Jones of the Hull refugee support group, ARKH. “It ranges from being spat at on the streets to being attacked by men with knives.”
The trouble has been centred around the Spring Bank area where groups of young Iraqi and British men gather on street corners in an atmosphere of barely suppressed menace.
At the recently petrol-bombed Azadi Bistro restaurant, ‘Naz’, one of the first Iraqis to come here 20 years ago, prevents anyone from interviewing witnesses or taking photos.
“The day after this restaurant was shown on the BBC’s Look North, there was a petrol bomb attack here,” he says. “The media is provoking things, not solving them.”
Some Iraqi refugees preferred
Outside the restaurant though, he is happy to talk about the “tinderbox” atmosphere on Hull’s streets. “You can’t blame the white community 100 per cent for it,” he says. “There are elements among the asylum seekers that are also causing trouble, especially when white women are involved.”
“I saw one woman the other night who was crying after being chased by Kurdish youths in a car, swearing at her. Things like that provoke trouble. We have to try and explain to the newly-arrived asylum seekers about the traditions here.”
However, Jamal, a 19 year old shop worker from Suleimaniya, says the troubles start across the road. “The white people here don’t accept us. We need the government to do something about it”.
Describing how three white kids attacked him in his shop while shouting expletives, he continues, “They broke all my teeth and cut my lips. The attacks can happen at any time. We have to be prepared.”
Jamal says the police are slow to respond to such incidents. “People say they are behind these kids – supplying them, supporting them, letting them do things. Everyone from my community or the white community knows who is causing the trouble, but they won’t catch them.”
Such perceptions are widespread in the Iraqi community but Adil Khan, the community and race relations officer for Humberside Police says that the force is doing its best. “There needs to be grounds for arrest and sometimes they just aren’t there,” he maintains.
“I fully sympathise with people who say the police haven’t acted as they should,” he adds. “We put our hands up and say we failed in certain areas. But it’s a learning process for us too.”
According to Khan, the recent troubles began when an asylum seeker was run over in late July, following a dispute between some refugees and a group of local criminals. A Hull man has since been charged with racially aggravated attempted murder, but gang fights between the two groups have escalated.
“We will protect refugees,” Khan says, “but people must know that carrying knives will not help. Let the police try and maintain order in the city. The alternative will be another mother losing her son, as happened to Sheikh Mohammed.”
The murder of Sheikh Muhammed, and the police announcement that an Iraqi refugee, Tony Karim, was the prime suspect, brought the Hull story to national attention. But many Kurds felt that the police were a little too enthusiastic to finger a refugee – and the media were a little too enthusiastic to report it
“These things happen,” Jamal says. “It is not so strange. There are always fights between white people outside pubs and clubs so why is it strange when it’s between two refugees?”
“To be honest, people now protect themselves by carrying knives or different weapon because when you ring the police, they will not be with you. You have to either run away or defend yourself with whatever you have.”
‘Not a racist’
Such talk provokes alarm among drinkers at the Tap and Spice, a white pub in Spring Bank. Jeff Randall, a 54 year old with a Saddam-style moustache, hunches over his pint and describes how the local community feels threatened by the Azadi Bistro.
“We will protect refugees, but people must know that carrying knives will not help. Let the police try and maintain order in the city.”
“They all stand outside arguing and fighting amongst themselves,” he says. “It’s intimidating. You daren’t even walk down the street at night.”
Mick, a Scottish telephone engineer, agrees. “It’s the pensioners I feel sorry for,” he says, his words slurred by cheap beer. “There’s not a lot of sympathy for the asylum seekers around this area. There only used to be a few. Now the place is swarming with them. Why Hull?”
Mick says he is a fair-minded man. “I don’t have a problem. I get on with my life. But it’s when you see them in their cars, with their mobile phones. People can’t take it.”
“without being racist about it,” he begins… And within 10 minutes, he is providing introductions to a National Front party member who wants all refugees to be kicked out of Britain.
When the government began ‘dispersing’ refugees around the country, it argued that the move would ease racial tensions by preventing over-concentrations of asylum seekers in wealthy cities like London, or towns such as Dover, that were ill-equipped to deal with them.
Critics retorted that the government was irresponsibly trying to assuage a racist press campaign by spreading asylum seekers so thinly that they would be invisible.
The irony is that refugees in Hull are only too visible, and vulnerable. They just have few resources to fall back on when they are attacked.
There are exceptions though. The 167 drop in centre on Spring Bank Rd, run by Peter Stitt and Val Brady receives no government funding at all, but still offers support services and voluntary help.
“Everybody has a hard time here,” Peter says. “It’s a very difficult city to live in if you’re not rich. But we see the newcomers as our neighbours.”
Val complains about insulting graffiti painted on the opposite wall and adds. “We’ve also had death threats and we’ve been threatened with being burned down.”
“But these people coming to Hull has been the best thing that ever happened to this city,” Peter chimes in on a high note. “It’s certainly the best thing that ever happened in my life, other than the birth of my children, because they’ve opened my life up completely. I had very little understanding of the Middle East or Islam before. Now I’m learning so much.”
Surprisingly, Peter blames the previous weekend’s National Front protests and racial violence on Dashty Jamal, leader of the International Federation of Iraqi Refugees. Dashty also led a protest that weekend – against police inaction over race attacks.
Dashty Jamal is popular with
“This is our city and our problem,” Peter implores. “We don’t need politicians coming in from outside the area to stir up trouble.”
“The BNP and NF would love to capitalise here and the best way is for Dashty, who is a communist, to come in from out of town and wind up the locals. After every protest there’s been a week of attacks on Kurdish houses.”
But Dashty, a 33 year-old political activist from Baghdad, is unrepentant. “The demonstration was the right thing to do,” he says. “We did not promise that we could stop the racists in Hull but we pushed the police into doing their job properly.”
“They promised us on that demonstration that they would go on courses to help them understand our culture. They said that they would use CCTV cameras to target the groups causing problems and, most importantly, they arrested some people for assault.”
“There are a few attacks still happening, but we have organised the refugees and showed them that it is possible to work with British people.”
On a sultry summer’s evening in Spring Bank though, the talk among Britons is of Hull Council buying cars and mobile phones for refugees.
Jamal shakes his head at such credulous stories. “Unlike white people, we work hard when we are allowed to,” he says. “There is nothing free in this country.”