Challenging the Xenophobia of Brexit

photoThis is the photo that has been popping up on Facebook pages across the world. It’s being used to challenge the assumptions that have been spread during the LEAVE campaign that somehow inviting foreigners into your country is a weakness rather than a strength.

The photo shows Marina, Irene and José Antonio who all work in a hospital in London. All Spanish, they make up three of the multi-cultural team who work together in Homerton Hospital. The Spanish national paper ‘El Mundo’ tells the story behind the photo.

It’s a quiet day at Homerton Hospital in the northeast of London. Marina and Irene are lucky they are on the same shift in the urology operating theatre. Whilst the two nurses attend to four patients who need kidney stones removing, in the room opposite arrives another Spaniard in uniform and blue hat. José Antonio is helping today with dental operations. The urology doctor, Dr. Masood expresses his anger at the country’s vote 48 hours before. The decision to leave the European Union.

He looks around him; ‘None of us are British but we are needed.’ In operating theatre number six on the second floor of this little hospital in London one click and the faces of José Antonio, Marina and Irene have been shared with the world. The photograph, published on the internet, is called ‘We are Europe’ . In spite of Brexit and the seeds of Xenophobia that have been sown in British society, 20 minutes from the City not one of the seven members of this surgical team has been born in the UK.

200,000 Spanish people

‘Jose, they don’t want us here!’ That was the comment from a Spanish waiter in the bar where he has breakfast on his way to the hospital. That’s the way that José Antonio Díaz Espinosa learnt of the referendum decision on Thursday. Born in Málaga he’s 31 years old and arrived in London almost two years ago. Like many of the 6,000 Spanish nurses who work in the UK, he didn’t want to leave his country but he couldn’t find work. That’s why he emigrated.

He started in a restaurant in Piccadilly Circus ‘I was carrying plates and drinks from the bar and the kitchen to the table,’ he says. Fifty hours a week for 325 pounds. Six months later he achieved his objective to work as a nurse in Homerton University Hospital. ‘Before Brexit I knew that I had found my path,’ he says. ‘Now I don’t know what is going to happen to us.’ His feeling is this; ‘Half the country don’t want us here.’ On the bus he heard someone commenting; ‘They are going to have to go (the immigrants). There are too many of them’ like the rest of the 200,000 Spanish people who live there, he doesn’t know what to expect in the future.

When José arrived at this hospital in multicultural Hackney, an area that publicises itself as being the trendiest in East London, another person from Malaga was there already. Marina Seminario Herrera, is 26 years old. She came three and a half years ago to the Mecca of Spanish nurses. Since 2001 health workers have been recruited in Spain because of the shortage of home grown doctors and nurses. Hospitals value Spanish nurses for their level of practical training. The Saturday after Brexit it was Marina who sent out the request for the photo; ‘We’d like to show that the system functions thanks to all of us working together. They need us.’

Irene Pérez Fernández, the 27 year old from Jaén left Spain with an airline ticket. She has always felt loved here, even with the rising tide of xenophobia. A police report said that incidents of racism and hate crimes against foreigners and minorities have increased by 54% since 23J. She does not know anyone who supported LEAVE. Instead she is surrounded by young British people who do not understand what their elders have decided.

Nor does the urologist, Junaid Masood understand. He was born in Pakistan but has lived for eight years in England which is why he proposed taking the photo. ‘It was very simple,’ he explains. ‘I voted for staying and was in shock when the country voted as it did. The day after in the hospital I looked around me and everyone was from the EU. I thought we should celebrate this diverse multiculturalism which is what I’ve always loved about London. And it’s particularly important for the NHS because many very good professionals work here.

The photo of the seven stars of ‘We are Europe’ went viral and has been shared more than 19,000 times. It’s appeared across the world. The anaesthetist, Christian Schweibert, is German. Married to a British woman of Nigerian origin he says that this picture of Homerton Hospital reflects the real picture. In operating theatres across the country ‘there will be no more than one or two people whose native language is English. In some, there will not even be one.’

They are essential to keep the system running. ‘We did the photo because we wanted to show the good things. The academic excellence, the clinical progress, the friendship and the joy – that needs international cooperation. Improvements won’t be made by closing the door to Europe and feeding resentment towards immigrants.’

The team in front of the camera is complete with the presence of a Greek urologist and the radiologist from Ireland. Above their heads are the lamps of the operating theatre. Behind them the operating table. And who operates the button? A British person of African descent.

‘Today we are working hard in order to improve people’s lives. This is what our European friends do for the NHS,’ it says at the foot of the photo. They are the backbone. At the moment the Spanish contingent will carry on at least during the two years it will take to Brexit. José Antonio, Marina and Irene are still doing injections and taking blood in the East of London. They are Europe

Published 9 July 2016

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