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Despite Brexit Differences, Communities Try To Understand Each Other


Three more months. The European Union has given the U.K. another three months to allow Parliament to ratify the controversial legislation that would take Britain out of the EU. Prime Minister Boris Johnson will try again today to force an election. He hopes to win a majority in Parliament so he can push his withdrawal agreement through over the objections of the opposition parties. As you can tell, Britain is still deeply divided over Brexit.

But as NPR's Frank Langfitt reports from London, at least some communities on either side of the debate have been trying to understand one another.

FRANK LANGFITT, BYLINE: Julie Perot (ph) lives in the town of Boston. It's a three-hour drive north of London. It's mostly white and relies heavily on migrant labor from Europe. And more than any other town in the country, it voted to leave the EU.

JULIE PEROT: We're not racist. We was just so fed up of being ignored. We was just so fed up of everyone coming here but was not being able to have the public services and things like that to cope with it.

LANGFITT: More than a hundred miles to the south lies Lambeth, a multicultural borough of London, which voted more than any other to remain in Europe. Sara Siegel (ph) grew up outside of Chicago but has called Lambeth home for nearly a decade. Now a British citizen, she wanted the U.K. to stay in the EU. The referendum result hit Siegel hard.

SARA SIEGEL: I was shocked. I just cried and cried and cried (laughter) because I'm an immigrant. I'm not European, but I live in a very immigrant-heavy neighborhood. And it felt like a real rejection of all of that. And it just felt like a harbinger of bad things to come.

LANGFITT: As in America, where people live in the U.K. tends to drive how they vote, which means fewer opportunities to encounter different perspectives. In the heated days before the 2016 referendum, a far-right extremist murdered Jo Cox, a pro-EU member of Parliament.

Cox's death inspired what are called More in Common groups to help bridge this gap. Perot and Siegel are both members of their local groups, which first met a few months after the referendum. Julian Thompson, chairman of the Boston group, invited Siegel and a couple of the Lambeth members to stay at his house.

JULIAN THOMPSON: Wife was a little bit apprehensive. I was a little more trusting with it because I'd already spoken to them before.

LANGFITT: What was your wife concerned about?

THOMPSON: Strangers being in our home.

LANGFITT: Irfan Mohammed a local politician and member of the Lambeth group, was anxious for another reason. His family is originally from Pakistan.

IRFAN MOHAMMED: The main thing that everyone talked about was immigration, immigration, immigration. When I got told - oh, we're going to Boston - I thought a bit - when they see me, they'll be like - oh, my God; another immigrant has come again.

LANGFITT: But Mohammed says it went better than expected.

MOHAMMED: The reception we received was amazing. We didn't feel like outsiders. We felt welcome. We talked. We listened to their issues.

LANGFITT: Last month, group members met for the 11th time here in London for a boat ride along the Thames...

UNIDENTIFIED TOUR GUIDE: Look to your left, and you will see the domed cathedral known as St Paul's Cathedral...

LANGFITT: ...And then lunch at the city's migration museum.


LANGFITT: People say life in both communities hasn't been easy since the referendum. Marta Sodel (ph), who's Polish and lives in Lambeth, said she was a recent victim of verbal abuse.

MARTA SODEL: Someone told me, like, you'd better go home - back home, go back to Poland - things like that.

LANGFITT: Anna Kushto (ph) said she encountered something similar in a local park in Boston.

ANNA KUSHTO: I was told to - basically that I would be punched in my face, said I supposed to F-off to my own country.

LANGFITT: Since 2015, the year before the Brexit vote, reports of hate crime have risen 50% according to the U.K. government.



UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: Four teas. How do you take it? Milk, sugar?


LANGFITT: The More in Common groups weren't designed to change opinions. But Sara Siegel says getting to know people from Boston has at least helped her better understand why they voted the way they did.

SIEGEL: To kind of see the effects of immigration on a small town that maybe wasn't prepared for it and then the government doesn't support the influx of immigrants, it kind of gave me another perspective. It doesn't change my mind, but it was sort of interesting.

LANGFITT: And Julian Thompson says he appreciates why multicultural Lambeth embraces the EU and why its immigrant community was drawn to Britain.

THOMPSON: We've gained a lot of friendships and understanding of why these people came here and what drove them to come here. And when you sit around the table and listen to how it is in their country and how backward it is insofar as economically and how good a living it is here, you can understand why they've done that.

LANGFITT: At a time when Britain has never been so polarized, Sara Siegel says it's reassuring to be able to reach out across the political chasm.

SIEGEL: If the country continued to do this all over, I think that'd be a wonderful thing because it just means you reconnect as communities rather than as, you know, warring tribes.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #3: All right. Off we go.


LANGFITT: After a group photo, members of Boston More in Common filed out of the museum, boarded a bus and began their long drive home.

Frank Langfitt, NPR News, London.

(SOUNDBITE OF DIIV & ZACHARY COLE SMITH'S "BENT [ROI'S SONG]") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Frank Langfitt is NPR's London correspondent. He covers the UK and Ireland, as well as stories elsewhere in Europe.