NORWICH GATHERS IN THE NAME OF UNITY

by Hannah Rose

Norwich is reeling after The Village Shop, an Eastern European food store on Magdalen Street, was targeted in an arson attack in the early hours of July 8th. A brick was thrown through the window, waking owner Maria Purgen, and a fire then broke out inside. People in the nearby kebab shop came to the scene and shouted out to the family upstairs, who escaped via the backdoor. The emergency services were called and by 3:50am firefighters had extinguished the blaze.

Whether this was a hate-motivated crime is still unclear. It happened just hours after a Norwich Stays rally held at City Hall saw over 1,000 people gather in the name of a united Europe. However, the Norfolk constabulary has reported that they are “treating this as a deliberate ignition, an arson.” Police have not ruled out race as the motive but are “keeping an open mind” towards the rationale for this atrocity.

 

the village shop fire

Photo credit: Steve Adams

To connect this awful crime to the EU referendum may be too hasty at this moment in time, and local reporting is careful not to jump to ‘racist’ conclusions. That people feel this is an act of racism is not without reason however: the UK has seen a 57% increase in hate crimes since the leave result on the 23rd June. “I don’t want to say anything but maybe it’s to do with the referendum,” said Maria to EDP reporters. “Everyone thinks it is to do with the vote.”

After being subjected to a campaign that used a xenophobic message and scaremongering around immigration as a tactic to win votes, it’s easy to see how racism may be involved. Regardless of whether this crime was race motivated or not, the fact of the matter is that this Romanian family lost their home and business at the whim of a complete stranger. And whether the crime was committed out of racism or some other motive, it was still founded on hate. How could you destroy someone’s life like this without it being about hate?

“I was terrified, I was shaking,” Maria recalls. “We know someone did this on purpose.”

On a brighter note, the most memorable part of this story is in how our city has responded to the attack. In a tremendous display of solidarity and community in the face of anger and division, The People’s Assembly of Norwich organised a ‘love bombing’ on the morning after the fire, an event that saw entire crowds of local people coming together to pin hearts with words of support for the family.

(© Hannah Rose)

(© Hannah Rose)

Many of the messages referenced the likelihood of this being a racially motivated crime, with one reading “Racism has no place in Norwich,” and another quoting the late Jo Cox by reading “More in common than which divides us.” Messages about Norwich being a welcoming and tolerant city for migrants were also in abundance. Both topics are absolutely relevant in the wake of the Brexit vote, and also in the wake of the fire at The Village Shop (race motivated or not). We must repeat these messages and tell the world that Norwich, which became the UK’s first City of Refuge for persecuted and exiled writers in 2007, and is home to many refugee families since signing up to the Gateway Protection Programme, remains safe for people of all nationalities.

I pinned my own message there on Sunday and watched as passers by stopped to view the scene. A conversation I overheard between two children with their parents summed up the senseless nature of what had happened: “Why would someone set fire to this shop? Their cakes are amazing!”

“I was terrified, I was shaking,” Maria recalls. “We know someone did this on purpose.”

But all isn’t lost! The Village Shop will sell cakes again – and all thanks once more to the strength of our community. A crowdfunding initiative – originally with a fundraising goal of £500 – has smashed its target by reaching nearly £30,000 to date. This is such a sizeable sum, and from so many people, that it’s a much welcome sign of the strength and compassion of the Norwich community.

(© Hannah Rose)

(© Hannah Rose)

Following last Friday’s fire a second rally took place on July 12th on the steps of City Hall to show solidarity for migrants. It was hosted by Rebecca Tamas and local activists Katy Jon Went and Emily Cutler—who also organised the Norwich Stays rally and campaign. Again, hundreds came together to hear speakers including poet George Szirtes, and Andreea Abraham — daughter of The Village Shop owner. It was affirmation to the migrant and peace-loving people of Norwich that this tolerant place which will continue to provide sanctuary for those in need.

The question is – where do we go from here? As a city and as a nation? Norwich voted remain in the referendum with 56% of the vote, while the rest of the East of England voted leave. This result is a stark indication of the division present in our society. We are in danger of oversimplifying the discourse on Europe and dividing ourselves further into the tolerant VS intolerant. It is more complicated than a case of ‘whose side are you on?’ and we must not lay any claims that the leave vote was down to the racist, elderly and uneducated—a message reiterated by Katy Jon Went at last week’s rally.

(© Hannah Rose)

(© Hannah Rose)

But the events following the attack on the The Village Shop, the rallies and the love bombing, reminded me that there are so many of us in Norwich who feel that the referendum result is an attack on our values and humanity as a whole. But we, the accepting, critical-thinking and the loving, are so good at galvanising ourselves. We gather naturally. The hateful and the fearful do not. This, at least, should give us some hope for the future of Norwich.

Featured image © Hannah Rose

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