Europe’s Story: Layers of Migration

By the Associated Press – October 1, 2015

The New York Times

LONDON — London’s Brick Lane Mosque started as a church for Protestants hounded from Catholic France — for whom the word “refugee” was first coined. Later, displaced Jews turned it into a synagogue. Today, Muslims kick off their shoes in the lobby before prayers.

That layering of migrants over centuries, like strata in rock, tells a story vital for Europe to remember as it struggles with new flows of people seeking sanctuary and fresh starts.

Viewed historically, Syrians, Iraqis and others risking their lives to become European are simply marching in step with what has long been a tradition on the continent: uprooting and moving. A perpetual trample of feet — from town to town, country to country, landmass to landmass — helped create the resilient, textured, rich Europe now so appealing to asylum-seekers, by blending people, ideas and technologies.

European travelers have covered the broadest possible range, from intrepid medieval merchants like Marco Polo to today’s twenty-somethings who grew up on a borderless continent and crisscross it on low-cost flights for anything from a football match to love, jobs and more.

Across the continent, migration’s marks remain visible like footsteps in snow. Moscow’s Kremlin, for example, resembles Milan’s Sforza Castle because Italian artisans helped rebuild the fortress in the 15th century. And in 16th century Vienna, Italians introduced chimneys and built up the new industry that ensued: chimney-sweeping, said Annemarie Steidl, a University of Vienna migration expert.

“There are still chimney sweeps in Vienna, if you look in the phone book, who can trace their ancestors back to these Swiss-Italians,” she said. “It’s the story of Europe … One group after another arriving, blending in and changing our society.”

What exactly the latest newcomers contribute will depend, in part, on how they and their hosts adapt to each other. Like previous settlers, they must contend with fears that they’ll siphon away jobs, housing and other resources. But in putting down roots, they and their offspring will add strands to Europe’s tapestry.

“Each time there was an intense resistance and a notion that ‘You don’t belong here, you’re invading us,'” says Columbia University sociologist Saskia Sassen. “Then they become incorporated and build one of the layers.”

Assimilation isn’t a given. Race riots in 1950s England, mobs chasing African immigrants through streets of southern Spain in 2000 and immigrants’ children torching cars in three weeks of rioting in France in 2005 showed the process can be spectacularly fraught.

Even outsiders culturally and ethnically similar to their hosts triggered allergic reactions, even murder. In 1893, rampaging Frenchmen killed and injured dozens of Italian laborers working the salt flats of southern France. Huguenot Protestants — the original “refugees” — who escaped 17th century France were both welcomed and eyed warily in Britain. And “because they were different,” floods of Czech-speaking migrants initially provoked fear in 19th century Vienna, but then “completely blended in” in two or three generations, said Steidl.

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