Turkish Londoners -

Elif Fincanci-Smith with her son, Calum

Date of photography:  18th October 2017

There are some parts of north and north-east London where you might gain the impression that you are in a Turkish city.   Dalston, for example, has recently been called ‘Little Istanbul’, although such neighbourhoods are by no means Turkish ghettos;  these are truly mixed communities that happen to include, amongst other nationalities, Turks from mainland Turkey, Turks from other EU states, from the Balkans, from Algeria, and from Turkish Cyprus too, all of whom have come to settle and work in London, swelling London’s estimated Turkish population to between 200,000 and 400,000.   A member of this big, diverse Turkish community, Elif runs a successful business closely associated with the pharmaceutical industry;  though they have British and international clients too, they work with a significant number of businesses located elsewhere in the EU.   The prospect of new barriers to trade, post-Brexit, have led to some hasty decisions to relocate both production and HQ functions of ‘Big Pharma’ from the UK to elsewhere in Europe, and this trend will almost certainly impact upon Elif’s own business.   But Elif is an optimist:  she will stand up in defence of doing business in this great city of ours, and she aims to remain in what is her adopted country, Britain.   (She will, of course, stand up for her motherland, too.)

The full story:

There are some parts of north and north-east London (and, indeed, a few parts of south London) where you might form the impression that you are walking through a Turkish city.   Dalston, for example, has recently been referred to as a “Little Istanbul”:  Turkish is the predominant language spoken on the street, both traditional and popular Turkish music spills out from people’s windows, and virtually all the shops and restaurants serve the Turkish community’s traditional foods, offering an astonishing range of delicatessen, groceries and other foodstuffs.   But please don’t misunderstand the above picture;  this is no sort of Turkish ghetto, it is a truly mixed community that happens to include Turks from mainland Turkey, Turks who’ve moved here from other parts of the EU, and Turks from the Balkans and from Algeria, all of whom have come to settle and to trade in London.   There are also Turkish Cypriots, as well as numbers of ‘Turkish’ Kurds who, though they maintain their discrete ethnic identity, often settle in Turkish quarters for linguistic and other practical reasons - they are usually bilingual.   Estimates of London’s Turkish population vary, largely because Turkish Cypriots and Kurds from Turkey are sometimes classified separately, but a figure of between 200,000 and 400,000 is sometimes quoted.

While there are records documenting the arrival of the first ‘official’ Turkish immigrant  to London, in the 1880’s, as long ago as the late 16th century, Turkish galley slaves were freed from Spanish ships during the longstanding conflict between Protestant England and Catholic Spain, and many were subsequently brought back to London.

And after those conflicts, came coffee!   In 1652, with his Turkish servant, a coffee-loving British merchant, trading with the Levant, opened London’s first coffee house in the Temple, and was soon serving over 600 cups of this novel beverage every day.   Coffee houses quickly became fashionable and, within just a few years, 80 such establishments were doing business in the city.   These were places where people gathered to drink coffee, to learn the news of the day, and perhaps to meet with other local residents and discuss matters of mutual concern.   They were places where Tories met Tories and Whigs met Whigs, tradesmen mixed with poets, merchants and men of fashion and leisure, not to mention the somewhat shadier characters of the period.   The absence of alcohol created an atmosphere in which it was possible to engage in more serious conversation than in an alehouse, and to do business;  coffee houses thus played an important role in the development of financial markets and the earliest newspapers, and even became known as the ‘penny universities’ - a penny being the price of a cup of coffee.

Turkish migration continued, increasing noticeably after the signing of the Anglo-Ottoman Treaty, in 1799, when imports from the Levant grew considerably.   In 1865,  Ottoman intellectuals established the London Young Ottomans as a vehicle for voicing criticism of an Ottoman regime that was seen as increasingly parlous.   Many more political activists and intellectuals came to London following the ‘Young Turk Revolution’ of July 1908 and again, after the First World War. London became a safe haven for resistance to the declining power of the sultans and the birth-place of some of the progressive ideas that informed the creation of Atatürk’s modern Turkey.   It remains to be seen whether or not, in these days when mass hysteria is so easily engendered amongst the more xenophobic Brits by even modest immigration, Britain is going to welcome those present-day activists who have to flee from the increasingly repressive regime of President Erdogan, assuming that they are not already languishing in Turkish gaols.

When, in the 1920’s, the British Empire annexed Cyprus, many Turkish Cypriots came to London to study or to find work and, during the Great Depression that followed the Stock Market Crash of 1929, many more Cypriots arrived here as economic migrants.  There was a further exodus of Turks from Cyprus during the years of EOKA terrorism, a time when there was a real possibility of Cyprus uniting with mainland Greece and when Greek Cypriots seized control of most state institutions, rendering Turkish Cypriots a disadvantaged minority.

The Ankara Agreement, a treaty signed between the EU and Turkey in 1963, also stimulated the influx of mostly young, Turkish entrepreneurs, many of whom opened businesses in London where they subsequently started their families.

With so many Turkish natives having settled and established themselves in London since the 1950’s and 1960’s, the UK capital became a magnet not just for the relatives of existing immigrants, often from rural Turkey, but also for a new wave of highly skilled workers, intellectuals, professionals and students, many of whom joined what was by then the very well-developed Turkish community of London.

With the above potted history in mind, it was a great pleasure for me to be invited to the south-west London home of Elif Fincanci-Smith who is herself Turkish, although her husband, Alberto, has dual Spanish/Scottish heritage (his mother was Spanish and his father a Scot).   They have two children, both now adults, and her son, Calum, kindly agreed to join his mother in the picture.

I asked Elif to tell me a little about herself, which she did with delightful informality:  “Yes, Milan, I was born in the capital, Ankara, into a professional family.   My father was a journalist;  he was a reporter at first but went on to become the editor of a national newspaper.   My mother worked for the Turkish Government but also, later on, for several NGO’s.   They had two children, me and my younger sister.   I went to nursery and primary schools in Ankara but when my father got a job working for the BBC Turkish Section, in May 1970, we left Ankara for London.  I was 10 and, to be honest, it was quite daunting for me to leave all our extended family behind, and to say goodbye to my school friends too.   Instead of settling in one of London’s Turkish enclaves, we lived in the Kew/Richmond area which my father fell in love with while house hunting.   In comparison with our home in Ankara, it felt quite suburban - there were not many foreigners there at all at that time.   It took us some time to get used to what seemed to be very strange things, like shops closing at 5.30 pm, or shutting early on Wednesdays.   I also remember that my mother had to adapt her cooking as there were no peppers or aubergines to be seen anywhere in the local shops.   Of course, these things were to be had from Turkish shops in north London, even then.   Both my parents were fluent English speakers and, as they were professional people, they were fortunate in not having to struggle the way many new arrivals have to struggle:  my mother continued to work for a major NGO and she also carried on travelling extensively.”

“I had to complete my last year of primary education at a school in Kew so, as you can well imagine, I was rather thrown in at the deep end:  I had no choice but to learn English pretty rapidly though in fairness, given our young age, my sister and I mastered the new language surprisingly quickly and we were fluent within months.   I continued my secondary school in Chiswick, progressing from there to a Sixth Form College in Richmond, where I did my ‘A’ Levels.   Having always been interested in the sciences, I went on to University College London, where I studied  Genetics and Microbiology.”

“I was keen to do research in genetics and started a PhD but I soon realised that laboratory research was not for me.   Instead, I managed to find a trainee editor job in scientific publishing, and I continued in this area of work for about 10 years - for three of those years, we lived in Edinburgh and I worked as a freelance editor there too.   Hannah, our daughter, was actually born in Scotland.   After the family’s return to London, I carried on freelancing until I discovered the world of medical communications, where I have worked, in various agencies, for more than 20 years now, going from editorial manager to board-level positions.”

Four years ago, Elif and two experienced colleagues launched their own agency, a company that specialises in medical communications.  They work closely with pharmaceutical companies to produce educational programmes for healthcare professionals, and increasingly for patients.   The new company is doing well, operates internationally with global clients, and undertakes a lot of work within the EU.

I asked Elif if she had faced any discrimination in the UK as a newly-arrived Turkish girl, or later on, as a professional woman in an executive position;  she responded:  “As I mentioned before, in both my Kew and Chiswick schools there were few foreigners at that time;  my sister and I were therefore more objects of curiosity than targets for discrimination - we simply spoke and looked a bit different.   I have been fortunate, as an adult, not to have had to deal with any major discrimination, largely because other people don’t really see me as an outsider - perhaps because I don’t look or sound like a foreigner.”

Elif and Alberto’s son, Calum, who is now 28, studied Digital Media Engineering, has freelanced in the past, and is now about to set up his own business, supporting other companies with their digital media activities and projects.  Their daughter, Hannah, aged 25, originally studied Geography and is currently in Copenhagen, in the second year of a Master’s Degree on Climate Change and Sustainability.   She is passionate about the environment and specifically, about the impact that human conflict has on both the environment and on human society as a whole - a subject that looks likely to keep her busily engaged for many years to come!

As Brexit, and what could well be our turbulent and disruptive exit from the European Union, are every day in the headlines, I asked Elif how she felt about the pre-referendum, pro-leave propaganda that 74 million Turks already had their suitcases packed, ready to swamp Europe, a human tidal wave that would even reach our shores if we were daft enough to stay a member of the EU.   Elif’s response to this question was vigorous, to say the least:  “Milan, listening to all those streams of lies and half-truths during the Referendum campaign put me in a state beyond anger.  There was no informed debate, just bickering about non-issues and lots of distorted statistics.   I still find it hard to believe that we have ended up in this ridiculous situation which will undoubtedly do much harm to this country.   I am Turkish, of course;  I am a British citizen too;  but above all, I am an internationalist.   I don’t see myself as a Turk or a Brit, I see myself as European.”

Next, I asked Elif if Brexit had affected her business;  after a little thought, she answered:  “Well, not directly, not at this stage anyway, but some of our staff are from the EU so they may be affected first.   However, what does worry me is that quite a few of the ‘Big Pharma’ companies, currently based in the UK, could contemplate the relocation of their headquarters to continental Europe, and if they go on and do that, it will probably affect us, simply because, geographically, they will be that much further away.  They might well choose to patronise other agencies that are more convenient, more local.  In addition, relocating headquarters, or creating new European subsidiaries, will no doubt be costly and those costs will impact on company budgets, possibly to the detriment of any work coming in our direction.   Milan, we live in very uncertain times for business.”

Commenting further upon the effect of the Brexit Referendum on life in London, Elif continued:  “As you know, the majority of Londoners voted to stay within the EU.   London is, in my opinion, always being shaped by new arrivals;  it’s nothing new and it’s always been like that.   But I appreciate that London is not representative of the rest of the country.   Brexit has done untold damage to those families who are divided, to British families who have settled or are studying in other EU countries, like our daughter.   What is significant, in my opinion, is how people interact with each other and, even in London, that seems to have changed.   Nevertheless, whatever the final outcome, I believe that London will continue to thrive - its heterogeneity is its strength.

Thankfully, unlike many other immigrants, Elif and her family were not subject to any xenophobic abuse, either during or after the Referendum campaign, but hate crimes against foreigners soared by 41% after the Referendum.   Anyone with a foreign accent, anyone wearing ‘ethnic clothes’,  or indeed anyone not white enough became a target, almost overnight.  Turkish Londoners were no exception either.   Many of us watched with horror the video-footage of a Turkish pensioner being attacked on a bus in Tottenham;  his attacker was a young man, a total stranger, who shouted, “Speak English or go back to your own country!   You’re talking in a different language and nobody knows what you’re saying.   Go back to Turkey if you talk that shit.”   The attacker continued:  “That’s why you’re here, mate - free benefits and a walker.  Well, mate, your walker is going to go flying when this bus stops!”   And so it did:  the video ends with him telling the passengers to “Vote UKIP” before throwing the pensioner’s zimmer frame out of the bus.   In London, a historic melting pot of people from all over the world, this incident was only one of many that took place on public transport within the same week.  In the outskirts of London, a Polish man was kicked to death for speaking in Polish,  and a young Czech man died similarly on the streets of East London.


I enquired of Elif how much contact she still had with the ‘old country’:  “Oh, I still have a lot of contact.   My parents are back there, in retirement, and the rest of my extended family are there too.   In the recent past, Turkey has been economically buoyant, successful in trade, innovation and development;  but now, we are living in difficult times right across Europe and beyond.   Every day seems to bring a new low.”

Listening to Elif, I cannot help but sense her sadness that the future seems rather joyless and bleak:  Britain, where she has made her home, is embarking on a perilous journey into an uncertain future.   But what is also quite clear to me is that Elif is an optimist:  through her business and together with her family and the next generation, Elif will stand up for all that is best in this great city of ours, for her adopted country, Britain, and for her motherland too.   It has been a real honour to meet her and her son.

Text edited:  31st January 2018

Page modified: 17th March 2019