Moving Stories: The refugees who've sought safety here in the past

Councillor Charles Swift with Iqbal Manji Credit: ITV News Anglia

Over the past few centuries thousands of people have fled their home countries to find safety in the Anglia region.

Iqbal Manji came to Peterborough in 1972 when he was 14-years-old. He was one of 60,000 Asians expelled from Uganda by General Idi Amin. 27,000 of them came to Britain, including Iqbal who flew into Stansted.

Charles Swift was the Leader of Peterborough City Council at the time. After visiting a temporary reception centre at Stradishall in Suffolk he decided to offer 50 houses for Ugandan Asian refugees. As a result he was vilified by the far-right national front who marched outside his house and even put dead crows through his letterbox. Despite this Charles Swift says he has never regretted his decision - many of the Ugandan Asians were well educated and highly skilled, and most had soon found jobs.

Today there is still a large Ugandan Asian population in Peterborough, but in the past refugees have come to this country in times of crisis and left with barely a trace.

Few people know that during the First World War Britain took in 250,000 Belgian refugees who fled their homes as the German troops advanced through Europe.

Belgian refugees in Letchworth Garden City Credit: Garden City Collection, Letchworth Garden City

More than 2000 came to live in Letchworth Garden City in Hertfordshire. Most arrived with few possessions and little English, but local people opened up their homes for the refugees to stay and 1800 of them found work in a munitions factory in Letchworth making weapons for the British troops. Menus and voting cards were drawn up in English, Flemmish and French and a horse meat shop even opened in the town.

By 1918 the Belgian refugees made up more than a quarter of Letchworth's population, but just year a later they had nearly all left. Local historian Dan Hill says they wanted to get home to rebuild their country as soon as possible.

Belgian refugees working in the Letchworth munitions factory Credit: Garden City Collection, Letchworth Garden City

When the Second World War gripped Europe, Britain took in refugees once more including Tom Gondris who now lives in Ipswich with his wife. They have three children, six grandchildren and Tom has been a successful businessman, a local councillor and has an MBE.

Tom arrived in Britain when he was 9-years-old. He was born in Czechoslovakia into a Jewish family, and when Hitler invaded he managed to get the last train of our Prague to safety in England.

He was one of 669 children who were brought across from Czechoslovakia just before the Second World War. Many were housed in Barham House in Claydon in Suffolk and a holiday camp near Norwich before being fostered by British families.

Tom Gondris in Ipswich with his grandchildren Credit: ITV News Anglia

Tom's parents had planned to travel through Europe and meet him in Britain but they never made it. After being intercepted in Poland they were deported to the concentration camps and died in Auschwitz. Tom knows he was one of the lucky ones and without the Kinder Transport he probably would have perished too.

Tom is one of thousands of refugees who have been helped by communities in our region. With many wars and atrocities around the world, people have been left destitute and fearing for their lives. Each time many here have offered help.

You can hear more from Iqbal and Tom as part of our Moving Stories series by clicking below to see reports from Olivia Kinsley and Tanya Mercer. In the final part tomorrow we'll look at how people in the region have been responding to the current crisis, and we'll hear from some of those who are concerned about the additional pressure refugees could put on the region's housing and services.