Shefik Mehmet can't take five steps along Green Lanes high street in north London without someone stopping him to chat. Mehmet, a rotund Turk who has lived in this area for over 50 years, is technically retired, now that his son runs the family hair salon. But he's still busy working for the community. As chair of the local traders' association, he calms any frictions between businesses and residents. In his spare time, he works with local police to defuse clashes between ethnic gangs. Plus he's a governor at a nearby college, where he helps promote integration. And he does it all for free. "The things I do, I do not get a penny for them," he says. "If I do something for my street, my community, I do it from my heart."
Green Lanes is in London's Haringey borough, which has a population of 224,300, almost half of them ethnic minorities. The borough includes South Tottenham, an area researchers at University College London recently proclaimed the most ethnically diverse in Britain and possibly all of Western Europe with 113 ethnic groups living in it. Integrating Haringey's residents, who together speak around 193 languages, is too complex for big government to handle from above. Here, getting along is up to the people themselves.
And they seem happy to oblige in numerous ways. The new Somali Forum brings together members of a dozen different Somali organizations to ensure there's no overlap of services, and that no council funding or volunteer man hours are wasted. The Living Under One Sun project helps women of many cultures, often recently arrived in Britain. "There are many things women want to do, but don't know how to start," says Aynur Erisir, a Kurdish Turk who volunteers for the project. "Do you say 'Hi' to your neighbor, or not? Do you smile or not? You don't know their cultures and customs." So each week, women bring their children to meet at an adventure playground, where one community plays host and teaches the others about its culture.
And then there are smaller, but just as effective, acts of integration, like the Kit@p Evi café, which offers free Turkish lessons. "We can benefit from the richness that diversity brings, or let it divide us," says David Lammy, M.P. for Tottenham. "We choose to benefit." It isn't easy: "We have had to learn how to live together here." But it's work worth doing and every little bit helps. "I love this area and I don't want to see it go down," says Mehmet. "So if we're all cooking something and I put in a drop of salt to make it better, I'm proud of that."