Historically, the word ‘foreigner’ has had negative connotations: alien, outsider. Is that about to change? Franki Cookney meets the co-founder of a UK-based online magazine showcasing stories that highlight how diversity and tolerance can be a force for good
“You wouldn’t want to be a foreigner, right?” Francesca Oddenino laughs, but she’s making a serious point. Too often, she says, foreigners are portrayed as desperate survivors bent on invading society to meet their own needs.
As the co-founder of online magazine, Foreigner, Oddenino wants to unpick the notion that some might have of migrants being a faceless group of intruders. Instead, she aims to present them as unique individuals.
“The way social media portrays foreigners is superficial. It’s often as someone who’s detached from society, with no depth,” she says. “We felt compelled to show that there is so much more to being a foreigner than that.”
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The project aims to ‘rebrand’ the term by showcasing people’s stories and photos, including those of fashion designer Anne-Sophie Cochevelou, who is originally from France, and India-born entrepreneur Malav Sanghavi.
The idea was conceived by Oddenino and three of her friends after a dinnertime discussion about how Britain talks and thinks about foreigners. They are a team of four, all born outside the UK themselves, from Italy, Germany and France, with backgrounds in design, finance and journalism. Alongside the magazine, they intend to get involved in awareness campaigns and events promoting diversity and tolerance. But, notes Oddenino, they remain non-political.
“The initial trigger was the post-Brexit animosity and backlash. As foreigners ourselves, we felt unwanted and that was a feeling many of our friends shared,” she says. “We recognise that foreigners are part of the political agenda, but we don’t want to protest; we want to take a more positive approach.”
One of the issues, she says, is that many people see foreigners as ‘too different’. The team will challenge this by showing that rather than being disruptive or destabilising, difference can actually be a force for good.
“Diversity can bring different ideas to the table, different points of view. It helps us tackle issues in ways that maybe we wouldn’t have thought of before.”
Moreover, she says, far from being greedy and disinterested, many foreigners move because they want to learn, contribute and experience a new culture. “You’re trying to push your boundaries, get out of your comfort zone, challenge yourself. Becoming a foreigner is about fulfilling a need that’s stronger than simply being comfortable.”
Diversity can bring different ideas to the table, different points of view
The team also acknowledge that people relocate to the UK for a wide variety of reasons: from those who have made decisions based on education or lifestyle, to people who arrive as desperate, often traumatised, refugees for whom there is very little choice involved.
Oddenino’s own experience of living in a new country has made her more empathetic. “If we had a long-term goal, it would be for everyone to try to give it a go. It’s healthy to get outside your comfort zone, it enriches you as a person. Instead of ‘foreigner’ being something you don’t want to be, we see it as aspirational.”
India-born entrepreneur Sanghavi is the founder of LifeCradle, a startup that makes affordable cardboard baby incubators for use in developing countries
“I was born and raised in India and came to London in 2014 to study innovation design engineering. After finishing my master’s, my goal was to have a startup, and London is a major hub of innovation, providing entrepreneurs with connections, exposure and resources.
The UK has provided me with many big opportunities that I might not have got anywhere else. Forming a company, getting a patent filed and acquiring funding was way faster and easier here than it would have been elsewhere.
In fact, LifeCradle was a winner at a [email protected] competition hosted by Prince Andrew. It also helped me get into Forbes’ 30 Under 30 Europe.
Coming from a developing nation gives me a whole new perspective. While working here, I always remember the problems faced by people back home. I think people here have an eye for social innovation and they understand the need for products that help society.
My goals are to channel my entrepreneurial spirit into developing a system of sustainable and affordable healthcare at the grassroots, giving back to society. I would love to settle down here. What words do I associate with ‘foreigner’? Strange. Adventure. Exciting.”
French-born designer Cochevelou lives and works in east London
“I came to the UK in 2011 to do a master’s in performance design and practice at Central Saint Martins College of Art. It was my dream school. People like John Galliano, Stella McCartney and Alexander McQueen graduated from there.
London is the best place for me because of the mentality, eccentricity and the creativity. I fell in love with British culture and did my best to integrate myself. I have very few French friends. My British boyfriend often says: ‘I have more French friends than you!’
Home is here. I like to pretend I am British. I like to wear bright colours; I don’t have the typical chic Parisian style. As a designer, I love that people can dress up without being judged.
Living abroad has to be exciting. You have to be proactive and make things happen. People are scared of foreigners because it is something they don’t know. But people are not really scared of the dark, they are scared of what could potentially be in the dark. What do I associate with the word ‘foreigner’? Exotic, mysterious, unknown.”
Featured image: Anthony Lycett