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Brit in Baltimore: The European Union was worth keeping

As a British woman living in the U.S., I've had a difficult time observing the Brexit referendum campaign from afar. The murder this month of Member of Parliament Jo Cox, a leader in the effort to keep Britain in the European Union, made me question my belief that even though we have our issues, Britain is safe and we won't inflict pain on those who disagree with us. Since Thursday's vote to leave the EU, I've never missed home more or worried so much about its prospects as a nation.

My social media feeds are filled with analysis — a mix of fear, confusion and name calling; some have implied that England is full of regressive, idiotic bigots because of the "Britain first" (read "anti-immigrant") component to leaving the EU. That's not the England I know, nor the England I love.

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I was born and raised in London; it's one of the most diverse cities in the world. I am the granddaughter of a Nigerian immigrant, and my friends are Irish, Polish, Scottish, Indian, French, English, Jamaican, Ghanaian, Qatari, Sudanese. Yet we're united as Londoners by our cynicism, our love of complaining about the weather and the collective grumbling that fills the platform whenever we hear the train is delayed (again). We grapple with our complicated identities in different ways, yet somehow we all seemed unapologetically and proudly British.

Londoners mostly voted to remain in the EU. Those who wanted to leave were largely from outside the city and many are part of the British working class, many of whom live in post-industrial towns that have been failed and neglected by multiple governments since the Margaret Thatcher era.

It is too easy to characterize them as backward or narrow-minded; this portrait lacks nuance. Their insecurity, fear and sense of loss is legitimate.

But, much like Mr. Trump is doing in America, legitimate concerns were exploited by the leaders of the leave campaign, who claimed the EU was the enemy. They made false promises and said that by keeping foreigners out of Britain, somehow our nation would be richer — both materially and culturally — even when empirical evidence suggests otherwise.

Rather than trying to unpack the genuine pain that would make people want to vote "leave," some within the "remain" campaign simply dismissed their concerns, labeling them fascists or anti-intellectuals. And as the date of the referendum neared, the tone of the leave campaign became more xenophobic, appealing to visceral emotion rather than reason.

My grandfather came to England from Nigeria in 1961, propelled by the belief that a better life lay overseas. Most of his family disapproved of his decision, but, armed with gumption and faith, he traveled to London. It was a hostile and very different place then, and landlords were open about their refusal to rent to black tenants. Yet my grandfather made a life there, and today, my family stands as an example of the social mobility immigrants can achieve. If there were such a thing as a "British dream," we lived it.

I worry for those who voted to leave the union in the hope it would mean a better life for them and their children. I'm not sure things will be better. What I do know is that our union, however fractured, was worth keeping. There was some beauty in the optimism that underpinned the pursuit and attainment of a European Union, even if there were bureaucratic issues and problems that still needed to be resolved.

I attended University College London, considered a top-notch global university, and studied at the School of Slavonic and Eastern European Studies, where the international scope of my friendship circle widened and deepened. I remember attending the engagement party for a Jewish classmate with friends of Sri-Lankan and Arab descent. We thought nothing of it. We were all Londoners, we were all Brits, and, ultimately, we were just friends.

The England I know is a variety of shades, cultural backgrounds and ethnicities, where we sit alongside each other as equals. There are complications and problems, but ultimately I thought we had more holding us together than pulling us apart.

Christiana Amarachi Mbakwe is recent graduate of Columbia Journalism School and an intern at The Baltimore Sun; her email is cmbakwe@baltsun.com.

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