Sheshe at work, wearing her trademark lip colour. Photo by Holly Munks ⓒ Social Streets CIC
CultureLife & living

This is Home: Sheshe, a French-Algerian in Poplar

After nearly a decade in London, Sheshe is still in love with the city, and prouder than ever of her French-Algerian roots. We spoke to her about discrimination in France, finding community in Poplar and balancing motherhood with adventure.

It’s a glorious late spring day in Poplar – the kind of day to meet Sheshe. A petite woman with dark hair in a sleek bun and an easy smile, she radiates warmth. After a friendly greeting, she catches me up on her morning. 

Sheshe, 31, was born in Lyon but now lives in Poplar. Her parents are second-generation Algerian immigrants and raised her in the Muslim faith. Sheshe describes their heritage as Berber. 

Arab conquerors coined the term in the eighth century to describe the diverse collection of tribes that have inhabited North Africa’s Maghreb for over 4000 years. France colonised Algeria in the 1800s, and it was only in 1962 after the Algerian War that the nation gained independence. 

Relations between France and its former colony remain tense. In 2021, French President Emmanuel Macron asked Algerians to forgive past injustices but also halved the number of visas France would issue them. 

Sheshe came to England in 2015 and works in clothing retail on Regent Street. She takes her son to school each morning, and on her days off, they usually have a slower start. He is nearly four, with increasingly strong views on his outfits. But today they were running a tight ship; he had to be at the nursery by 8.30 sharp for a much-anticipated farm outing. 

We find a table in Saffi Café. Sheshe’s makeup sparkles in the sunlight streaming through the window. She intercepts before I can place my bag on the floor; I must put it on the chair next to us, she explains. That way, my purse will always be full. Her eyes twinkle as she delivers this wisdom, ending the sentence with a giggle. 

Laughter is Sheshe’s punctuation. It is disarming – even more serious statements are soft around the edges. It’s easy to see why her family call her “The Smile”.

Another nickname is rouge à lèvres – lipstick – without which Sheshe is rarely seen. As we begin the interview, she stirs her English breakfast tea with a manicured hand.

You grew up in France – can you tell me a bit about that?

I was born and raised in a city called Lyon. Quite south, not by the sea, but almost. It’s a big city, but it’s still green. It’s not as busy [as London]. I have just one sibling, one big brother. And all my family – aunties, uncles, everyone – was around. On est très famille – really close.

I don’t have anyone in England. So at first, it was hard. That’s one of the reasons why I chose London. I can be home in a couple of hours if I need to.

How did your Algerian background impact your upbringing?

My family speaks Berber, which is completely different from Arabic. My mom is fluent though I’m not. I was always scared of getting told off for saying something wrong!

We visited Algeria a few times when I was growing up. At that time, there weren’t many tourists. I think people were scared. Because of history, you know – immigration, colonialism. French people are afraid they may be harassed. You cannot forget the past, you can’t erase it, so that can create tension between communities. 

But it’s a beautiful country, and there are so many things to see. One day I hope I can bring my son there too. 

Even when I meet people now, they say: ‘You’re not like the French people I’ve met.’ Having those roots makes all the difference. We are really open, sharing everything. 

We are really proud – we don’t like to be mixed up. Sometimes people will ask whether I am Moroccan, or Egyptian – even Italian. It’s just funny really. I’m not offended by it.

Have you noticed a difference in how English and French people react to your heritage?

There are always assumptions. Especially because of my name, Shéhérazade. It’s not British and it’s not French either. There are always questions about it. 

France is a big country, a lot of people with different backgrounds, especially North Africans from ex-colonies. Lately, you feel a lot of racism. It’s always been there, but from what I’ve heard, it has become worse in the last few years. When I grew up, it was not that bad. But now, I don’t think I would go back there, because it’s really serious. 

For example, you would never go into a store and see a woman wearing a hijab.  If your head is covered, you will not be hired for a job – it doesn’t matter what you studied. Just because of your name, they might not get in touch with you. None of the women in my family cover their heads, because we have chosen to practise our faith in our own way. But one day I might decide to wear a hijab, and in France, you are always aware of the prejudice that brings. 

That’s why I thought about coming to London. Just to avoid all this judgement. Here, there is a sense of freedom. Everyone is accepted as they are. 

In France, I am not French and in Algeria, I’m not Algerian. I wouldn’t say it affects me too much, but it is sad not knowing where you belong. What do I tell my kids? My child will not just be British – all these different cultures will be part of him.

There’s a lot more tolerance in England, though people say things are becoming worse here too. I haven’t noticed people acting less tolerant towards my community specifically, but people do seem a lot crazier now. There are so many things going on and I am a bit worried for my son as well. Compared to nine years ago, when I moved here, it is definitely scarier.

What triggered your move to the UK?

I studied languages in France, then I was working in schools. I just thought it was really boring – nothing was changing much, you know? I thought it was time to change city and country. I knew that London was really vibrant – a lot of things to see, to do, and a lot of opportunities as well. I decided to take the big step and move here. 

I was working for a British family in Putney as an au pair. I came over in April 2015 when I was 24 and stayed with them for six months. It was great and I met a lot of other au pairs. One became my friend and she still is! She’s Colombian. We clicked and basically, we decided to leave our families and to live together. What was reassuring for me was that she had been in London before and she knew how it was. 

I spoke English before I came to London, but it’s different when you’re having conversations in real life. Some English phrases still don’t make sense to me! For example, calling a child a ‘good boy’ or ‘good girl’ like you’re speaking to a dog. I used to get offended when people would say that to my son, because French is more specific about different phrases for different situations.

Do you have a favourite French saying?

On n’a pas gardé les cochons ensemble. It literally means: ‘to have not looked after pigs together.’ You normally use it when someone is too familiar with you. For example, there are different versions ‘you’ in French, depending on how well you know someone. So if you are close, you call the person ‘tu’. If you don’t really know them or want to show respect, you say ‘vous’. So when someone is being too friendly, you might think to yourself: ‘It’s not like we have looked after pigs together!’

How did you end up in Poplar and why did you stay?

My husband and I moved to East London about four years ago, just before my son was born. Mainly because of how easy it is to commute from here – you can go anywhere and in 20 minutes you are in the city. Before that, I lived with my friend in Elephant and Castle. I found a job nearby, waitressing in a luxury hotel in Bankside. I have lots of happy memories from that time, but I really love it here. 

Where we live in Devon’s Road, around the newer flats, it’s really quiet. But at the same time, there is still a lot going on. You can travel around and still feel safe. At night I can go out and have dinner with a friend. When I come home, I’m not worried about taking public transport and walking back from the station.

Then you have the trendier areas in Hackney or Shoreditch if you want to go out on the weekends, but stay close by. If I lived further away, I wouldn’t be able to do as much. Bartlett Park is also a weekly destination! 

How has your life changed since becoming a mother?

A lot more responsibility. It’s a beautiful chapter, but it’s hard being responsible for a little human being. You tend to worry about the future and making the best decisions because it affects not only yourself, but also the whole family. 

I wish my son could grow up with his grandparents in France. But I don’t think I want to take that risk and the violence that comes with it. So we just embrace our life here. 

It is sad, but my family completely understands. Sometimes when I tell them things I am witnessing here, like women wearing headscarves, they are like: ‘Oh wow, that’s amazing!’ They know it is for the best. 

Plus, I was pregnant during COVID, and I gave birth in August 2020. It was not the best experience – something I would rather erase from my memory. It’s always really tough living far from family and giving birth, but this was just awful. 

My husband could stay for the birth but then he had to leave afterwards, and he couldn’t visit me. My mother came over from France but she couldn’t come in either. It was the toughest thing that could happen – but it didn’t happen just to me. 

My son was really sick his first four months – vomiting every night, not putting on any weight. Turns out he was just lactose intolerant. I managed to get an emergency passport and flew back to France to work out what was wrong. 

Here, they wouldn’t do any tests. They treat you like you’re crazy and don’t know anything because you’re a first-time mom. But you still have this instinct – it’s hard to explain. After something like that, you have no trust in the health system. It’s really sad for me to say that in 2024, in such a modern country. 

What influences you most in deciding where to set up your life?

Probably job opportunities. My husband is also a fashionista so that is something we could do together – start our own business. 

At the moment he has an office job, but we would love to create something around fashion and culture as well – both of our backgrounds, mix it up. That is a dream. As for now, I think it’s something we could only achieve by moving out [of London].

If there was less racism in France, I would go back. It would be amazing to raise my son near his grandparents. But London will always be special to me. 

There is a lot of redevelopment in Poplar. Are you worried about it becoming less affordable?

Yeah, it is changing actually. Lots of developments and new buildings. I know they are planning a new development around Chrisp Street Market. When we first moved here, I didn’t know anything about Chrisp Street. Then I discovered it and realised it was nice. 

I think the new plan will be a plus for the area. I think people appreciate it, because it can make the area attractive. It could even be trendy in a couple of years.

You can tell with the rent increasing every year, especially for families, it could make it harder to stay here. There is a cost to that [development]. It becomes really difficult to get into a good school because there are so many kids around. I guess there are good things and bad things at the same time. 

London is a beautiful city but it’s also very expensive. As a family, you need to have your own space. So you worry about rent and good schools. Will I be able to afford what I want for my child? That is also a big question. It is not easy for many families and many people. If I add up all the rents I have paid in London, I would probably have a castle in Lyon! 

How do you feel part of the community?

There are a lot of families living here and the community is just perfect. We are all living together with our different cultures. Sometimes it’s sad not being able to celebrate with your family but we know we are welcome to join other people celebrating here. 

We practise our faith at home mainly, but there are lots of festivals in the area, so we still feel part of the Muslim community. The Halal Food Festival is a great way to meet people from different cultures who share the same beliefs. 

My husband is from Senegal and has a lot of friends with kids. Even though they are not family, it’s as if they are. We gather whenever we can. And Algerians and Senegalese, we are close. We always help each other. 

We try to do birthday parties with kids from my son’s school. But it is hard with London’s busy life. I used to complain that things went so slowly in France – I don’t have that issue here! 

What reminds you of home?

Food has always been very important in my family. My mom is an amazing cook. She is not a chef, but she could have been! African dishes, French dishes, she mastered everything. That’s something I really miss, so I call her a lot and try to recreate her recipes, even if they are not as good. 

We also have our butcher in Elephant and Castle. We do the commute every month! I find a lot of French products and spices there that remind me of my childhood. Then I give them to my son to try as well. 

My mom’s couscous, with tender lamb shank falling off the bone, is my favourite recipe. It’s just so yummy that you will eat your fingers! Unfortunately, I did not practise cooking enough when I was younger. She told me: ‘One day you will want some and maybe I won’t be there…’ I used to say I would just go to a restaurant, but it’s not the same. I love baking though. My son is like me – he has a sweet tooth. He’ll eat anything I bake. 

Do you have items that keep you close to your culture? 

Yeah, I do have a few things. Berber earrings, scarves. It passes from mother to daughter, and being the only daughter, I don’t have to share anything! I inherited a Berber necklace from my grandmother. It’s made from sterling silver and decorated with stones in the typical colours. There is blue for the sky, green for nature, yellow for light and red, which represents the sun and is always in the middle of the design. I love to mix fashion with my heritage, so I can wear a European-style outfit but add my Berber jewellery to it. 

Traditional silver Berber necklace and earrings, with multicoloured stones on a piece of black fabric.
Sheshe’s Berber jewellery is currently at home in Lyon, but her mother was kind enough to photograph it for us. Photo by Fatima O. ⓒ Social Streets CIC

I’ve kind of adopted my husband’s culture as well. In Senegal, people have tailors who custom-make their outfits for special occasions. The fabric is always really colourful – we call it le basin riche – it’s a thick damask cotton. Our tailor in Senegal has our measurements, so he makes outfits for us and sends them all the way to London. Usually couples wear matching outfits – the same colours but different designs. 

What traits do you hope your son will inherit from you?

I just hope he will feel proud of his roots. His West African background from his dad, North African from me. It’s very important to me that he learns about these countries. I want him to be proud of it because I am proud of it. I don’t want anything to be lost in translation.

I want him to be respectful and not to judge. That’s what I love about London. Being able to grow up in a city with so many different cultures and just trying to learn about each other. That’s why I love to travel as well. You learn so much and it really opens your mind. 

What is the best way to build understanding between cultures?

You need to be open. Try to learn, to understand and form your own opinion. Not just listen like a sheep and follow the crowd. 

We are Muslim and we celebrate Eid, but we always had a Christmas tree when I was growing up. My parents were really open-minded. 

I will teach my son that we respect certain rules, like the fact that we don’t drink alcohol, for example. When he grows up and has his own house, he can do what he likes. It’s just about respecting people. It’s a tolerant religion and the last thing you should do is judge. 

If you listen to people, you can think for yourself instead of just being hypnotised. If people start listening to each other, we can change this world.

If you enjoyed this story, you may like This is Home: Chinese in Poplar

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