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Tassaduq Ahmed MBE Tassaduq Ahmed

West meets east

Susie Symes left powerful positions in Whitehall and Brussels to devote her time to a Spitalfields - based museum.
Cathy Levy met the Notting Hill resident and visited stunning 19 Princelet Street

The article as it appeared on  in the magazine.The East End and Notting Hill Gate at first glance don't seem to share that many similarities, but according to Susie Symes, actually they do. And she's well placed to know, having lived in Notting Hill for close on 30 years and as chief executive of a vital educational and charitable project in the heart of the East End; a project that in its simplest terms aims to restore and protect one house in Spitalfields which, within its ancient, crumbling walls, carries almost the united history of the area. Surrounded on either side by luxurious private residences that offer little change from f 1 million, 19 Princelet Street, now the Museum of Immigration and Diversity, may not be as rich materially, but ethereally, emotionally, it's wealthy beyond measure - and Symes is utterly passionate about it.

"I spend a lot of time going from west to east as executive chair," she says over tea at Clarke's on Kensington Church Street. "There's so much these areas have in common. When I came to live here in the 70s, straight after my second degree in Oxford, it was around the time of some of the bad carnivals, 76 or 77, it was a very mixed area. Now it's very mixed but in a very trans­national sense. In a curious way Spitalfields is like Notting Hill back then, but many more of those people made a forced moved - they're living on the edge of cultures but they're not necessarily as at ease and at home in many different cultures. And the markets, you've got Portobello Road and Brick Lane which are both iconic roads. It's quite interesting what has drawn me to these two areas," she says in clear-spoken tones, a Mancunian twang revealing original roots. She talks across many subjects, with clarity and style; sharp, yet with warmth and compassion.

The oratory skills come from previous incarnations as director of the European Programme at the Royal Institute of International Affairs at Chatham House, from senior posts held in the European Commission in Brussels, in international affairs, trade and regional and cohesion policy. Before that, she worked for the Treasury in international finance and European affairs and that's not nearly all on an impressive CV that makes overwhelming reading, and yet she always remained behind the front lines.

"I like that. The combination of analytical power and knowing what's going on and being able to influence it from a position of power but behind the scenes. I always enjoyed that very much. When you're a politician there are so many trade offs between your own career and the kind of things you need to do. The greasy pole in a way wasn't there," she says without a hint of regret. Now she's fighting an altogether different cause, one filled with creativity and ground roots passion.

To see the building is to love the building. On the English Heritage 'at risk' register and Grade II* listed, it dates back to 1719 when a Huguenot silk merchant first made it his home. In the back, where once the garden stood, is a small synagogue built in 1869. Now, it houses a permanent exhibition, open to the public on only a sprinkling of days due to its fragility (when open they often have two hour queues outside). The atmosphere is astounding - centuries of immigrants have passed through these doors and it's difficult not to feel something of that in the peeling paintwork, the crumbling brickwork, worn wood, and original features. And they positively encourage people to touch things, to engage fully and feel that sense of the past.

One of the volunteers, 18 year-old Paramjit Kaur, guides me round the exhibition, over three floors (the parts which are safe), offering intricate details about the building and its history. The main part being Georgian, then onto the synagogue built in a year by the Jewish immigrants who needed somewhere to pray. The Jews and the Irish even held secret meetings here, organising plans against Moseley during the Battle of Cable Street.

The exhibition, Suitcases and Sanctuary, created by nine and 10-year-olds from six local primary schools together with artists, photographers and historians, explores stories of immigration over centuries. For the children who've all created these projects on the Huguenots, Jews, Irish, Caribbean, Bangladeshi, Somalian immigrants, it's an incredible learning exercise and every child and adult should visit, this surely being the way forward to ridding the world of racism, the fear of other cultures, and an end to ignorance: engaging the young in these very issues. A short film that plays in the old kitchen shows young Bangladeshi children learning a Yiddish song about friendship. Another exhibit shows letters written by children pretending to be Jamaicans arriving in England, writing back home.

And all this costs nothing to the public, there's no entry fee (donations are encouraged and requested from groups who can arrange special visits). The museum and house is supported by private donations, plus a recent English Heritage grant was given for technical surveys and emergency repair work. But £ 3 million is needed to halt the decay and permanently open the building and they desperately need more Friends to make small regular contributions. Symes and the other 60 or so volunteers all give their time for nothing, enabling tens of thousands of visitors to come here each year. "I think that sense of feeling at home in the streets where you live is terribly important and those of us who've grown up and moved by choice, it links in to what the museum is about; giving a sense of history and ownership of the society you live in to people who don't necessarily feel a sense of identity and belonging to the streets where they live," says Symes, a tireless campaigner. It is very difficult not to feel affected by and drawn in to this place that should surely be on everybody's list of places to visit. Inscribe those dates in your diary and don't whatever you do, miss out. The next open days are; Sundays in May, 12pm-5pm and 13-20 June, 12pm-7pm.

19 Princelet Street E1 (020 7247 5352) www.19princeletstreet.org.uk