What are the poorest areas in London

The tireless nun in the poor district of London

Sister Christine has lived in one of the poorest areas of London in the shadow of the new financial district for fifty years. She once removed a flag of the terrorist organization IS from a notorious social housing estate with her own hands. Today the 84-year-old supplies lonely seniors with hot meals - and is fighting against the social consequences of the lockdown and pandemic.

Sister Christine Frost single-mindedly leads into the narrow kitchen of the St Matthias Community Center in Poplar in the East London district of Tower Hamlets. “Everything has to be ready by lunchtime so that we can deliver the 142 meals on time,” she explains. Cook Diane puts a giant mince and onion tart in the oven. Meanwhile, her assistant Michael Cashman is sweating behind his face mask while he mashes countless kilos of boiled potatoes into a pulp in a pan. "I never thought that I would enjoy the quality of potatoes so much," says the 70-year-old with a laugh. In the Corona crisis, the declared atheist is part of the network of volunteers who prepare home-made meals for those in need twice a week on behalf of Sister Christine. It cannot be overlooked that in the St Matthias Center it is not the Lord from London but the nun from Ireland who sets the tone.

The poor house of the capital

Sister Christine was born in Limerick in 1937 and felt called to do social work as a nun as a teenager. After a mission in Canada, she moved to Poplar in 1970 to work as a teacher in the community on behalf of the local parish. East London has long been a stronghold of factory and dock workers and has always been an arrival point for migrants who moved on after social advancement. “When I started here, the neighborhood was very Caribbean,” says the now 84-year-old nun. "Then many immigrants came from Bangladesh and finally from Eastern Europe." To this day, Tower Hamlets is one of the most diverse, but also poorest, districts of the capital. 57 percent of all children here live below the poverty line, according to the Trust for London organization, although Tower Hamlets also encompasses many trendy and affluent areas. Just a few hundred meters from the St Matthias Community Center, on the other side of the railroad tracks, tower the skyscrapers on the old port area of ​​Canary Wharf, where Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher commissioned the planning of a new financial district in the 1980s after the docks were closed .

The community center is considered to be the oldest building in Docklands. It was built in 1654 by the East India Company as a chapel for sailors. Later, the St Matthias Old Church, which was expanded in the classical and Gothic style, was owned for years by the Anglican Church, which in 1993 left the building in need of renovation to Sister Christine for use. Now four women in the old nave scoop mashed potatoes, pastries and vegetables, then they hand over the plates wrapped in aluminum foil to the other volunteers. With a joke or a casual slogan, Christine gives the helpers blue cards with the names and addresses of the 142 residents who are being delivered with lunch today. The nun seems to know the whole neighborhood personally and has noted who is getting a vegetarian or a halal meal - and who is hard of hearing and may not open the door when the doorbell rings for the first time.

The pandemic is deepening the rifts

Great Britain is one of the countries with the greatest social inequalities in Europe. Now the pandemic and the lockdown have deepened the rifts as the corona risks accumulate in the poorest areas of the country. Sister Christine lives in the notorious Will Crooks council estate, and most of her neighbors are from Bangladesh. "The families live in a confined space with five people per bedroom, how do you want to isolate yourself there?" Tower Hamlets was one of the districts of London with the highest levels of corona contagion at the height of the pandemic. Anyone who works at the supermarket checkout, in the hospital or in public transport is more exposed than someone who sits in the home office. Many men worked in restaurants, many of them informally, which is why they are not receiving any short-time work compensation during the months of lockdown. Sister Christine talks about children who get lost in school at home, about domestic violence - and about older people who became lonely in the pandemic.

37-year-old Nizam Uddin has been looking after the upkeep of St Matthias Old Church for almost twenty years. As a helper, he also picks up senior citizens from the neighborhood once a week for an afternoon bingo in the community center. But during the pandemic, the elderly stay at home - and the bus is used for home deliveries. “Of course, a courier could also deliver a meal,” says Nizam. "But we are often the only social contact for the elderly." Nizam is from Bangladesh and moved to East London as a child, where his father hired as a factory worker. To this day, he is irritated by the fact that outpatient geriatric nurses rush from client to client in Great Britain and often only push a frozen pizza into the oven for senior citizens due to lack of time. It is a matter of course for a devout Muslim that he takes care of his parents himself in accordance with the tradition of his country of origin.

The IS flag in the social housing estate

Sister Christine's Community Center is open to all religions and cultures, yet she does not romanticize multiculturalism. She wears neither a veil nor a costume because she believes that a nun should be part of society. "When I see what Muslim women are wearing today, I thank God that I was able to take off this robe." From her childhood in the west of Ireland she knew about the consequences of superstition and religious dogmatism. In London, in view of the patriarchal conditions in many Bangladeshi families, she tries to support women. Sister Christine made national headlines seven years ago when young people hoisted a flag of the terrorist organization Islamic State at the entrance to their social housing estate Will Crooks. On the spur of the moment, she procured a ladder and removed the black flag. "We have enough problems with drugs and unemployment in the settlement, if we are also considered an Islamist stronghold, nobody can find a job here." She defied the hostility of the young men, and she hides the flag in her apartment to this day.

Nizam now brings his bus to a stop in front of a council estate at the southern end of Regent’s Canal. An aged Englishman, an elderly lady from Bangladesh, an Indian couple and an elderly Irishman have already received lunch. Nizam exchanged a few words with everyone and asked about their welfare, but in the pandemic, people keep their distance on the doorstep. Now he walks on the covered forecourt on the first floor of the gray block towards a woman with lank hair, whom he greets as Iris. The 62-year-old tells of health problems, she is dependent on social welfare and lives alone in the small apartment in the dreary settlement from the post-war years. Fearing the virus, she rarely leaves her own four walls and spends the days in front of the television or doing crossword puzzles. All the more gratefully she accepts the warm meal and the wishes of Sister Christine.

"A new subclass"

Sister Christine has long since become an institution in London's East End. Sometimes she is described as uncompromising or even argumentative because she can also become resolute in her activist zeal. In the tradition of Latin American liberation theology, she organizes protests, but she also participates in all sorts of committees and speaks to the local administration and the school authorities. Nizam Uddin calls it a "gift from God". Lord Michael Cashman calls her a "fisherwoman" because she catches all kinds of people and uses them for her social projects. As the linchpin, she holds together a local community that one cannot even imagine without the tireless nun.

Sister Christine says that since childhood she has been driven by an "inner conviction" that has grown stronger over the years. Now she sees it as her mission to counteract the social devastation of the Corona crisis. The 84-year-old was never deterred by the risk of infection; in the meantime, she has received a first dose of vaccination and is campaigning against vaccination skepticism in the community. With its donation-financed projects, which also include a home delivery service for food or sleeping places for the homeless, it takes the place of the underfunded local authorities, which often lack the capacities to care for the needy. "The pandemic has brought a new subclass to the day," says Lord Cashman. "And across the country, private soup kitchens and neighborhood helpers prevent the worst."

In the shadow of the skyscraper

The pandemic has also hit the Canary Wharf financial district. Due to the obligation to work from home, the office towers have been abandoned, and although luxury high-rise apartment buildings have also emerged in recent years, the district leaves an empty impression. It is uncertain whether as much office space will be needed again after the Corona crisis as before. But real estate prices have hardly fallen yet, and the skyscrapers are casting their shadows on Poplar. “A lot of social housing is outdated,” says Sister Christine. "And prices on the free market have risen so much that many residents have had to move away." The nun knows that her community will face difficult years after the pandemic. But she has not given up hope that Poplar can be rebuilt better than before. She wants to campaign for affordable living space and more humane care for the elderly. And helping youngsters from the social housing estates in Canary Wharf to find work. "As long as I'm alive and God gives me the strength to do it."