Stories for Refugee Week: Exclusive Extracts from The Displaced
To mark Refugee Week, we present two exclusive extracts from The Displaced: Refugee Writers on Refugee Lives, edited by Viet Thanh Nguyen, published by Abrams Press. Abrams will donate 10 percent of the cover price of this book, a minimum of $25,000 annually, to the International Rescue Committee. View our full selection of thought-provoking true stories, original fiction and inspirational books on our Refugee Week page.
Dina Nayeri was born in Iran and moved to America at the age of 10. She is a winner of Best American Short Stories 2018, the 2018 Paul Engle Prize, a National Endowment for the Arts Grant, and the O. Henry Prize. Her stories and essays have been published by, among others, the New York Times, the New Yorker, Granta, the Atlantic and Vice. She is also the author of the novels A Teaspoon of Earth and Sea and Refuge and lives in London. Her essay, which was originally a Guardian Long Read, is included in The Displaced: Refugee Writers on Refugee Lives. Her first book of non-fiction The Ungrateful Refugee based on the essay will be published by Canongate in 2019.
The Ungrateful Refugee
A few weeks ago I dusted off my expired Iranian passport photo, an unsmiling eight-year-old version of me - stunned, angry, wearing tight grey hijab and staring far beyond the camera. It’s not the face of a child on the verge of rescue, though I would soon escape Iran. I have kept that old photograph hidden since the day I threw away my last headscarf, and now it’s the bewildered face and parted lips, not the scarf, that capture my interest. No matter how hard I try, I can’t reconcile this child with the frazzled American writer in my recent pictures.
In 1985, when I was six years old, my family left our home in Isfahan for several months to live in London. The move was temporary, a half-hearted stab at emigration; nonetheless, I was enrolled in school. In Iran I had only attended nursery, never school, and I spoke only Farsi.
At first, the children were welcoming, teaching me English words using toys and pictures, but within days the atmosphere around me had changed. Years later, I figured that this must have been how long it took them to tell their parents about the Iranian kid. After that, a group of boys met me in the yard each morning and, pretending to play, pummelled me in the stomach. They followed me in the playground and shouted gibberish, laughing at my dumbfounded looks. A few weeks later, two older boys pushed my hand into a doorjamb and slammed it shut on my little finger, severing it at the first segment. I was rushed to the hospital, carrying a piece of my finger in a paper napkin. The segment was successfully reattached.
I never went back to that school, but later, in the chatter of the grownups from my grandmother’s church and even in my parents’ soothing whispers, I heard a steady refrain about gratefulness. God had protected me and so I shouldn’t look at the event in a negative light. It was my moment to shine! Besides, who could tell what had motivated those boys? Maybe they were just playing, trying to include me though I didn’t speak a word of their language. Wasn’t that a good thing?
Eventually we returned to Iran. I was put under a headscarf and sent to an Islamic girls’ school.
Three years later, my mother, brother and I left Iran for real, this time after my mother had been dragged to jail for converting to Christianity, after the moral police had interrogated her three times and threatened her with execution. We became asylum seekers, spending two years in refugee hostels in Dubai and Rome. By that time I had lived my first eight years in the belly of wartime Iran - for most of the 1980s, the Iran-Iraq war wrecked our country and trapped us in a state of almost constant fear. I had grown accustomed to the bomb sirens, the panicked dashes down to the basement, the taped-up windows. So the time that followed, the years in refugee hostels, felt peaceful, a reprieve from all the noise. My mother urged me to thank God in my prayers.
When I was ten, we were accepted by the United States and sent to Oklahoma, just as the first gulf war began. By the time of our arrival in the American south, the nail on my pinkie had grown back, my hair was long, and I was (according to my mother) pretty and funny and smart. The first thing I heard from my classmates, however, was a strange “ching-chongese” intended to mock my accent. I remember being confused, not at their cruelty, but at their choice of insult. A dash of racism I had expected – but I wasn’t Chinese; were these children wholly ignorant to the shape of the world outside America? If you want to mock me, I wanted to say, dig down to the guttural khs and ghs, produce some phlegm, make a camel joke; don’t “chingchong” at me, you mouth-breather. (See? I had learned their native insults well enough.)
Of course, I didn’t say that. And I didn’t respond when they started in on the cat-Eating and the foot-binding. I took these stories home and my mother and I laughed over chickpea cookies and cardamom tea - fragrant foods they might have mocked if only they knew. By then it was clear to me that these kids had met one foreigner before, and that unfortunate person hailed from southeast Asia.
I needn’t have worried, though; the geographically correct jokes were coming. Like the boys in London, these kids soon spoke to their parents, and within weeks, they had their “turban jockeys” and their “camel-fuckers” loaded and ready to go. Meanwhile, I was battling with my teacher over a papier-mache topographical map of the United States, a frustrating task that was strangely central to her concerns about my American assimilation.
When I tried to explain to her that only a few months before I had lived with refugees outside Rome, and that most of the social studies work baffled me, she looked at me sleepily and said: “Awww, sweetie, you must be so grateful to be here.”
Grateful. There was that word again. Here I began to notice the pattern. This word had already come up a lot in my childhood, but in her mouth it lost its goodness. It hinted and threatened. Afraid for my future, I decided that everyone was right: if I failed to stir up in myself enough gratefulness, or if I failed to properly display it, I would lose all that I had gained, this western freedom, the promise of secular schools and uncensored books.
The children were merciless in their teasing, and soon I developed a tic in my neck. Other odd behaviours followed. Each time something bad happened, I would repeat a private mantra, the formula I believed was the reason for my luck so far, and my ticket to a second escape - maybe even a life I would actually enjoy. I said it again and again in my head, and sometimes accidentally aloud:
I’m lucky. I’m grateful. I’m the smartest in my class.
I’m lucky. I’m grateful. I’m the smartest in my class.
That last sentiment (which I did a poor job of hiding) didn’t go over too well. What right did I, a silly Iranian, have to think I was better than anyone?
Still, my mother suffered more. In Iran, she had been a doctor. Now she worked in a pharmaceuticals factory, where her bosses and co-workers daily questioned her intelligence, though they had a quarter of her education. The accent was enough. If she took too long to articulate a thought, they stopped listening and wrote her off as unintelligent. They sped up their speech and, when she asked them to slow down, they sighed and rolled their eyes. If someone messed up a formula, she was the sole target for blame.
The hate did eventually wane; some would say that that’s the natural cycle of things. We assimilated. No longer dark strangers from war-torn lands, at some point we stopped frightening them. We went to work, to school, to church. We grew familiar, safe, no longer the outsiders.
I don’t believe in that explanation. What actually happened was that we learned what they wanted, the hidden switch to make them stop simmering. After all, these Americans had never thought we were terrorists or Islamic fundamentalists or violent criminals. From the start, they knew we were a Christian family that had escaped those very horrors. And they, as a Protestant community, had accepted us, rescued us. But there were unspoken conditions to our acceptance, and that was the secret we were meant to glean on our own: we had to be grateful. The hate wasn’t about being darker, or from elsewhere. It was about being those things and daring to be unaware of it. As refugees, we owed them our previous identity. We had to lay it at their door like an offering, and gleefully deny it to earn our place in this new country. There would be no straddling. No third culture here.
That was the key to being embraced by the population of our town, a community that openly took credit for the fact that we were still alive, but wanted to know nothing of our past. Month after month, my mother was asked to give her testimony in churches and women’s groups, at schools and even at dinners. I remember sensing the moment when all conversation would stop and she would be asked to repeat our escape story. The problem, of course, was that they wanted our salvation story as a talisman, no more. No one ever asked what our house in Iran looked like, what fruits we grew in our yard, what books we read, what music we loved and what it felt like now not to understand any of the songs on the radio. No one asked if we missed our cousins or grandparents or best friends. No one asked what we did in summers or if we had any photos of the Caspian Sea. “Men treat women horribly there, don’t they?” the women would ask. Somehow it didn’t feel OK to tell them about my funny dad with his pockets full of sour cherries, or my grandpa who removed his false teeth when he told ghost stories.
Such memories, of course, would imply the unthinkable: that Iran was as beautiful, as fun, as energizing and romantic, as Oklahoma or Montana or New York.
From then on, we sensed the ongoing expectation that we would shed our old skin, give up our former identities—every quirk and desire that made us us—and that we would imply at every opportunity that America was better, that we were so lucky, so humbled to be here. My mother continued giving testimonials in churches. She wore her cross with as much spirit as she had done in Islamic Iran. She baked American cakes and replaced the rosewater in her pastries with vanilla. I did much worse: over years, I let myself believe it. I lost my accent. I lost my hobbies and memories. I forgot my childhood songs.
In 1994, when I was fifteen, we became American citizens. I was relieved, overjoyed and genuinely grateful. We attended a citizenship ceremony on the football field of a local college campus. It was the Fourth of July and dozens of other new citizens would be sworn in with us. It was a bittersweet day, the stadium filled with cheering locals, a line of men, women and children winding around and around the field towards a microphone at the end zone, where each of us would be named and sworn in. I remember staring in wonder at the others in line: I didn’t realize there were this many other brown and yellow people in Oklahoma. Yes, there were a handful of black people, a few Jews here or there. But this many Indians? This many Sri Lankans and Pakistanis and Chinese and Bangladeshis and Iranians and Afghans? Where had they been hiding? (Not that I had looked.)
Halfway through the ceremony, an Indian man, around 80 years old, was led to the microphone, where he introduced himself and swore allegiance to the United States. When he was finished, he raised his fists and thrashed the sky. “I AM AMERICAN!” he shouted into the microphone. “FINALLY, I AM AMERICAN!” The crowd erupted, joining his celebration. As he stepped away, he wobbled and collapsed from the effort, but someone caught him. He turned back and smiled to the crowd to show he was OK, that this fit of joy hadn’t killed him, then walked away.
That’s my favourite day as an American, my first one, still unsurpassed. No one was putting on a face that day. No one felt obliged or humbled, imagining their truer home. That old man was heaving with love. The people in the stands were roaring with it. It’s a complicated memory for me now. I refuse to deny the simple and vast beauty of it, though I know they cheered not the old man himself, but his spasm of gratitude, an avowal of transformation into someone new, into them.
Years passed. I became as American as a girl can be, moved far away, grew into my mind and body and surrounded myself with progressive, educated friends. The bad feelings disappeared. I started to love the western world and thought of myself a necessary part of it. I moved around with ease, safely flashing my American passport, smiling brightly when customs officers squinted at my place of birth. It didn’t matter: I was no longer an asylum seeker. I had long ago been accepted. I had a stellar education. My confidence showed (and maybe it helped that I had caramel highlights in my hair). Again and again I was welcomed “home” at JFK with a polite nod or a smile.
Other immigrants have written about this moment: the “welcome home” at JFK, its power on the psyche after long flights. For me, as soon as those words leave the officer’s mouth, my confidence is replaced by a gush of gratitude. “Thank you!” I say breathlessly. Thank you for saying it’s my home. Thank you for letting me in again. In that instant before my passport is returned to me, I’m the old man punching the air.
When I was thirty, I had another citizenship ceremony. This one wasn’t the sleepless obsession that the American one had been. It was simply that I had married a French citizen, he had applied on my behalf, and, having passed the language and culture tests by a whisker, I became a Frenchwoman of sorts. I travelled a lot in those days and so I decided to have my fingerprints taken (the last step in the paperwork) on a stopover in New York. The police officer whose job it was to oversee the process asked why a nice girl like me needed fingerprints. I told him, to which he replied: “Couldn’t you find an American man?”
Though I hadn’t given it much thought back then, I said: “American men don’t like me.” He gave me a puzzled look, so I added, “The American men I know never try to impress you... or not me, at least. They think I should feel lucky to have them.”
He gave a weary sigh. “No man likes to work for it.”
“Some men work for it,” I said, trying to sound defiant.
He laughed and bashed my fingers into the ink.
My second citizenship ceremony was held at the French embassy in Amsterdam (my then home) beside families from Lebanon, Turkey, Tunisia, Morocco and a number of sub-Saharan countries. The image that stays with me is of families singing the French national anthem, the Marseillaise. The awe in their faces as they sang that song, every word practiced, moved me. Even the small children straightened their shoulders and sang from memory. I had made a stab at memorizing the words, but mostly I read off a sheet. I was proud, but they were experiencing something else: a transformation, a rebirth. They were singing their way into a joyous new life. I took a moment to think of that old Indian man from years before, to do an imaginary fist-pump in his honour.
I’ve been moving back and forth between New York and Europe pretty much my entire adult life. When I lived in Amsterdam, even highly educated people openly complained of “too many Moroccans and Turks” in certain neighbourhoods. Geert Wilders, the head of the far-right Party for Freedom, had warned that the country would soon become “Nether-Arabia”.
In Amsterdam, I got to know Iranian refugees who didn’t have my kind of luck with their asylum applications. One man in our community set himself on fire in Dam Square in 2011. He had lived in Amsterdam for a decade, following their rules, filling out their papers, learning their culture, his head always down. He did all that was asked of him and, in the end, he was driven to erase his own face, his skin.
Remembering Kambiz Roustayi, a man who only wanted a visa, his family and his own corner of the world, I want to lash out at every comfortable native who thinks that his kind don’t do enough. You don’t know what grateful is, I want to say. You haven’t seen a young man burn up from despair, or an old man faint on a football field from relief and joy, or a nine-year-old boy sing the entire Marseillaise from memory. You don’t know how much life has already been spent settling into the cracks of your walls. Sometimes all that’s left of value in an exile’s life is his identity. Please stop asking people to rub out their face as tribute.
With the rise of nativist sentiment in Europe and America, I’ve seen a troubling change in the way people make the case for refugees. Even those on the left talk about how immigrants make America great. They point to photographs of happy refugees turned good citizens, listing their contributions, as if that is the price of existing in the same country, on the same earth. Friends often use me as an example. They say in posts or conversations:
“Look at Dina. She lived as a refugee and look how much stuff she’s done.” As if that’s proof that letting in refugees has a good, healthy return on investment.
But isn’t glorifying the refugees who thrive according to western standards just another way to endorse this same gratitude politics? Isn’t it akin to holding up the most acquiescent as examples of what a refugee should be, instead of offering each person the same options that are granted to the native-born citizen? Is the life of the happy mediocrity a privilege reserved for those who never stray from home?
This semester, I’m teaching an American literature course at a private international school in London. My students have come with their families from all over the world and have empathy and insight, but for the most part, they have lived privileged lives. For the last semester, I’ve forced them to read nothing but “outsider fiction”. Stories by immigrants and people of colour. Stories about poverty. Stories about being made to sit on the periphery. Most are loving it, but some are frustrated. “I’ve already learned the race stuff,” one said, after our third story with a protagonist of colour. More than one parent advised me that Bharati Mukherjee and James Baldwin are not important when these kids have yet to read “classic writers” such as Harper Lee (because how could they develop their literary taste if they hadn’t first grounded themselves in the point of view of the impossibly saintly white family?).
Even among empathetic, worldly students, I’m finding a grain of this same kind of expectation: the refugee must make good. If, in one of our stories, an immigrant kills himself (Bernard Malamud’s The Refugee), they say that he wasted his opportunity, that another displaced person would have given anything for a shot at America. They’re right about that, but does that mean that Malamud’s refugee isn’t entitled to his private tragedies? Is he not entitled to crave death? Must he first pay off his debt to his hosts and to the universe?
Despite a lifetime spent striving to fulfil my own potential, of trying to prove that the west is better for having known me, I cannot accept this way of thinking, this separation of the worthy exile from the unworthy. Civilized people don’t ask for resumes when answering calls from the edge of a grave. It shouldn’t matter what I did after I cleaned myself off and threw away the last of my asylum-seeking clothes. My accomplishments should belong only to me. There should be no question of earning my place, of showing that I was a good bet. My family and I were once humans in danger, and we knocked on the doors of every embassy we came across: the UK, America, Australia, Italy. America answered and so, decades later, I still feel a need to bow down to airport immigration officers simply for saying “Welcome home.”
But what America did was a basic human obligation. It is the obligation of every person born in a safer room to open the door when someone in danger knocks. It is your duty to answer us, even if we don’t give you sugary success stories. Even if we remain a bunch of ordinary Iranians, sometimes bitter or confused. Even if the country gets overcrowded and you have to give up your luxuries, and we set up ugly little lives around the corner, marring your view. If we need a lot of help and local services, if your taxes rise and your street begins to look and feel strange and everything smells like turmeric and tamarind paste, and your favourite shop is replaced by a halal butcher, your schoolyard chatter becoming ching-chongese and phlegmy khs and ghs, and even if, after all that, we don’t spend the rest of our days in grateful ecstasy, atoning for our need.
In 2015, I moved to England again, a place I no longer associated with the permanently numb tip of my little finger, or the strange half-sensation of typing the letter “a” on a keyboard. I became a mother in a London hospital. Now I have a little girl who already looks Iranian. The first major event of her life was Brexit. The second was Trump’s election. At 5 am on Brexit morning, as I was feeding her, the memory of my pinkie returned. We had just learned of the referendum results. On Facebook, every former immigrant I knew released a collective shudder—all of them recalling their first days in England or America or Holland. They began sharing their stories. What I remembered was that boy who pushed my finger into the hinge of a door. That other boy who slammed the door shut. They’re adults now. Most likely, they’ve lived lives much like their parents, the ones who taught them to hate me in 1985. Most likely they believe the same things. England doesn’t want us, I thought. It doesn’t want my daughter. It doesn’t want me.
Nowadays, I often look at the white line through my pinkie nail, and I think I finally understand why gratefulness matters so much. The people who clarified it for me were my students, with their fresh eyes and stunning expectations, their harsh, idealistic standards that every person should strive and prove their worth, their eagerness to make sense of the world. They saw right through to the heart of the uneasy native.
During our discussion of Flannery O’Connor’s “A Displaced Person,” the class began unpacking Mrs. Shortley’s hatred of Mr. Guizac, the Polish refugee whose obvious talents on the farm would soon lead to her mediocre husband’s dismissal as a farmhand. “She’s seen the images from the Holocaust, the piles of bodies in Europe,” said one student. “So if one of those bodies in the pile can escape death and come to America and upend her life, then how much is she worth?”
I was stunned silent (a rare thing for me). By the time I formulated my next question the conversation had moved on, and so I presented the question to my next class. “Would anything be any different, then, if Mr. Guizac had been grateful to Mrs. Shortley for making room for him?”
Around the table every head shook. No. Of course not. Nothing would change. “Mrs. Shortley wants to be above him, to be benevolent, to have control,” said one insightful student. “Once the guy starts doing better on his own, control goes, no matter how grateful he acts.”
The refugee has to be less capable than the native, needier; he must stay in his place. That’s the only way gratitude will be accepted. Once he escapes control, he confirms his identity as the devil. All day I wondered, has this been true in my own experience? If so, then why all the reverence for the refugees who succeed against the odds, the heart-warming success stories? And that’s precisely it – one can go around in this circle forever, because it contains no internal logic. You’re not enough until you’re too much. You’re lazy until you’re a greedy interloper.
In many of the classes I’ve taught, my quietest kids have been Middle Eastern. I’m always surprised by this, since the literature I choose should resonate most with them, since I’m an Iranian teacher, their ally, since the civilized world yearns for their voices now. Still, they bristle at headlines about the refugee crisis that I flash on the screen, hang their heads, and look relieved when the class is finished. Their silence makes me angry, but I understand why they don’t want to commit to any point of view. Who knows what their universe looks like outside my classroom, what sentiments they’re expected to display in order to be on the inside.
Still, I want to show those kids whose very limbs apologize for the space they occupy, and my own daughter, who has yet to feel any shame or remorse, that a grateful face isn’t the one they should assume at times like these. Instead they should tune their voices and polish their stories, because the world is duller without them—even more so if they arrived as refugees. Because a person’s life is never a bad investment, and so there are no creditors at the door, no debt to repay. Now there’s just the rest of life, the stories left to create, all the messy, greedy, ordinary days that are theirs to squander.
Marina Lewycka was born in 1946 in a refugee camp in Kiel, Germany. When she was about a year old, the family moved to England. She grew up in Yorkshire and lives in Sheffield. Her first book, A Short History of Tractors in Ukrainian, was published in 2005. It has sold more than a million copies in the UK alone and was shortlisted for the Orange Prize, longlisted for the Man Booker and won the Bollinger Everyman Prize for Comic Fiction and the Waverton Good Read Award. Her second novel, Two Caravans, was shortlisted for the Orwell Prize. A Short History of Tractors in Ukrainian, Two Caravans and Marina's third and fourth novels, We Are All Made of Glue and Various Pets Alive and Dead are all published by Penguin. For the recent anthology The Displaced: Refugee Writers on Refugee Lives Marina wrote an original essay.
Refugees and Exiles
When I used to read the stories of refugees, mothers and children being plucked from leaky boats off the coast of Turkey and Libya, or young people’s bodies washed up lifeless on Mediterranean shores, it was all terribly sad, I thought, but nothing to do with me.
After all, I was comfortably settled in the UK, with a state pension, a lifetime as a British taxpayer behind me, and, most important of all, a British passport.
I had got my first British passport when I was twenty-two years old. Until then, I had travelled around Europe as a teenager on an “Alien’s Travel Document,” blue with two blackstripes. My older sister, who was born in Ukraine, had a blue travel document with one black stripe, which meant that she was stateless. My two black stripes meant that my alien nationality was officially “undetermined” - I had been born in a German “displaced persons” camp after the end of WW2. So strictly speaking my family were not even refugees - we were forced laborers who sought refuge in the West rather than going back to Stalin’s Soviet Union.
I have a photo of myself in that camp, in an old-fashioned pram with big curly springs. I was a very cute, plump baby, far from the mal-nourished stick-thin vacant-eyed babies we havecome to associate with refugees. I don’t know how my parents were able to afford such a splendid pram. Maybe some kind person had donated it. I have no memory of the camp, or of what it felt like to be that baby.
By the time they were in their early thirties, my parents, both born in 1911, had experienced the two world wars, two revolutions, a continuous civil war, two famines, Stalin’s purgesin which my grandfather was murdered, the terror of the British air raids on Kiel where I was born. No wonder that by the time they arrived in Sussex in 1948 all they wanted was a quiet life.
We arrived in England in 1947 or 1948 when I was about two, and we were taken in first of all by the Dobbses, a middle-class family of progressive views who lived in East Sussex. (Kitty Dobbs was a relative of Beatrice Webb, an activist in the democratic socialist Fabian Society founded in Britain in the nineteenth century.) Once in Britain, my parents worked hard, feared the law, and did their best to make themselves invisible. They didn’t talk to me about the traumas they had lived through. They wanted to spare me all that suffering—but I picked it up anyway, from books with photographs, from eavesdropping on late-night conversations when they thought I was asleep. I grew up afraid of the past, and until I started to write my first novel when I was in my fifties, I didn’t visit it much.
Around 1950 we moved to Yorkshire into our first home of our own, a two-up two-down terraced house in a mining village; all we had to endure was the ineluctable nosiness of ourcoal miner neighbours, diluted with countless cups of tea. People were kind to us, and very curious. And of course it helped that the Russians and Ukrainians had been allies of the British, and suffered massive losses, in what my parents still spoke of as the Great Patriotic War.
At school I was bullied by a gang of little boys - the same little boys who pulled the wings off butterflies, stamped on worms and made life a misery for fat kids, kids who wore glasses, or those who were seen to be swots (as I was). In other words, then as always, there were bullies on the lookout for vulnerable victims.
I got my revenge by coming top in everything, and by being more English than the English. The stories I read as a child, like Winnie the Pooh, Alice in Wonderland and The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, were the staples of a comfortable middle-class English childhood; I didn’t seem to notice how very different the children in those stories were to my own migrant childhood. I read English literature at University, and spent my weekends cycling around Cotswold villages and rubbing brasses. I fell madly in love with English poetry and English wit and when I graduated I went on to be an English teacher. I blended in so totally that even I forgot that I wasn’t really English.
So the rising volume of anti-immigrant anti-refugee rhetoric in the popular press in the twenty-first century took me quite by surprise - these didn’t seem to me to be the same English people I had grown up amongst, who regularly arrived on our doorstep with a fresh-baked cake or an invitation to dinner. Did they really hate us so much?
The voices grew uglier and more clamorous. A former contestant on the reality show The Apprentice turned columnist called Katie Hopkins reaped a huge popular following by publicly calling refugees ‘cockroaches’ and suggesting holes be drilled in their boats to help them sink. “Show me bodies floating in water,” she wrote, and “skinny people looking sad. I still don’t care.”
Soon “economic migrant” rather than “refugee” became the accepted term for people fleeing wars and natural disasters, (even ones which directly or indirectly had been caused by the West) suggesting that these people were merely trying to better themselves financially and were therefore undeserving of our help. “Bogus” became the epithet of choice for “asylum seeker,” as though people were just pretending to flee from persecution.The Daily Mail, one of the newspapers which employed Katie Hopkins, and which had backed Oswald Mosley and the British Union of Fascists in the 1930s, led the clamor with increasingly lurid headlines about floods of refugees and migrants heading for the British Isles.
It became impossible to ignore those voices, impossible not to take sides. A young woman MP, Jo Cox, who was supportive of migrants, was murdered in the street by a far-right extremist during the EU referendum campaign. I found reading the Daily Mail was becoming increasingly upsetting, especially the readers’ comments, which spewed misspelt torrents of hatred in all directions. In retrospect, I was not surprised to learn, later on, that less educated people and older people were more likely to hold anti-Europe views. Interestingly, I noticed that some of those hate-filled letters came from addresses registered in the United States but the British and U.S. rhetoric was the same.
It all came to a head in the UK with the EU referendum in June 2016, and with hindsight it is easy to see that much of this refugee-phobia was part of an orchestrated campaign to persuade ordinary Britons, many of whom had never knowingly seen a refugee except on television, to cast their vote for Brexit in the referendum. Places with the lowest number of migrants and refugees, like Wales and Cornwall, also recorded the highest anti-immigrant sentiment. Of course they probably had seen refugees - people like myself, not the huddled, desperate, dangerous characters who were portrayed in the popular media.
The vote to leave the EU seemed at that time, and it still seems, a monumental act of national self-destruction, driven largely by drummed-up foreigner-phobia including the entire population of Turkey which was poised to migrate to the UK, we were told. At the same time, through some of the British media, we were hearing of a similar hate-filled drumbeat echoing from across the Atlantic. Katie Hopkins revealed herself as a big Trump fan, and vowed she would move to America if he won the U.S. election (but she’s still here!). Would our sophisticated American cousins turn out to be as foolish and gullible as we had been? You bet.
At least, we believed, their folly was limited to eight years and could easily be reversed at four. Those who lived through the triumph of Trump would see an end to it in the not too distant future. Whereas I would live out my days in this strangely altered country - Brexit was for the whole of the rest of our lives, and our children’s and grandchildren’s.
Maybe what I did not appreciate both in the United States and in the UK, was that the Trump strategy, like the Brexit strategy, was not intended to be limited in its scope or time-frame. It was a deliberate attempt to shift the whole political conversation rightwards. Things which had been off-limits before, ideas that could not be expressed, words which could not be used in polite company, were now freely and ubiquitously said in the public domain. A German friend of mine who taught German in a local school, walked into his classroom the day after the referendum, to find all the children frenziedly banging their desk lids and chanting “BREXIT! BREXIT!” Random acts of violence against “foreigners,” always present at a low level, became commonplace and unremarkable. Women wearing burqas were assaulted on public transport. I witnessed someone rushing up to a complete stranger whom they deemed to be a foreigner in a busy street and shouting into her face, “We voted for you to go home! Now go!” My parents had sought refuge in one country - the tolerant and generous Britain of the NHS, the BBC, Oxfam, free cod-liver oil and orange juice for the young, free milk and meals in school, good wages ensured by strong trade unions, and Yorkshire neighborliness. I grew up with all the advantages of post-war prosperity underpinned by the post-war consensus, a strong welfare state, heritor to a rich centuries-old culture with the jewel of the cunning and subtle English language as my native tongue. It feels now as though I am destined to live out my days in a very different country - a Britain of austerity, private provision, short term contracts and the minimum wage, a crude and violent language in the popular press which urged the Prime Minister to wage war on the 48 percent of people who like me had opposed Brexit, calling on her to “crush the saboteurs!”
My daughter and her African partner have left Britain for good; my grandchildren will not be able to make themselves at home here. Like hundreds of foreigners who have settled here, I am marooned in this land which is my home and not my home, once a place of refuge, now reminding us that we are and always been have aliens.In the event, the June 2017 election which was supposed to deliver to our Prime Minister unprecedented powers, revealed a Britain which is bitterly divided between social classes and between generations, in which no one feels really at home. So where do I belong now, I wonder? In the rural shambolic Ukraine of my parents’ memories—not even my own memories? In Germany where I was born, now re-built and prosperous, whose post-war decades of soul-searching have brought it face to face with the darkness and horror that can lie at the heart of a bid for “national greatness”? Or here among British people, who treated me with such kindness when I was a refugee, but never, it seems, saw me as one of them? Maybe as with all of us the country which is our true home is the idyllic rose-tinted land of our own childhood, from which we are always exiles.
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