Here and there Ciara Leeming
Stories gathered by Ciara Leeming in 2018-19 All photos © Ciara Leeming Edited by Ciara Leeming www.ciaraleeming.co.uk Consultancy provided by Roma Voices of Manchester.
Contents 4-5 Introduction 6-7 Chana 8-9 Fola 10-11 Owen 12-13 Philomene 14-15 Karol 16-17 Sally 18-19 Esther 20-21 Lorenza 22-23 Nancy 24-25 Kirlett 26-27 Lidia 28-29 Maria 30-31 Najat 32-33 Michael 34-35 Rudo 36-37 Leentje 38-39 Aklima 40-41 Denisa 42-43 Hussain 44-45 Syed 46-47 Hanane 48-49 Bink 50-51 Sonia 52-53 Antonio 54-55 Cormac 55-56 Thanks
Introduction Everybody has a story. That is the premise of this series of short vignettes, featuring the words of 25 people who have moved to the UK from another country at some point in their life. Some arrived as children and others as adults. Some moved here to work or study while others came seeking sanctuary from injustice at home. The aim of the project is to celebrate the rich and fascinating diversity of people living in the UK and to offer a small window into their lives. The stories help bring to life the subject of migration, a political football which is so often discussed using arbitary targets and dry, contextless statistics. These then go on to be sensationalised and exploited by populist commentators and the mainstream media. This collection of interviews reminds us of the futility of stereotyping migrants and those seeking safety in Britain, while at the same time underlining how much we all have in common beyond our superficial differences.
Chana I was born in Israel and lived there until I was seven. Life was really different when we got to England. I didn’t know anybody really. We went to quite an Orthodox Jewish primary school and I spoke mainly to people who could speak Hebrew. At secondary school and university I mixed with more non-Jews. Israeli people are often considered quite blunt. In Britain this caused me problems in my teenage years but as I got older I learned to tone it down a bit. Growing up, I experienced anti-Semitism. Because my dad is very obviously Jewish and Orthodox, we’d often get people shouting insults at us on the street – things like ‘go back to your own country’ and ‘heil Hitler’. Today I don’t live in a Jewish community and I don’t practise my religion. I’m married to a non-Jew, as is my brother. My son is not circumcised – that’s a big deal in my family. I still display my Hanukkah candles in the window, but we also put up a Christmas tree. It’s very important to me that my son grows up with love and respect for his own identity and all religions. I think my dad probably feels a bit disappointed by some of my choices. He may even have regrets about bringing us to England, because had we stayed in Israel we may have remained Orthodox. Israel is a really beautiful place but I hate the politics. My family are very Zionist and I’m not and we have clashed a lot over the years. People in this country are very quick to judge Israelis and point out what they are doing wrong. I think I need to make my peace with this because I always feel I have to say ‘I’m not a Zionist,’ so I don’t get judged. People give me unsolicited opinions about Israel all the time. One of the first questions many people will ask is: ‘What do you think about Israeli politics?’ I don’t really mind. I understand it’s rare for people to meet an Israeli or even a Jew here, especially one who grew up Orthodox but left it behind.
Fola My maternal grandma was known as Iya Alata – the mother of chillies. She was an amazing woman, a widow raising two children and one of the pioneers of the new trend of chilli peppers. She sold them in bulk – huge sacks of every kind of chilli you can imagine. She would teach me their names in Yoruba. She travelled all over Nigeria to source them – and after these trips a truck would deliver huge quantities of chillies. People would come from all over to buy them. She worked until in her early 80s – in fact she suffered a stroke while visiting a chilli farm a few months before she died. My parents were living in London when I was born and I was about two when we first went back to Nigeria for a visit. We travelled by boat from Liverpool and the journey took about six weeks. My parents then separated and my mother and I returned alone and moved to Cambridgeshire for her work. I was one of only two black kids in my school. I remember getting into lots of scraps and being told by my mum: ‘You have to stand your ground!’ When I was seven we moved back to Nigeria. While I was living in Lagos the city seemed to get more hectic. The political changes seemed to be reflected in the city, as we moved from a military government to a civilian one. The word ‘hustle’ is used a lot there – people do what they need to survive. I left Nigeria for Britain at 18 and couldn’t hustle to save my life now. I’ve been back twice and although I could live elsewhere in the country, I couldn’t live in Lagos. When I was about 13 my dad came back into my life. The following year I spent the entire summer with him, as he travelled all over Nigeria in his work for the Forestry Research Institute. He fascinated me – I had grown up without a father figure and here was a man who was very sure of himself. My son told me the other day that he’d like to learn Yoruba when he’s 10. The language is not something I’m quite comfortable with – growing up we all spoke English to each other, and I chose not to study it at school because it felt unneccesary. I hope my children will learn at some point though. If we nurture their interests now they may want to pick them up when they’re older.
It was the worst phone call of my life. I had to call my kids from a detention centre and tell a seven-year-old and a five-year-old that daddy was going to Jamaica and might not see them for a while. That conversation nearly broke their hearts. My deportation was stopped but now they’re terrified. If I don’t answer my phone they’re scared I’m gone. Little kids shouldn’t be thinking about things like that. My first encounter with the UK Border Agency was when I began a one-year prison sentence. They sent me a letter warning they were planning to deport me to Jamaica, a country I left in 1977 – when I was four years old and my mum came here to work as a nurse. I wasn’t too worried. I had indefinite leave to remain, so thought it would be fine – but it wasn’t. I was released from jail on an immigration bail. I had to live in a hostel and deal with probation and also report to an immigration centre every week. They revoked my National Insurance number so I can’t work, use the NHS or claim benefits. After about a year, I was detained and warned there was a window of removal for me. They tried to put me on a Virgin Atlantic flight – I was holstered in a van, with three security guards and a medic. Shortly before boarding, however, my lawyer lodged both a Windrush and a human rights application and my case was delayed. I was granted bail but was detained again five months later and told I would be deported on a charter flight. This time I went public. My friends from the music industry – I’m an MC – launched a petition that was signed more than 100,000 times and my MP raised my case in the House of Commons. I was released but my case is not resolved. I know I’ve made mistakes but I’ve served my time and am not a repeat offender. They want to rip me away from my family and expect me to raise my boys via Skype. The experience has been very traumatic for all my family. It’s been three years now so I’ve had to find my own coping mechanisms. I go to the gym, listen to music, speak to my kids and keep in touch with the other guys I met in detention, many of whom are much younger than me. I keep myself busy but when I’m alone it hits me to the point I may fall apart. I’m grateful I’m out on bail but don’t feel much better than I did inside. I can’t move on with my life.
Philomene When most people see someone walking with their bags, they assume they’re travelling somewhere. But some of us are carrying our belongings because we have nowhere to sleep tonight I live day to day. My asylum case has been refused and I’ve been destitute since 2015. I carry my bags with me every day and am always watching the time because I have to catch a special bus at 6pm, which takes me to wherever I’m sleeping that night. It’s a different place every day and if I miss that bus – put on by an asylum charity – I’m sleeping outside. And that has happened. Back home, I had my own business. I travelled all over the region – to Tanzania, Zambia and elsewhere – and imported produce such as beans and salted fish. I had a comfortable life, a nice house in the city and was well dressed. As well as my own two children I looked after my sister’s four kids as well. I ran away from the Democratic Republic of Congo in 2012, however, because of political problems. My husband was already being watched by police when we were involved in a traffic accident in which the son of an army colonel lost his life after jumping a red light. The police tried to say we killed him deliberately and my husband and I were put in separate detention facilities. I never saw him again and later learned he had been tortured and killed. We were church singers and had been performing in another part of the country when this happened. The church people got me out of detention and took me over the border into Rwanda because they learned the authorities wanted to kill me. The family of the boy who died sent the police to my house. They destroyed it, then went to the home of my brother and broke his leg. My family fled, taking my children with them, into a neighbouring country. The church sent me to the UK, where I applied for asylum. After 18 months my case was refused and my housing withdrawn. I was refused again a short time later and since then I’ve been homeless. I don’t know why this has happened to me, why I can’t live my life.
Karol I suffer from anxiety and sometimes really struggle with communication. I’m an artist but feel I understand things on the art scene differently to British artists. I wondered if getting to know people on a personal level through volunteering would change anything. I started volunteering at art galleries about a year ago and ended up getting involved with Europia, an organisation which works with European expats in Manchester. They then asked me to set up and run an LGBT+ group, which aims to bring together members of these communities from central and Eastern Europe and offer support, should they need it. The volunteering has helped with things like confidence, public speaking and organisational skills. The other thing I’ve come to realise through it is the importance of being European. In the 12 years since I arrived in the UK, I’ve never been that interested in what was happening in Polish society in this country – I was always more interested in blending in. But I’ve recently learned that this is who I really am – and I think part of the reason I’ve been experiencing depression and anxiety is because I was trying to think like a British person and was being constantly misunderstood. My partner is from the Middle East and through his work he is in frequent contact with people from his own community. I notice the differences between us – he is able to speak his own language every day and is happy and comfortable. I think this is because he feels rooted in his own culture. The re-awakening of the Polish identity within me has opened new doors. I’ve realised I need to slow down, not force myself and try to be more relaxed.
Sally I’m from Guatemala and my identity is indigenous. My grandfather is indigenous – his first language is called Mam, and Spanish is his second language. Indigenous culture is beautiful – people wear colourful clothes and have beautiful dances – but they also face discrimination. I lived on my grandparents’ farm until I was 14 because my mother was working in the city. I loved school – my favourite thing was performance and folk dancing and I did lots of this. I am a transgender woman and as a child my identity was clearly female and not male – my grandparents accepted this because they saw me growing up. I was always wearing my grandma’s dresses and putting on wigs and they would just say: ‘Oh, don’t you look beautiful’. My mother struggled more with it because she hadn’t seen this when I was young. At 14, I moved to the city to study and lived with my mum and siblings. People assumed I was a gay man and I was discriminated against for that. I promised myself that when my studies ended I would embrace my trans identity and that’s what I did. When I told my mother I was going to live as a woman, she wasn’t happy. So at 18 I went it alone. I saw a doctor and lawyer and began the process of transitioning. In Guatemala all LGBT people face some discrimination but it’s particularly bad for trans people, who have few opportunities for work and often face violence. I was the first openly trans person in my grandparents’ city but other people began coming out after I made myself visible. There were lots of gangsters in my neighbourhood. Every month they extorted money from a trans friend who owned a beauty salon. When she fled they began threatening me, despite me having no money or job. One day they shot me in the face with a gun. I had to have an operation to save my life. Even though there was CCTV footage of the attack the police did nothing – I firmly believe this was because I’m transgender. My life after that was very bad. I was alone in the city and was very nervous and depressed. I decided to seek sanctuary somewhere else. I fled to the UK in late 2017 and after nine months I was given refugee status. I am studying English and attend an arts group so I’m performing once again.
Esther In Holland I’ll always be considered an emigrant. I was born in Amsterdam and moved to Spain aged four, until 11. My mum then decided to take my sister and I back to get a Dutch education and to be closer to our grandparents. I stayed put until I was 28, then moved to China for seven months and later to France, where I stayed for over two years. I returned home to Holland after that but just seven months later met my husband, who is British. Four months later I was moving again – this time to join him in the UK. I was there for four years but we’ve recently relocated to the Netherlands permanently. This move is not something we would have chosen at this point – we feel our hands have been forced by Brexit. When I was born, Dutch children automatically took the nationality of their father, and my dad is British – although I’ve had little contact with him since childhood. My country doesn’t normally allow dual passports, something which only became an issue for me during the Brexit negotions. This never felt important to me in the past because a British passport gave me the same rights as a Dutch one. But within a year of my arrival in the UK, talk turned to the Brexit referendum. I quickly realised I could end up stuck, because British nationals will no longer have the same freedom of movement and rights to work in any member state enjoyed by EU citizens. And so we’ve let our house and transported our entire lives to Holland. Once I’ve relinquished my British passport and got Dutch papers I could choose to apply for my British one back – because marriage is the only situation when Holland allows dual nationality. I doubt I’ll bother though because I’m sick and tired of it all.
Lorenza I have quite a visceral image of what Brexit means to me. Imagine you go for a night out. Everyone’s really drunk and someone comes and vomits on you, ruins your evening and says: “You clean it up.” That’s the best analogy for what the past few years has felt like. The referendum result was a big shock. When I heard the result I felt sick and from that point on I felt permanently anxious. I’m Italian and my husband is British and I wanted to ensure we and our daughter all have dual citizenship. Overnight, it went from European migrants being accepted and valued regardless of which passport we held to us being a problem to solve. But my life hasn’t changed. I still wake up and get the same bus to work.We came to Britain on the basis that we were welcome here. Everyone contributes one way or another to society. You don’t need a degree or a salary to do that. It took more than a year to get my daughter’s documents processed by the Italian consulate. Between that and the media coverage of Brexit, my stress levels steadily grew. It felt like something was constantly pressing on my chest and I suffered from insomnia. At night my thoughts are all incredibly negative – I think through all the worst possible situations that might happen. Because I have a history of mental health issues – particularly anxiety and panic attacks – I’ve had to really pay attention to this, and not let it take over again. I’ve been going to yoga and spending time on our allotment. The whole thing has been really hurtful. It’s made me question if I belong here now. Everything now feels rockier and less certain than before. If someone asks where I’m from I now wonder why they’re asking. My new response is: ‘I’m Italian but I’ve lived here since 1998.’ I shouldn’t need to justify myself.
Nancy I grew up on the west coast of Canada, in Vancouver. When I was 20 I moved to the UK for a one-year university exchange and ended up liking it so much that I returned after graduating. That was 12 years ago. One of the reasons I first moved here was that my grandpa was born in Durham. He migrated to Canada with his family in the 1920s, when he was five. Back then, the government was inviting people to settle there and offering them land. My family were city people and didn’t know how to farm but they wanted a new life. It was made to sound idyllic but I don’t think they were warned about the freezing cold or the fact there’s lots of mosquitos in that area in the summer. We always ate Sunday dinner with our cousins when I was growing up. We would eat Yorkshire puddings – I only realised much later that other Canadians didn’t eat them – and Christmas pudding as well. My grandpa, who has now passed away, was very excited about me coming to Britain and helped me fill out the forms. He sponsored one of my early visas – an ancestry visa which I could get because he had lived here. Vancouver is beautiful, but one of the things I love about the UK is how easy it is to get around. In Canada, to even get to Calgary – the next province – is a mission that takes 14 hours of driving or an expensive flight. It’s an odd thing – people often complain about immigrants in front of me, and I’ll be thinking: ‘But I’m an immigrant.’ When I say this I’m usually told I don’t count. Because I’m white and I speak English I’m seen as different but I’m the same as anyone who came from another country.
Kirlett I moved to England when I was seven, with my mum and my aunt. We were joining family – my grandparents had moved to the UK during the 1960s and left their kids behind with extended family. My grandma worked at the Michelin tyre factory in Stoke-on-Trent. My family are from St Elizabeth, in the hills of Jamaica. Back then it was quiet and safe – I remember walking to school by myself, even though I was young. When we arrived, we first went to London and then to Stoke, where my grandma still lived, and it was a culture shock. I’d never felt cold like it before and I’d never seen snow. I was also one of the only black kids in my school and had a different accent at that point, so I was picked on. I remember being told to go back to Pakistan – if you’re going to insult me at least get your geography right! Things improved when I went to high school – I made new friends and lost my accent and I think I also learned to ignore the racism. Coming from Jamaica, I knew how lucky I was to get a free education, as families there have to pay for schooling. I’ve been back to Jamaica several times on holiday but nowadays I feel like a tourist when I’m there. I’ve visited a number of other Caribbean islands as well, along with Gambia, Barcelona and New York. I work in tourism and really like meeting people from all over the world. Britain is not perfect but it is home to me.
Lidia When I was younger I made a lot of mistakes. I did not listen to my parents and spent my evenings out on the streets with my friends. My parents – who are Pentecostal Christians – didn’t let me go to discos but I would still go. They don’t drink or smoke but I did. I was supposed to see the difference between my parents and the people on the street but I was following the wrong example. If God had allowed me to carry on like that, maybe I would not be here now. Now it’s finished. God has given me a blessing – a child. I believe we have to say thank you to Him every day. If I make a mistake I feel a pain in my heart. My brother is in Africa at the moment, working to take the word of God as far as possible. Someone came to our church one Sunday to talk about the work Roma people like us are doing over there. They are building houses for people and giving tribal communities clothes to wear. My brother was very touched by their stories and asked if he could go too. My entire family helped him out – we helped him with the cost of his flights and we collected 20kg of clothing for him to take to the people there. They teach them how to eat with a spoon, how to get dressed and how to sing Romanian songs.
Maria Over the years I’ve started eight businesses from scratch – just from the money in my pocket. When I graduated from university as a mature student, I wanted to help a fellow student who was also from Poland. At the time she couldn’t stay in the UK unless she had a business, so with a year to go before the 2004 expansion of the European Union I came up with the idea of creating a recruitment company to bring Eastern Europeans to the UK for employment. We then created cleaning and property maintenance companies for those recruits to work in. A few years later my partner became greedy and tried to cut me out of the business. She emptied the bank account and left me with two bare desks but – thankfully – our clients stayed with me. It was difficult to get over what she’d done to me but I built the business up again to 15 employees. We were doing great until the recession. Then one of our biggest clients got into trouble and I became very stressed and ended up closing the business. I went on to spent several years setting up business coaching networks in Poland and, two years ago, went into business coaching. I’m about to celebrate my 40th anniversary of coming to the UK. I never planned to emigrate but things just worked out that way. I was working at a train station when I was approached by the secret police, given an ID badge and told I was going to be asked to report on people. I was so shocked – I remember thinking: ‘God, please take me away from here, I can’t be here any longer.’ The following year my father heard from a long-lost relative in who was living in Reading. She visited us in Poland and later sent me an invitation to visit the UK. I told no one at the time but I knew in my heart I had no intention of returning. It was like being born again when I arrived. I had lots of fear and had to re-learn how to trust people.
Najat My first experience of migration was Italy. At first I didn’t like it – I had a good job at a five-star hotel in Marrakech, but because I couldn’t speak Italian, I had to get a cleaning job to get by. I really don’t like this kind of work but I had to accept it. Growing up in Morocco, I’d always dreamed about going to Europe and seeing it for myself. I chose to Italy because I had family there. I moved there in 2000, and was married four years later. My husband worked for a construction company and when I became pregnant with our oldest son I gave up work, although I later worked from home as a fashion stylist and Arabic teacher. When he lost his job years later, he struggled to find work in Italy and we started thinking about trying another country. My dream was to settle in Norway but my husband wanted to go to France. Eventually though he was persuaded by his family to try the UK, where some of them already lived. They told us it’s better here because as Muslims we have more freedom to practise our religion and there are no problems wearing the headscarf, as there are in France. It’s been almost two years now and we are well settled, although the language is still a challenge. I volunteer at a community centre, helping children with their homework, and spend some time each week at the library, putting books back on the shelves. I grew up in the countryside and for years I thought my grandparents were my birth parents. My own mother had died when I was just four months old, and my father remarried the same year. He left me with my grandmother in Morocco. I was always told he was my uncle and had no idea about the truth until I saw my birth certificate as an older child. Then my grandparents sat me down and explained it. Later I lived with my father for four years, when I moved to the city to attend university. My husband and sons all have Italian passports but mine is Moroccan. I came to the UK on a six-month visa, but then made an application for a residence card and sent my passport to the Home Office. During this time my grandmother fell ill and died and I was unable to see her or attend her funeral. That still makes me very sad as she was a mother to me. 30
Michael I come from a long line of musicians. My father was a pianist, my grandfather and uncle played double bass and my great-grandfather and great-great-grandfather were violinists. Everything in my life is connected to music and always has been. My family is of Roma heritage and there’s evidence to suggest they were slave musicians for a king named Ipsilante, who ruled one of the principalities which make up modern-day Romania in the early 19th century. He forced some monasteries to sell him land and with that came slaves. He acquired my ancestors along with land from Bistrița monastery and moved them to Braila, where he had his family residence. This was a rich and cultured place at that time, due to its location on the River Danube. Like other Roma at that time my ancestors were slaves, but in a sense they were free before being liberated in the 1850s. A musician’s status would have been high and I have found evidence that they had the freedom to move around and became quite famous in the area. Despite my family being so musical, I preferred kicking a ball to practising the piano and wanted to be a footballer. Eventually, when I was about 12, they held a family council to discuss what was going to happen with me. They had a plan – they knew I would probably get tall enough at some point to pick up the double bass. I started attending the music school once a week and learning to play. For a year or so I continued with the football but the music soon grabbed me totally and I forgot about other stuff. I loved writing music and as I learned more about our family history I wanted to follow in my father and uncle’s footsteps. From about 17 or 18 I played with them in their performances. I moved to the UK within weeks of the Romanian revolution of December 1989. I was playing with a radio symphony orchestra when the Ceaușescu regime fell – after years of repression, it felt like a volcano erupted in Bucharest. I already had plans to study abroad but had been struggling to get my passport approved. But after the revolution I had no problem getting my documents.
Rudo I was brought to the UK to work as a slave. Life in Zimbabwe was very tough – I was the only breadwinner for four children, including a baby. I wanted a better life and a family friend offered to help. She and her sister, who lived in Britain, bought me a plane ticket. I left my kids with my parents, but the sister made me her slave. I did all the housework and looked after her grandson while she worked as a nurse. She never allowed me to mix with other people – even at church she would sit next to me. She made me cry on a daily basis but if she saw she would shout: ‘Why are you crying? You’ll bring me bad luck.’ I did all the jobs a man would normally do. When she moved, I had to empty the entire three-bedroom house single-handedly. I carried huge suitcases up a rickety loft ladder, thinking: ‘If I fall off this ladder and break my back I won’t even get a sorry from this woman.’ But God protected me. In the new garden were five really thick trees. She bought a handsaw and I was made to use it to cut them down. Despite the way she treated me I didn’t recogise it as abuse. Before coming to this country I had escaped a violent marriage, which had already worn my self-confidence down to nothing. One day, after two years, I decided I had had enough. It took me two weeks of praying to muster the courage and strength to tell her I had bumped into my nephew in town and was leaving. I gave a month’s notice because I didn’t want to just run away while she was at work and her grandson was at school. When I was sleeping in those weeks I had to keep one eye open in case she came at me with a kettle of boiling water. When I left I had no idea where I was going – I went to the nearby shops and cried for attention. She had given me £100 but told me not to tell anyone about this – something which caused me serious problems when I claimed asylum. By denying what I had been through I was digging my own grave. It wasn’t long before the refusal came and I lost my housing. These days I am no longer myself and I find it difficult to trust people. I feel so isolated and mental health has been seriously damaged by everything that has happened. Sometimes when I feel angry and suicidal I wonder why don’t the Home Office just get a gun and shoot me. 34
Leentje I never planned to move to England. I came here because of my husband, who I met while perfoming at a Belgian theatre festival. Within a short time I fell pregnant and we very rationally decided what would happen. He had a permanent job and a flat in the UK and spoke no Dutch. I, on the other hand, lived with my mum in Belgium, was a freelancer and spoke a little English. We drove to the UK in a campervan about a month after our daughter was born because I was recovering from a pulmonary embolism I had suffered during the birth and wasn’t allowed to fly. Looking back, we now realise what a lot we were taking on. Having a baby is hard enough, let alone doing it without your normal support network. I was also moving in for the first time with a man I didn’t know very well. I had to go to hospital daily because of the medication I was taking. I knew no one and was too unwell to go out alone. And my husband almost immediately went back to work. Those first years were really hard but I knew I had to give it time. Then life got so busy with two young children that I almost forgot about it. It’s only in more recent years that I’ve come to the conclusion that I don’t want to be here – but I now have two teenagers whose entire lives are in this country. Before I moved here it didn’t occur to me that it would be so different from what I knew. But absolutely nothing is the same. I’d spent 24 years living in one small village so it was a big change. What I miss seems like a list of small things but they all add up. I speak to my children in Dutch but they speak back to me in English. And that’s a big problem for me. I have moments when I ask myself: ‘Who are these people?’ because it’s so alienating. Everything that is weird for me is normal for them. When children are small you can keep your own customs alive. But as they get older it gets harder to embed my traditions into their lives because they’re not really interested anymore. They don’t want to stand out – they want to conform and be the same as everyone else.
Aklima When I was born in 1969, Bangladesh was still known as East Pakistan. The country won its independence in 1971. But this war of liberation was very sad for me because I lost my mother. My father, who was a government officer, sent us our grandfather’s house in the village for safety. My eldest sister was seven years old, I was two and my young sister was just six months old. After the liberation period cholera hit the village and many people lost their lives, including my mother and her sister. My father made many sacrifices after that. My aunt’s husband quickly remarried but my father never did. My uncle’s wife looked after the baby until she was five. But my elder sister and I were always with my father. He trained teachers for a living and whenever he took a class I would be sitting near him. We were extremely close. Later, when I went to university and lived in a student hostel I felt mentally sick to be without him. About five years after I married my husband, he started thinking about going abroad in order to earn more. He was supporting his entire family at that time. We had a relative in Italy, so he went there and six years later the children and I joined him. I tried many jobs there – childcare, elder care, restaurant jobs. Eventually though I started wondering if England would be better for us. In England there are Asian people and Bengali people who are 4th or 5th generation. There are so many opportunities for education and work, and many mosques so we can easily practise our religion. The first time I told my husband I wanted to go to England he said no but I knew I needed to find better opportunities for our children. I applied for a visa so I could visit and find out more. It took several trips to the UK, on my own, before I found this house and we moved over three years ago. Soon though I am moving to Sheffield, because we are starting a small business – a newsagent kiosk in the city centre. My husband took it over a few months ago and when my children finish school we will join him. Here if you want to do something it’s easy to make it happen.
Denisa I couldn’t even order a burger when I moved to the UK but today I’m working as a solicitor. I’m originally from the Czech Republic and I’m Roma. My parents can barely read and write and of six children in my family, I was the only one accepted into mainstream school. Other kids would call me names and exclude me and teachers mostly ignored me. I knew I needed to get the school leaving certificate but even with that I couldn’t find a job. Once they realise you’re Roma, the post is suddenly no longer available. When I was 22 I married and had my son, but the marriage didn’t last. My brother and niece were living in the UK, in Leicester, so I went to visit them. As soon as I arrived I liked it – I didn’t feel like a second-class citizen like I do back home. I decided to join them. At first I worked as a cleaner in a restaurant. We lived together so one of us was always at home with my son. Then I started waitressing. My English wasn’t good at all but I tried to learn and went to ESOL classes. I realised there was a big Roma community locally who needed help. I set up an informal support service in a community centre and made some business cards. I also started working with Roma families at a school. Back home I didn’t know what to do with my life and just wanted an income. In England I realised I wanted to do more than work as a cleaner, so began to study. I did a hairdressing course but was so terrible I couldn’t find a job in it. I visited a careers advisor and when he told me my Czech qualifications would get me into university I almost fell off my chair with surprise. I was offered a place to study law and was determined to do it – despite everyone telling me it was suicide. It was like a train hit me – seriously hard – but I got a 2:1 and then went on to pass the Legal Practice Course. I was lucky to secure a training contract with a law centre, where I now have a permanent position. I still help Roma people in my own time. If you come from an environment where there is no ambition then it’s hard to find ambition within yourself. I had no one to follow in my legal career but I will set the precedent for other people from my community.
Hussain I’m hoping to join the police. I’ve passed my first two interviews and have a few more to do, and then I’ll find out if I’ve made it onto the training. I want to do this is in order to give something back to the community. I spent a year volunteering at a youth club in Salford and – in between activities like football and baseball – the kids would talk to me about their families and problems. It got me thinking that I should help them in some way. As a police officer your first priority is to serve the public. I want to do my bit to stop the youths from picking up knives and getting into trouble. There used to be lots of youth clubs but many have closed down. There’s nothing for young people to do and some of them take the wrong path. I’m originally from Pakistan. We moved to the UK when I was 10 years old and I’m now 24 so I’ve now lived here for longer than I lived back home. We left our country for safety and sought asylum in Britain. It’s taken a really long time to get our residency here – in fact we only got our status a few months ago. The impact of my family’s experience has been quite serious for me. It’s affected my mental health and I attended counselling for three years to try to deal with it. I was a really tough child and wouldn’t cry for anything but the counselling made me quite emotional. Being within the asylum system has been like living in a limbo – I wasn’t able to put my foot forward. Now, however, I think this was my destiny, and I’m trying to put my trust in God. I have grabbed all the opportunities I’ve been offered here. I have done many training courses – I’ve done some plumbing and electrics, and then trained to become a fitness instructor and a cycling instructor. But being in the asylum system meant I couldn’t go to university. I want the kids in this country who are getting into trouble with the law to understand the amazing opportunities they have in front of them. They’ve been born with silver spoons in their mouths – they could achieve anything they want but instead some of them are ruining their lives and damaging their own communities. I believe this can be changed and want to play my part in this. 43
Syed I never expected to end up living in another country – maybe it was my destiny but it was a matter of survival at the time. I moved to Dubai in the early 70s because I was supporting my whole family in Pakistan back then. I lived there for six or seven years and did various jobs. First I was a tally clerk, stocktaking on ships coming through the port. Then I got into sales. From there I moved to the UK. I was introduced to my wife and I’m stuck here now. Again I did all kinds of work to make ends meet. I worked in factories – clothing and knitwear – and then got my driving licence and began driving taxis. I later sold ladies clothes on markets. Our eldest daughter was about a year old and would sleep and sit in a box we had at the back. Financially it was very tight but somehow we managed it. You put up with these things when you have no choice. My parents were from India, but moved more than a thousand miles to Pakistan during Partition. My mother’s family stayed in India while my father’s side crossed the border. It was a very violent time and my family crossed by foot, because there were massacres taking place on the trains. They settled in Karachi and I was born about a year later. When I was just a year old my mother died from Tuberculosis. My father remarried and had more children. But his life was different from how it had been in India. His family had been in leather goods but left their business behind. Losing a lifetime of connections is a huge thing. He would sometimes get very frustrated and angry when he saw things he didn’t like. The person I was closest to was my father’s mother – whom we called Dadi. She did everything for me. She was a very religious person. At night when I was sleeping she would say her prayers and in the morning she would come in and bless me. For a while there was a tug of war going on over me, between my father and my maternal aunt – my mother’s only sister, who had no children of her own. I lived with her in Bombay, India, as a teenager and was educated there. But as my father’s health started to fail I returned to Karachi and tried to relieve some of the burden from him. I still remember how happy he would be when I gave him whatever small wages I had. 44
Hanane My father is a very kind person, very tender. Everyone tells me I’m like him, because I too cry easily and am very sentimental. My mother had a strong character, which balanced this out. Much later I realised she is actually the more fragile person. Around the time I was starting university, my mother had a psychological shock and changed overnight. Her brother, with whom she was very close, had an accident and it pushed her over the edge. For the first time I realised there can be a fragile person hiding inside someone who seems strong – one shock and a person can fall apart. Over the next few years my mum really suffered and it was very hard for her and the whole family. She found it difficult to sleep, and suffered terrible nightmares. She was always thinking bad things. If you hurt yourself physically you can go to the doctor but it’s so much harder with mental problems. The psychologists said we had to protect her from bad news. After two years she recovered somewhat and we returned to normal life. I finished my degree and then met my husband through a family friend. He was living in Italy and so we moved there after we got married. Morocco is my home, my heart, my culture, my origin and my family. But Italy is where I grew into the woman I am today. There, I learned how to be independent and strong, determined and openminded. I worked hard to learn the language, meet people and develop my own ideas. We had wonderful friends and were very happy there for 17 years. Then my husband decided to accept a transfer to London. I didn’t want to move because I had my job, my stable life. ‘No,’ I said. ‘I don’t agree to this!’ So for five years I stayed with the children while he was in London. Every holiday he would either come to us or we would fly there. It was very hard but it was my fault. Finally I realised we couldn’t continue like this – the children were approaching their teenage years and needed their father. So I left it all behind and started again from scratch 18 months ago. Now I’m going through it all again – learning a new language, building a network and making a life.
After 12 years here, my life in the UK is in jeopardy. Unless my mum and I attain British citizenship as soon as possible, we could face deportation back to Thailand. I moved here aged 12, after my mum married a British man and had my half-sister. A few years later I joined them in Acocks Green. At first people were largely friendly but, after I came out as gay, being at school became very hard. To make things worse, my mum was also struggling to accept my sexuality so I felt extremely alone. It got to the point that I took an overdose and was sent to a mental hospital for four months. It was exactly what I needed. I realised I’d felt desperately lonely since leaving Thailand and saw how important it was to have a support network. After leaving hospital I went to college, and later moved to Manchester for university. It ended up becoming my sanctuary: I enjoy the music and art scenes, have a studio and am part of an artistic collective. I’ve become immersed in the LGBT+ community. My mum fell out with me when I told her I was moving to Manchester. She was a single parent by then and was working long hours in a kitchen – she was able to do that because I was taking my sister to school and picking her up. Her marriage ended after it emerged her husband – a lorry driver – had been smuggling drugs. He was sentenced to four years in prison and my mum filed for divorce. This is the source of our visa problems, though. He sponsored my mum’s visa and their divorce renders this invalid. She in turn supported my visa, which is also now invalid. The authorities eventually picked up on what had happened and it was only a matter of time before the deportation process began. We realised the best thing to do was to apply for British citizenship. The main obstacle is financial – the cost of two applications is £2,600. Finding this kind of money quickly would be impossible for us. It was a friend who suggested doing a crowdfunder to raise this money. At first it felt too personal but I came around to it. The response has been overwhelming – we smashed the target in 24 hours, with almost 200 people donating, including many I don’t know. Now we are both focused on preparing for the Life in the UK test, which we need to pass before we can apply for citizenship. I’ll definitely feel much safer once I have a British passport.
Sonia I’m from Lisbon. I grew up in the sunshine and going to the beach and I took it for granted at the time. I’m the youngest of six kids and we always had people coming in and out of the house – lots of extended family and friends, including lots of foreigners. I was speaking English from the age of three. I moved to the UK in 2003. I worked for a pharmaceutical firm in Portugal and they were opening a shared service centre in England. I was really blasé when I was invited to interview and didn’t expect them to pick me. But the next day I got an email, offering me the job. I hadn’t thought seriously of moving abroad up to that point, let alone to England or Manchester. I thought it couldn’t be so different from home, but how wrong I was. It was a bit of a culture shock when I arrived – some of the little things I noticed included houses having carpet in the toilet and cold and boiling hot water taps. I remember wondering did they not have mixer taps in England? I made friends with some Spanish people and by the time we had eaten dinner and were going out, everyone was either super drunk or going home. It was like moving to another world. Northern Europeans are more reserved – they can be very nice but are not always spontaneous. I sometimes found it hard to work out if people were being my friend or just being polite. I’ve was told I was a bit aggressive for the way I speak with my hands, and noticed that British people didn’t always seem comfortable making eye contact when they talked. At the beginning I didn’t think I would last. I missed home so badly but eventually realised I had to distance myself a bit from life back there. Every time I went home to visit I would be sobbing on the plane back to England. For a while I hated everyone and felt a bit stuck – because going back to Portugal would have meant I’d failed. Eventually though I got into a routine and got to know the city better – and then before I knew it I’d been here 10 years and made friends and things didn’t seem so dark anymore. I bought a house with a friend and then met my husband, and then our daughter arrived.
Antonio From the age of about 15 I became very engaged in playing music. I was self-taught but grew up watching my dad play the guitar. As a teenager I was in a hard rock band called Daily Delirium. I was searching for some form of authenticity I suppose, and discovering what I was capable of. At 15 you are in the middle of existential crisis every minute – every second – of your life. I think the music helped me feel focused and present. At the time in my city, in Italy, there was a place in an industrial area where we had a rehearsal room – there were about 12 garages there which were all full of bands. There was a real sense of community, of being part of something. It was nice to take a look to see who was playing in the other practice spaces. Our complaint was that there were not enough spaces for musicians who wanted to play their own music – but I never felt that comfortable performing, it was stressful for me. At the same time though you need to do that as a form of communication, or music serves no purpose. I still record my own stuff today, but I share the music I make with very few people. I have periods where I need to change what I’m doing and focus on something else – where I’ll spend every spare moment with a guitar. Maybe it’s feeding parts of my soul that I’ve abandoned for a while. We all want to give meaning to something, otherwise we are condemned to nihilism.
Cormac I grew up in the countryside, in a small village about an hour south of Dublin. The River Liffey runs through it. As a very small child I pottered around in its puddles and eddies and as I grew older I fished and canoed in its waters. As I grew up I yearned to move to Dublin, with its more vibrant culture. I was almost 17 when I went to live with my granny. I worked in a Spar shop and very quickly made friends, who remain my Dublin crew. I made a new family and saw the city through their eyes. They shaped me almost as much as my experiences in the village. I left Dublin to do some travelling. I spent a year in South America and then decided to live in Barcelona and teach English. While there I became aware I wasn’t doing anything purposeful. I began looking into Masters courses and was accepted onto one in Manchester, staying on later to work on a PhD. I don’t really think of myself as living in England, or even as having emigrated. I don’t feel connected to the Irish community in Manchester or the North West and really struggle with this identity of ‘immigrant’ because I just feel like I live here. There’s lots of complexity in the relationship between Ireland and Britain. Ireland is a post-colonial country but I find it extraordinary how little it is understood by people in England. Some people are very sensitive about being racist towards Irish people. There have been moments where I’ve been really aware that there is tension in the air which I need to diffuse. As much as I have real criticisms of Ireland, it’s deeply part of me as well and I think if people were to belittle it I would feel quite defensive. I’m not a nationalist – growing up in the ’80s, when the Troubles were very present, definitely shaped my feelings about where that kind of tribal identity can go – but my sense of Irishness is very strong.
Many thanks to all the participants for sharing their time and stories. I’d also like to extend a huge thanks to the individuals and organisations who helped me along the way: Ramona Constantin; Sophia Gardiner; Jaqui Cotton and the Growing Together Project; Heart and Parcel and Europia.