It’s refugee week here in the UK. It’s an issue that’s close to my heart. I was born in the UK and have lived all of my life here. Yet, I’m always deeply aware that had I born in another time or another country, I too could have been a refugee or an immigrant starting out with nothing. It’s just luck that has deposited me in a relatively affluent country, during a period of political stability when our wars have only been fought overseas.
The stories of refugees (who can legally stay in the UK) and asylum seekers (who have yet to gain this) never fail to move me. I can barely pack for an overseas holiday without wanting to take all but the kitchen sink. I’ve always thought that if I, like some of my relatives in the not too distant past, had to flee over mountains from one country to another, I’d be completely stuffed. There’s no room for luxury toiletries to weigh you down on a journey like that. My favourite high heeled boots would definitely have to stay behind – if you can’t run in them or walk for days in them then what’s the point?
I imagine what I’d pack if I had a month to plan my journey and I remember my dilemmas about what to take when I packed before leaving for a year working in Madagascar. “I just took one pair of trousers when I went” said my employer. Could I pack similarly as lightly? It turned out that I could not, being too concerned about changes of clothes and ensuring that I was cool in summer and warm in winter. But what would I pack if I did not know where I was going? What if I didn’t know how long I’d be going for or whether I’d have the money to replace clothes when they became worn and torn?
I imagine what I would take if I had just a week to plan my journey. Would it be any easier? I look around my house, trying to imagine what I could leave behind if I did not know when or if I’d return. There’d be no room for my treasured photo albums or my diaries – the personal things which tie me to the life I’ve led so far. I’d have to say goodbye to my lovely cats. I cried all the way to the airport when I went to Madagascar. I couldn’t imagine having to leave them knowing that I probably would never see them again.
Finally, I imagine what it would be like if I had no time at all to plan my journey. What if the Nazis were coming to take me away? If the Israeli Defence Force had just bulldozed my house? If the secret police were coming to murder me and my partner for taking part in anti-government demonstrations? If my neighbours were going to burn my house down because I was not the same religion as them? What would I take then? Would I remember to take spare underwear? Would I remember my toothbrush? It takes me hours to get ready for work in the morning, and then there’s always the inevitable extra ten minutes while I try to find my purse and my keys. But if I was in a panic and fearful for my life, would I be able to find everything essential then?
I reflect on how the UK has changed since I was a child. How diverse the life stories are of my friends, and my family. When my mother came to the UK, she said that you couldn’t get olive oil anywhere except the chemist. When I grew up, my mum’s home-made hummus was an exotic, foreign dish.
Refugees, asylum seekers and immigrants have changed the face of the UK from the country my grandfather landed in during 1914 (or thereabouts). I see this as a positive development, rather than a negative one. Refugee week is an opportunity to celebrate the contribution of refugees to this country and to understand different communities better. There are events happening all over the country, and the organisers are also encouraging people to do a ‘simple act’ and to help change the way refugees are perceived in the UK. I encourage you to remember that it’s just luck that has deposited you in this country, in this time. Spend some a while thinking about what you’d pack if you had to leave in a hurry. Then go to the Simple Acts website and choose an action. I’ll be making a fresh tabouleh and remembering my ancestors. What will you do?
Visit the refugee week site: http://www.refugeeweek.org.uk/
Watch a film: http://www.brightwide.com/home
Read a book: Home is a Place Called Nowhere by Leon Rosselson published by Oxford University Press.
Support a local group: Here’s one in Manchester http://www.wast.org.uk/