Earlier this week I was telling the Cesar the story of my amazing Nana and her many husbands and children, and we were talking about why I have Canadian citizenship in addition to being British. My Nana remarried just after WW2 (she divorced her first husband after he ran off with a nurse during the war), and she married a Welsh man who was also a naturalized Canadian citizen. Off they went to Canada, where my father was born, and then, before he even knew how to walk, they sailed back to England again, where they all stayed until they died. I love telling this story because it always makes me feel happy to relive my Nana’s adventures. Anyway, out of the blue Cesar asked me, very seriously, “but why did so many people want to leave England then?!”
Anyone who grew up in Europe can easily answer that question. In 1945 the continent was devastated after years of Nazi occupation and decimation, as well as tremendous bombing carnage from both Allied and enemy sides. England, while never invaded, had survived through 6 years of war, food rationing and bombings, where streets and towns and cities had disappeared into rubble. Everyone knew someone who had died, family members disappeared, children came home after being evacuated to parents they hadn’t seen in years. The lucky ones who had managed to make it across the Channel before the Germans occupied the mainland Europe searched frantically for loved ones, usually to be found as ashes at the bottom of a crematorium or thrown at the bottom of a mass grave. Europe was full of refugee camps and people who had no home to get back to, for multiple reasons. The UK was full of ruins and needed rebuilding. Who could blame anyone for moving across the ocean to a place that had not been touched by the violent hand of war directly, or at least hadn’t suffered the visual heartbreak that Europe had? If you had the chance to you made it out. The vast expanse of Canadian land must have looked so refreshing to eyes that had witnessed so much devastation for years. My Nana lived in London and Kent during the war, and would frequently see the bombers fly over, and the damage that the enemy planes caused. It’s hard to imagine raising three small children in that environment, isn’t it?
It was such a simple question from someone who was born and raised in a developing country where life wasn't easy and immigrated to another in order to create a better life for himself. From someone who started working before he was even a teenager to help make sure his family was always able to pay the bills, and who worked hard enough to build his own house by the time he was 18. He sees England as the place where we would want to move, not a place where people move from. I see it as the place where I was born, and I can totally see why people would have wanted to leave at some point or other in the past few centuries. My mother took us all out of the UK to The Netherlands when we were kids because the 80’s had been so bleak for working class families and she wanted a better life for us. We left in a small blue van containing everything we had and crossed the sea in search of something better. We didn’t speak any other language apart from English, and I had never left the UK before. It was an adventure. No one seemed to bat an eyelid about us leaving England; we were probably met with a little envy on leaving, and a little curiosity on arriving. But we were still immigrants.
Cesar’s simple question had me thinking all week, and raised a fundamental issue that is always at the back of my mind: why do people question why others become immigrants? Why do my fellow British citizens throw their arms up in the air and complain about refugees and immigrants stealing all of their jobs and money? Why are US citizens, who as we all know mostly come from immigrants too, complaining about “all the immigrants stealing their precious welfare money”? Because not that long ago they were also looking to move away from where they came from, from a war-torn country, from persecution, for a better life. Why is it so hard to look at the bigger picture and actually understand why someone would want to leave their country of origin? I always read the same comment from people, saying that they “saw a refugee with a cellphone and if you can afford a cellphone then you haven’t lost everything in your life”. Despite the fact that that is SUCH a stupid statement, if you remember correctly, the Nazis collected (I mean stole) huge amounts of riches from Jewish families during WW2. Bombs don’t discriminate when it comes to wealth. And anyway, everyone has a cellphone these days. It’s actually cheaper to put up a couple of cellphone towers than it is to install miles and miles of telephone wires, so you know, you might find a starving family in Sudan has a cellphone too. Doesn’t mean that said cellphone can actually provide food, water, and protection from guns, bombs and people who want you dead. Having a cellphone in your hand doesn’t mean that the country you are fleeing isn't looking to kill you. It just means that you live in the year 2017.
So, not to go too far into a different tangent, why is it easy to imagine leaving a war-torn continent in 1945 but easy to dismiss those who are fleeing war-torn countries today? Before WW2 many countries closed their borders to refugees, consequently leaving them to face death at the hands of the Nazi regime and their enthusiastic followers. We seem to have forgotten the collective guilt we felt as nations looking at the pictures of liberated concentration camps, knowing that in some part we could have prevented this from happening. But no, instead, again, people are pushed away because of their religion, their colour, their country of origin. We look at pictures of devastation, of starvation, of death, in such a detached manner. Have you ever heard of Kevin Carter? He was a photographer who won the Pulitzer Prize in 1994 for his heartbreaking picture of a starving toddler trying to make her way to a feeding center while a vulture looks at her. This photo was taken in Sudan in 1993 and went on to haunt Carter’s mind (amongst other things), until his suicide not long afterwards. It also created outrage amongst those who saw the photo in different publications, blaming the photographer for preferring to take the shot rather than save the child. There are different accounts of what happened after the photo was taken, but this is beside the point. What did all those people, claiming outrage from their comfortable armchairs, do about the famine in Sudan at that time? (There is also a lot of that going on right now, as I type, so nothing has really changed, has it?). Why do we continue to look at pictures and reports with detached horror, but not feel the need to actually help?
I talk as a collective “we” here, as there ARE many people who DO help, who try to change the world for the better. But at the same time, our borders are still closed, refugee children are still sleeping rough in the bushes around Calais, parents are still digging their lifeless children’s bodies out of rubble, and people are still risking their lives, leaving their homes with nothing except the clothes they are wearing, to make their way to a better place, just because if they stayed behind their chance of staying alive would probably be nil.
So, I was able to answer Cesar’s question easily. But it opened up a lot of other questions, some that I cannot answer, but that always plague my mind. Why is it OK for one person to be an immigrant, but it isn’t for another? Who defines the “good” immigrant against the “bad” one? How do we easily forget what happened less than 100 years ago in our own countries? Where did this lack of collective empathy come from? Why can we not make enough room for everyone in places where we can drive for miles without crossing another soul? I’m going to do my best to raise humans who will not be driven to create conflict, amass power and kill others, but in the meantime there has to be some way for those of us living in relative ease (as in we are not being persecuted or dying of hunger) to reach out to others instead of closing our doors.