I am an immigrant.
As a young adult I discovered that I felt more at home in a country other than the one in which I was born. There seemed to be no reason for this affinity with a place I first saw when I was 17, but it was undeniable nonetheless. As a result, in my mid-twenties I left behind my family and friends and moved across an ocean. In time, I fell in love and started my own family.
My husband calls me “the acceptable face of immigration.” My skin is white, if I don’t speak, it is almost impossible to tell I am not native. My accent is soft, so even when I do speak, I don’t sound jarringly foreign, just a bit exotic. Recently I was walking in the park with my son. The wife of a friend was with me and her little girl, not yet two. As we neared the gate to the park, a middle-aged couple was entering, they looked at me and my son, smiled and nodded, but they seemed not to see my companion with her bronze skin and her mixed-race daughter.
The distinction was so subtle and over so quickly that I sometimes wonder if it was really there, but it felt like a slap. I thought of the gentle dignity of the woman walking beside me and wondered how many such silent slaps she had endured in the seven years of her marriage. The irony was, I am just as much a foreigner as she, but my skin saves me from similar slights. The injustice of it burns, a slow but constant fire. I may be the acceptable face of immigration, but I am still an immigrant.
During the recent campaign debates over the UK’s membership in the European Union, much was made of immigration as a serious issue. European freedom of movement has allowed sizeable communities of “foreigners” from EU countries to migrate to the UK and begin building a new life for themselves here. Their presence has given rise to what I once saw styled on Facebook “Schrödinger’s immigrant: the one who lazes around on benefits whilst simultaneously stealing your job.”
In the wake of the triumph of the “leave” campaign, reports of hate crimes against immigrants – or simply those with darker skin or different clothes – seemed to skyrocket. Nationalistic, racist voices were quite loud for a few days, until all the major political parties in the UK began to fall apart and national focus turned to survival and forming a stable government.
Now the country in which I feel most at home, where I have legally gained indefinite leave to remain, is in the midst of seismic political upheaval and drastic change. I can only watch as events unfold, worried about the outcome, concerned about those at the bottom of the economic food chain, uncomfortably aware how easily my family and I could join them, shamed and angered by anti-immigrant rhetoric, and wondering how it will all combine to create the world in which I must somehow teach my son to live as a positive, compassionate, and peaceful person.
I am an immigrant. I have no vote, instead I am at the mercy of a system that does not have my interests or those of my family at its heart and a population that is so desperate and demoralised as a result of austerity policies that they are turning against those they (or their media) identify as “other” in their search for a scapegoat. I escape most of it. I do not need to live in fear, but it is there in the background. I have rarely felt so powerless, and that makes keenly aware of those less fortunate than I. Immigrants whose ‘foreignness’ is obvious. Refugees, desperate for some security and safety for themselves and their families, who are being met with fear and hate. Of course, not everyone mistreats the alien and the stranger badly, but no one should. It shouldn’t even be a possibility.
It makes me angry, this sense of powerlessness. It makes me angry, the lurking fear. It makes me angry, wishing for a better world for my son. It makes me angry when those with privilege (be they MPs in Westminster or white Americans failing to understand that #blacklivesmatter is a movement that needs to be heard and respected) dismiss the concerns, fears and needs of those who do not have the same privilege.
It makes me angry, and I don’t know what I can do to change it.