My father the refugee
Last week we buried my father. He taught me to save the world.
Earlier this month my father, Ken, passed away. Last week I gave this eulogy at his memorial service in England.
When the cancer returned in February, the doctors gave my father six months to live. So I traveled to Australia with him for one last adventure.
He had been there as a young man and wanted to see the western shore one more time. To look out on the end of the world.
On our last day in Perth, we went to a nature reserve to see the koala bears. It was a scorching hot day and all the koalas were asleep. We sat on a bench in the shade and drank ice water.
And then he told me a story.
In 1942, as the Japanese army entered Burma, my father was being evacuated to India with his sisters. They headed for the city of Pegu.
They arrived to a desperate scene. Japanese aircraft were attacking the city. A panicked mob was fighting to board the last train out. People were sitting on the roof and clinging to the sides.
Somehow, they made it onto that train. But there wasn’t room for Ken’s pet dog, Shabo.
They left Shabo on the screaming platform.
Shabo was a loyal creature. He didn’t understand what was going on and ran after the train. He carried on for mile after mile, barking. Eventually the train came to a bridge. They never saw him again.
“And that’s why I couldn’t let you have a dog growing up” said my dad. “I couldn’t stop thinking about Shabo.”
Ken was a man of many lives. He was a father, a husband, a friend and entrepreneur. Today, in this church, we have people from all over the world, who knew him in each of those lives.
But before he was any of those things, my father was a refugee. And he lived his entire life in the shadow of that experience.
When that train left the station, it wasn’t just Shabo who got left behind. It wasn’t just his home country, community and loved ones.
My father lost another life he could have lived.
When the world fought itself to the end, it swallowed his childhood whole. All the rest of his days were lived as an outsider in strange lands. Instead of the love that all creatures deserve and depend upon to grow, again and again he ran into the brute indifference of the walls that people build. Between nations and cultures. Between us and them.
To honor my father, we must remember him not just as the man he was, but the man he could have been. And we must understand the world that held him back — but that one day, could allow everyone to become the person they truly are.
Subject of the Empire
Kenneth Michael Torricke-Barton was born on January 23rd 1938, in the city of Moulmein, Burma.
He was born into a city on the frontiers of the British Empire. Moulmein was a seaport and garrison town for the British army.
His mother died during childbirth. When the family was evacuated to India in 1942, his father was still with them. But pretty soon he dropped out of the story. They never had much of a relationship.
For the next eleven years of his life, he was shunted between different schools in India. He lived in Calcutta for a period. He studied in the foothills of the Himalayas.
He was an unruly child. He fought a lot, and was thrown out of three different schools.
“A record” he told me, grinning. Always competitive.
When the war ended, he thought about returning to Burma. But there was nothing to go back to, and the country was gripped by civil war. He didn’t have any Burmese identity papers anyway. They were in the church records destroyed during the invasion.
Meanwhile India was convulsed by turmoil.
One of the childhood experiences my father spoke of later in life was the sight of Muslims and Hindus fighting in Calcutta during the riots of 1946. Thousands died before British forces quelled the unrest.
One day my father watched from a balcony as a man chopped off another’s head. The body continued running, headless.
My father laughed, because he was a boy and it looked ridiculous. His sister chastised him for not showing more compassion.
But it was ridiculous.
Already at that young age, my father had seen sights no human should ever have to see. He had traveled so far, and walked through some of the darkest moments of the 20th century.
My father wanted a different life. And so he came to England.
Since I’m telling this story, he obviously succeeded. But it was a close call.
Absurdly, he didn’t have British citizenship either. As someone born in a colony, all he had was a document attesting that he was an ‘imperial subject.’ He was the rabble from across the seas, never meant to be part of the beating heart of empire.
He found his way anyway. Never a man to be put off by authority.
A man of many lives
Ken arrived in England in 1956. He lived all the rest of his days here, and found a measure of contentment.
He found a family. His loving wife Lay Tin, my mother, who he was married to for more than thirty years. His children.
He made friends easily, with the easy confidence and skill that comes to a lot of immigrants. When all the threads of your old life have passed into memory, only by fierce and determined action will new ones be tied. Everyone here has a good story of how they came to know Ken. He loved to tell jokes and stories, and chat for hours and hours with strangers.
On that last trip to Australia, one day he found himself sitting next to an old man on a bench. The man was wearing gnarled old sandals that exposed his pasty white toes. With nothing more than that slender opening, my father found a fuse to spark a conversation.
“Nice toes!” he said.
They weren’t particularly nice.
Nevertheless, my father and the man began chatting. The man was worried about his own health. My father reassured him and urged him to visit the doctor. The man inquired after my father’s reason for being in Perth.
“I just wanted to find some mangosteen” he said. He really was obsessed with finding the fruit when traveling anywhere tropical.
Later that week, the man visited my father. He had a big box of mangosteen with him.
The same confidence that led him to collect friends as others might collect trinkets led him to a long and interesting career. Careers in fact.
At different periods in his life he was a music promoter, a chauffeur for the rich and famous, and an accountant. He got fired after it turned out he didn’t know anything about accounting. He had impressed the manager with his enthusiasm, and then stayed up late at night studying accounting textbooks. Fake it ‘til you make it, right?
He was working as a property agent in west London when he met my mother. He was keen to sell her house. That venture turned out far more profitable than expected.
But in fact it was the real estate industry where he spent most of his life.
In the 1960s he found his calling as someone who could cut deals and move property. So over the years he chased leads and clients, managing his one-man business. He made a lot of people rich, even if he never became rich himself. He loved his work. He came out of retirement several times, and even in his final weeks still hoped for one last big score. He printed new business cards and asked me to teach him how to use a smartphone.
And Ken loved to learn new things.
Late in life he found a passion for painting. His enthusiasm often surpassed his skill, and home was littered with works that unwillingly became postmodern. His attempt to copy the Mona Lisa in watercolor was particularly fiendish. But he was a fine landscape painter.
He loved to travel. He visited every continent except Antarctica. And he loved to drive. When I was eight years old, I remember us going to southern Spain for a family holiday. He insisted on driving, and doing the journey non-stop. We took the ferry to France and drove all day and night. By the time we reached the Costa del Sol, the car was so overheated that the dashboard had melted.
He seemed to know how to drive anywhere in England without using a map. Sometimes he got lost, but he could usually blag convincingly that he knew where he was going.
“These books are rubbish” I said.
He shrugged it off. “Sometimes a turd might contain a jewel” he said.
After I moved to America in 2008, whenever I returned home for the holidays I used to get annoyed finding all my old university books out of order in my room.
“Why would you even want to read up on Vladimir Putin?” I asked him.
“He seemed like a more effective leader than Trump” he replied.
A bad hand
If this was the end of the story, then my father’s life would be a simple one. A man who started off with a bad hand in life, and then found a better one.
But this isn’t the full story.
He never fully shook off the legacy of his broken childhood, and the world he left behind. And he never fully adapted to his new life.
Ken was often a very angry man. He found it difficult to trust people and open up, a contradiction in a man who loved to talk to strangers. He was frequently better to strangers than the people who actually knew and loved him.
He was cynical about all politics and politicians, even those who advocated helping the poor and downtrodden. He didn’t believe any of them. When I began my career at the United Nations in New York, I dreaded meeting him at Heathrow on the visits home. Within minutes he would launch into all the reasons the UN was a failure and I should wash my hands off Afghanistan. As if I was personally responsible for their fate.
He was undisciplined in business. He would take on too much work and do too little preparation. He would chase fruitless deals, and criticism drove him stubbornly onwards. He was competitive to the point of unpleasantness. As soon as I was old enough to fend for myself, I refused to play him at chess.
And he was filled with regrets for his lack of education and broken family life as a child. “I never got to learn anything” he said. “I wish someone had taught me how to do things properly.” He bought a fake degree from one of those websites and occasionally insisted on forms that he was ‘Dr. Torricke-Barton.’
His life in England, especially those early years, was marked by many strange and lonely adventures.
He was stabbed sixteen times on Clapham Common in London in 1968. A mugging gone wrong.
He was thrown out of the British Army after he punched his commanding officer in the face. Apparently the sergeant called him “a black bastard.”
Race played a big part in his life.
One my earliest memories is of the little boy who lived next door to us shouting at my father one Sunday, as he washed our car.
“Go back to Pakistan!” shrieked the child.
We were the only non-white family in a working class suburb of London. It was far from an unusual interaction. My father unleashed a litany of curses until the boy ran away. But he couldn’t run away from the times he lived in.
What my father taught me
So this is the man my father was.
To understand him as a complete person, it’s important to recognize all the different facets of his life, good and bad.
Truthfully, until near the end of his life, my father and I had a poor relationship.
He was too angry, too violent, too coarse. Growing up I grew further and further apart from him, his angry and cynical worldview, his poorly organized hustling, the core of sadness that seemed to exist within him.
But when he became sick, for the first time in my life I spent a lot of time trying to sort out my feelings for him. It seems churlish to reject someone at the end of their life without trying to make sense of them.
In the end, I learned something from him.
I learned that the story of every life is a sad and epic and heroic tale.
You can’t judge someone until you know their full back story. And even if you know someone — what kind of person could they have been if they’d been dealt a different hand in life?
My father was a refugee. He was homeless and stateless. Like so many of our parents and grandparents, he endured too much and lived through a world on fire. He struggled on so one day his family could live the days of peace.
He did the very best he could. He took care of his family, and made sure my sister and I got a good education. I went to Oxford, traveled to America, and built a career there. I am grateful for everything he did so that I could become the man I chose to be. But he never got that choice.
I learned that the man I became cannot be separated from the man my father was. The experiences and lessons I gained from him imprinted themselves on me. Even the things I rejected about him had a huge impact.
Nothing is more significant than the way he shaped my convictions about the world and about politics.
I learned that to give everyone the chance to become the person they could be, we need to build a different world.
The story of my father is the story of a life held back by the divisions people build between nations and communities and cultures.
Every refugee is an example of a world that failed to use its common strength for the common good. Right now, my father’s story is being lived over and over again by a new generation. Tonight, millions of people will go to bed hungry and fearful in a strange land, uncertain of what tomorrow brings except for suffering. Many of those people are not too far from here.
How many of them will never live the lives they could? How many will never become the people they could be?
If we believe in celebrating the life of the man we knew, then we must defend the lives not yet lived. We must reject the voices today who seek to sow new hatred and divisions between peoples, and inflict new walls on a new generation. Those blessed with strength must act for those without.
Amidst the chaos of that journey out of Burma so many years ago, my father had one more story.
On the final leg of their escape to India, his family traveled on a plane.
A team of volunteer American airmen had come to Burma. There, with the might of the Japanese army advancing, with nothing more than a handful of banged up transport planes in the jungle, they stood their ground. And they helped hundreds of refugees escape to freedom.
He never forgot it. Until the end of his days, he loved America for the selfless courage of those young pilots.
When we find the courage to stand up for people far beyond our lives and shores, we have a chance to build an enduring peace. We can build ties that cross borders and nations, and touch lives across generations and communities.
I take great hope in the fact that today we have people in this church from Britain, America, Australia, Ghana, India, Malaysia, Nigeria, Singapore and Turkey. We have Buddhists, Christians, Hindus, Jews, Sikhs and Muslims.
You are the proof that through the lives we lead, we have a chance to build a world free of pointless division.
So one day no one will be punished for simply having been born.
One day everyone will have a chance to reach their full potential.
And one day, a four year-old boy need never watch his dog running after a train.
One day Shabo, there will always be room for you.
In a few moments we’re going to sing Amazing Grace, a song my father loved.
Scripture teaches us that God bestows that grace unconditionally on all of us as a promise of redemption and a better world to come.
“The Lord has promised good to me,
His Word my hope secures;
He will my Shield and Portion be,
As long as life endures.”
With grace, all of us have been given, unconditionally, the chance to walk a better path. But we must choose to walk down it. It’s up to all of us to live and to lead by example.
Remember my father. Live as he never had the chance to. Fight for those still waiting for their chance.