Is it time for me to go home?
Hearing David Cameron, the privileged jerk of a prime minister of the country I have called my home for almost 20 years, refer with derision to desperate people as ‘a bunch of migrants’ felt like a kick in the gut.
The Labour politician Andy Burnham called it right, saying ‘Cameron’s mask’ slipped when he made the remarks on Wednesday (Holocaust Memorial Day, of all days). The contempt with which he holds people like me, my family and so many of my friends hit me hard.
Thanks to the tough things my parents and grandparents, my aunts and uncles lived through, I’ve never had it as hard as those migrants and refugees stuck in the hellish camps of Calais and Dunkirk. Yet I suddenly feel unwelcome, less entitled to be in the UK — even though I’m a British citizen — than bullyboys like the prime minister. As though people like me are somehow less worthy.
And then I look at my native Canada, where the narrative couldn’t be further from the drivel that pummels and depresses you every fucking day in Europe.
Justin Trudeau talks of diversity and multiculturalism as national strengths. You look at the government Canadians elected and he appointed and you see turbaned Sikhs, Ukrainian-Canadians, refugees (including my great friend Arif Virani), the first ever MPs of Somali and Iranian origin. Half his cabinet is women, one of whom is an Afghan refugee, who fled the Taliban when she was 11. Twenty years later, she’s the minister for democratic institutions.
The messaging may come across as a bit hokey or hard to believe, and of course there are problems. But in Canada no one has ever questioned my identity or my right to be there. What would it take for me to become accepted in that way here?
On my way home from work yesterday, I read a powerful story that reveals much about what makes my country so special. My eyes filled with tears as I read it on the tube; by the time I got out of the station I was bawling.
It’s an amazing tale of how a group of people from a small city called Peterborough, Ontario got together to sponsor a Syrian refugee family — a ‘bunch of migrants’ — they’d never met because they felt a basic human need to help those in trouble. They raised $13,500 to match the contribution of the Canadian government, enough to get a family out. They found them somewhere to live. They got warm clothes and winter jackets for them, so they could cope with a Canadian winter. They met them at the airport. They took them tobogganing.
The story speaks both to the horror of a family having to live through war and the beauty of what decent people are willing to do when others are in need. It speaks to the worst of humanity but also what binds us together to do the best.
I worry about the UK. When I arrived here in 1997, Tony Blair and Labour were sweeping to power and the country felt comfortable in its many skins. It feels like a lot of that good work is slowly being undone. Little England, the island nation cut off from the world, here we come. Hardly an aspiration to make you proud.
I’m not going to leave London, a city I love, because of what Cameron said — I won’t let him tell me I’m a second-class citizen when I have just as much right to be here as he does.
But it has made me wonder more than ever if it’s time to go home.