This letter was sent to the young man convicted of a hate crime following an incident I reported on the Tyne & Wear metro. One of his conditions of charge was that he write me. He asked me about my experience and expressed his regret. This is the response I wrote back.
(Originally published: Blogger January, 2012)
You wrote to me and asked my opinion about how the crime against me has had an effect.
This is my response, rather long perhaps, which I would appreciate if you would share with the other young men involved in this case.
Firstly, I want to say that I have lived in the North East for over 15 years and, coming from New York/New Jersey, I have always found the North East to be the most inspirational place to live: Very vibrant, full of humour and warmth but, more importantly, a place that with an open heart.
Coming from New York to Ashington (where I first arrived when I moved to this region) couldn’t have been a more comical experience. I was sure I was in another land! The culture was foreign; what language did these people speak?! However, as I was a teacher, it was something that made teaching easier. It was an awesome experience and cultural exchange: my American accent versus their “language” which I was only too happy to learn.
In 1996, when I would walk around the town people would stop me and in the warmest way say, “What are you doing here!??? We heard you are American!” It was always warm and polite… and a few times, it meant I even got an extra flake in my ice-cream or other such gesture of welcome. They couldn’t understand why someone from New York would choose to come to the North East. Yet I had fallen in love with the place. This was a time (1996) when the Daily Mail had not yet started its hate campaign against asylum seekers and brought a fear of foreigners into the consciousness of the average Brit. People were less suspicious of ‘the other’. But here, at that time, being from somewhere else was a good thing. The North-East folk had this irrepressible spirit of hard work, chin-up, no bullshit, and never failed to make me laugh. I tried to move away, once to France and once to Edinburgh. Both times it was a failure and so I returned and I came to realise that the North East was home.
So when I finally moved to South Shields, I found a home and a multi-cultured community with a rich migration history (where Muhammad Ali, one of the worlds best boxers and my childhood hero, got married in the local mosque) I thought…. wow, this place is for me! And it was. It was home. Something I have not had since having to leave my homeland over 30 years ago, when I was 6 years old… leaving my country which had erupted into Revolution, leaving my mother behind, and where members of my own family where imprisoned and killed (but that is a longer story we don’t have time for here).
South Shields was home. I came to understand it through the young people I worked with, either through teaching or through volunteering. Either way, I understood that life in the North East was hard. I bonded easily with the white working-class kids. Maybe because I always gave them respect and I didn’t come with the baggage of coming from the upper crust. They knew that I didn’t have some preconceived idea of them; I hadn’t written them off. Perhaps naively, but none-the-less correctly, I taught them to believe in themselves; to wish for bigger things and to not let anyone stop them from getting what they wanted. I told them that with hard work anything was possible. And I was an example of that.
I became angry as I became aware of the Regional history: the closure of the mines and the sacrifice that the Country seemed to make of the traditional industries of the North East. I felt that there had certainly been an injustice. I have to say, the Geordies had good grace. They weren’t a bitter people, though perhaps they had every right to be. This later part of the Century had not been kind to them. Once proud working-class families who had trades or skilled jobs in the heavy industries: the docks, the mines, the glassworks, the factories… etc. Well, all that was gone now! And what was there supposed to take its place? So when I arrived here to teach ex-miners kids media production, I wasn’t sure at first if I really what was needed. I didn’t know if what I had to give was really worth that much… to be honest. 15 years later…. having seen a number of the hundreds of kids that I have worked with go through to do amazing things (from working on the One Show on BBC to Producers at Disney to others who are very good filmmakers in their own right, some teachers themselves)…. I have my answer.
Why am I telling you all this? Well, as much as all those thank you cards or emails I get years down the line from people I have worked with or young people who told me that I had changed their lives…. all of that somehow vanished on that train in March when I heard songs being sung that were meant to tell me I don’t belong here and that I need to go back to where I come from. What happened on that train has an impact on me even today. I felt very frightened, confused and very very sad. This was not the North East that I knew… this was something very dark and ugly.
It is hard for me to talk about. I have tried in these past months to wonder what the lives of the young men who sang those songs are like. What was missing in their lives, why were they so angry… why did they hate people from another race or religion? However, I believe the values that their grandparents would have had — those of tolerance, of acceptance of difference and most of all of community spirit — the things that they fought for in the War and thing that they were rightly proud of, were not what was in those songs and words. I knew this because I had seen it clearly in 1996 when I first arrived. This was not the North-East…
I tried to remember the South Shields community with its historic community of men from Yemen, one of the oldest Arab communities in Britain; a point of pride for the Region. The community cohesion, though at times tested, has largely been a story of integration and successful diversity: A shining example for the nation. The fact that these men were singing these songs on the way to one of the oldest Arab communities in Britain was unbearable. After all, wasn’t South Shields actually the opposite?… it was where people lived together and contributed to a community. Together.
I don’t feel anger towards you or the other young men on that train. I really don’t. I imagine life has not been kind to you. In many ways, you have been let down by the system and ignored as the country progresses. This is one of the richest countries in the world… but in South Shields that is not always evident. And now in a time of increasing economic uncertainty, perhaps things look even more bleak. What options are there? Who is going to support you? The Labour Party certainly has done little to win the affections of those who are in economic poverty. And who is there to blame for the decay and lack of opportunities? There are probably many people who will try and direct your anger against one group or another. Your allegiance to them, a pact which binds you to their hierarchy, make you hate’s servants.
However, I am sure you can see that the ills that really hold you back is not caused by me or someone with my skin colour or religious background. What holds you back, indeed most of us in the North East, is a lack of diversity….. the fact that if you come from the North East and having a working class background might mean that you are not offered a job or have a more difficult time. The class system in this country, which ensures that generations of people stay in poverty traps is more an oppression on your lives, than immigrants that you percieve are taking something from you. The imbalance in social class and in taxation: that government doesn’t work for the poor as well as it does big business. The fact that apprentice-schemes have been lost and that education is now something very much out of the reach of working-class families. Or even that there are people who work for banks, propped up by tax money, who then go on to pay themselves millions of pounds worth of bonuses. There are many things which hold our communities back… I am not a politician so I cannot explain these things.
However, I know that the poor muslim family who had to leave Afghanistan because on one had they had to flee the rockets of the Americans and the brutality of the Taliban are not the ones that are holding you back. They are just an easy target to rile up your youthful energies to support a group who want nothing more than to rip up the real values of your community. Your honour and pride should be in your tolerance of difference. That is what has always made Britain great. Hate never wins. And light always triumphs over darkness.
However, you should not hold the power to make someone feel whether they are at home or not. You do not have this right. This is the reason I felt compelled to report the crime to the police, who I was pleased to see took the crime very seriously. It’s not appropriate to believe that one race or religion is superior to another. Facism is a disgrace to British values and there is no place for it here. The values of Britain are to be tolerant, open minded and above all respectful. These are values I uphold as a citizen of this nation, an immigrant, formerly a refugee and coming from a muslim background.
Many people told me I shouldn’t bother writing you and that you would not be able to understand anyway. I don’t believe that is true. I know that you are intelligent. However on a few issues you are mistaken. I don’t expect an apology. However in years to come I hope you will realise that this path was just a temporary wrong step.
You can decide whether to be the light and the warmth of the North East or you can decide to darken the open spirit of the North East. The choice is yours.
I am sorry I won’t have a chance to spend time to get to know you or you me. Perhaps that is the only way that we can understand each other. I genuinely hope that you can turn your energy and talents towards things that will help you build your life and create good things. The key is believing in yourself, embracing difference and seeing the complexity and beauty of diversity and working with those around you in positive ways. I wish you the best for your future but I also want to tell you that the answer is not hate but cooperation. I wish you all the best for you in 2012 and your road ahead.
Tina Gharavi, Storyteller & Associate Professor, Newcastle University
For more info about my work see: www.wearebridgeandtunnel.com
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