I Wish My New Country Welcomed Everyone The Way It Welcomed Me
On International Women’s Day, I became a citizen of the United Kingdom. That entire day, and particularly during the citizenship ceremony in Plymouth’s city council chamber, I felt joyous and relieved. But it was also a day filled with somber and intense emotion — and tempered with sorrow.
My honor in witnessing the ferocious hope of my fellow new citizens — 40 people from all over the world; women, children and men, old and young — swearing their oath to the Queen turned to ashes in my mouth when a little South Asian boy in a black suit carefully signed the register. I couldn’t help but think of all the other children like him who were not yet safe and free.
The next day, my dearest friends brought me a red velvet cake thickly layered with marzipan strips in the shape of a Union Jack. As I shared it around, I thought about how my years of waiting to apply — and the months of held breath as I anticipated the processing of the application — were nothing compared to the plight of hundreds of thousands of refugees looking for a better life across the world.
I am of Ashkenazi Jewish origin, and my family members came to America and Canada at the turn of the 20th century, from Lithuania, Latvia, Germany, Russia, and Poland. Some of them were refugees, fleeing the “pogroms” — violent, anti-Jewish riots that took place throughout the Russian Empire in the mid to late 19th century. All of them were fleeing a climate of persistent anti-Semitism, where social, cultural, political, and legal marginalizations kept Jewish people from social mobility. They and thousands like them sought a better life for themselves and their families. They saved and planned and traveled, crammed in the steerage compartments of huge, thundering ships. They went to places they chose: Pennsylvania in the case of my father’s family, and New Brunswick in the case of my mother’s.
Their new countries sometimes hated and feared them, calling their language and culture foreign and insinuating that they harbored terrorists in their midst, but they started businesses and entered professions. Now, four and five generations later, my cousins, siblings, and I were brought up with the greatest of privilege, and with all the benefits of white supremacy and Western capitalist hegemony.
The immigrant story of my family was at the forefront of my mind as I affirmed my allegiance to the Queen, and pledged to uphold the democratic values of the United Kingdom. My application’s success was by no means guaranteed. I applied as an out sex worker, registered as such with Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs, and as a vocal socialist. I was accepted, but I cannot congratulate my ancestors for their exceptionalism or ascribe my acceptance to my personal merits. Even as a sex worker who works and speaks on the margins of society, the success of my application was greatly aided by my white skin, my English language, my American nationality, and my middle-class education and cultural identity.
Right now, in Greece, there are about 50,000 refugees huddled in squalid camps that have been compared to Nazi concentration camps. They continue to flee from their homes, mainly in Syria, which have been bombed and flattened. They are leaving a once harmonious and largely secular land that’s been brutally decimated by the war launched by the dictator Assad. They are fleeing communities that revolution and sectarian violence have divided.
The refugees in the official and self-organized camps across Europe are the same as those, like me, who have sought citizenship in a new country — totally, entirely. They use the same mobile phones to share the same cat memes on Facebook. They sit and wait, their makeshift shelters and unwashed clothes the only difference between them and my fellow new citizens — they are otherwise the same as the little boy in his black suit at the ceremony, and all of us who proudly took the pledge. Those who qualify for leave to remain in Britain and who would seek asylum are the same: nurses and shopkeepers and farmers, teachers and researchers and artists. Privileged immigrants migrate and refugees flee for the same reasons, the reasons that spurred my own ancestors to flee Europe over a hundred years ago: out of fear, and out of hope.
The European Union has just signed a deal with Greece and Turkey that aims to frustrate the main route between Turkey and Greece that the refugees take, with its dangerous sea crossing. The plan, condemned by Amnesty International and many other humanitarian groups, calls for all the people crossing from Turkey to be given a hasty review, and if rejected, to be sent back to Turkey; in exchange, approved and vetted refugees waiting in Turkey, who have not attempted to cross, will be admitted into Europe.
Surely the leaders in Brussels who hammered out this deal think it is just. Surely they believe the refugees should be happy for the camps that house them in desperate conditions. But I think of my ancestors and I say no. No, the world’s leaders should not demand that the refugees be happy with being kept like hamsters in cages, with every shred of human ambition and hope and choice denied to them. No, they should not pretend to be happy to be counters in Turkey’s bid to join the European Union.
The rationale of our leaders is clear: How dare a brown refugee from a culture that white people have resolutely marginalized and declared alien dare choose where she would go, and how she would live? How dare she choose to come to England, or Germany, or Sweden, where a community will receive her, rather than wasting her life in a miserable camp?
What these leaders overlook, systemically, is that these refugees are not ciphers, but people. It is obvious, but I have to say it, as politicians in both my countries choose to see people who migrate not as people, but as animals, as political counters. Donald Trump and many British and European leaders think a refugee should be happy with a tent surrounded by barbed wire and a prison camp environment, but would they choose to live there themselves?
They would not, because humanity is more than mere safety under the utter control of indifferent states. Fierce, realized humanity is what drives people to leave their homes and undertake deadly risks in the hope of safety and opportunity. They want to be safe, but they also want to be free, and I decry the beliefs of anyone who would deny them what all the white ancestors enjoyed — the prospect of social mobility.
I grew up being trained to go to university. I studied the essays of people who had applied and got in, and they often highlighted an adversity that they had overcome. I had been bullied in school, and once eggs had been thrown at our house. Perhaps to protect my thin skin, my father told me that it had been because we were Jewish. I wrote about those eggs, unable yet to speak one croaking word about my history of abuse, and I got in, with the same privilege that got me into the United Kingdom.
I’m much more cynical now about the so-called meritocracy of the Western world than I was when I entered university. The system that turned my ancestors white may have benefitted me, but the path that my ancestors took is no longer open, in Europe, in the United States, or in my new adopted country. I watch as Trump calls for his wall with Mexico, as Obama deports teens back to their dangerous homelands, and as refugees shiver and rot and die, as their attempts toward community in desperate conditions are throttled by Calais riot troops and Brussels diktats.
As a new citizen of the United Kingdom, I will fulfill the pledge that I’ve made to my adopted country: I will uphold its democratic values. The democratic values of this nation are not those of its past empire, but of those who tore that empire down. I call for an end to borders, for amnesty for the undocumented, and for mercy and hospitality toward all the refugees. I call for a freedom of movement of people across borders as seamless and perfect as the movement of money across them.
Lead image of Syrian refugees in Istanbul: flickr/Petr Dosek