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What It Really Means To Be Taken In As A Refugee

30/01/2017 17:53

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My 95-year-old grandma had a saying: 'Cup of tea and a biscuit; finished.'

It was ironic, really, given that for nine decades, Susi Linton only ever drank black coffee, but we all knew what she meant: get it over and done with and get out of there.

She applied it to coffee mornings and catch-ups she could do without but, in honesty, it was a sign of impatience and shattered nerves - the daily reminder of her refugee roots.

My grandmother fled Nazi Germany, for Britain, in 1939; an 18-year-old, penniless, parentless, alone.

The decision, by the British government, to take in young foreign females on domestic help permits in the months before war broke out was the difference between her living and dying. It was the difference between the rich tapestry that she sewed over the next 80 years of her life - having children, grandchildren, great-grandchildren and getting in and out of functions as quickly as she could - and a perilous end that met six million others.

It was precisely this time last year, as I held her warm, crinkled hand in her hospital bed, that I first wrote this piece. With the refugee crisis enveloping the global news, I found myself soaking in her own remarkable life story, mapped across her face, for a final time. The decision by Donald Trump - signed, by some sad irony, on Holocaust Memorial Day - to ban immigrants from seven Muslim-majority countries makes now the right time to publish it; a story of humanity in times of despair to counter the deplorable lack of it spilling from the ink of the president's executive order.

Imagine if my grandma - then Susi Braun, a young jewess from Berlin, Germany - had not been given that lifeline.

As she sat in her hospital bed, taking sips of water and nibbling on a favourite homemade butter biscuit which reminded her of her mother's baking, I reflected on the way she viewed Britain for taking her in. 'Britain saved my life,' she would proudly tell anyone who asked.

My grandmother, like the thousands fleeing war today, had her most basic human rights stripped from her and witnessed men she knew killed in the street. She wasn't permitted to study and her father, a respected civil servant, was no longer allowed to work. Their small family of three was confined to a flat above an old age home to long for the continental life they loved and to watch as the neighbourhood where she enjoyed a happy, carefree childhood was razed to the ground outside.

When her papers arrived from the Home Office, in London, she took one of the last trains out of Germany. Her parents said they would follow but they, along with her boyfriend (the man she thought she would marry), all perished in the Holocaust - their fate unconfirmed until war ended - while she went from door to door at night begging for money to guarantee their safety. That image never escapes me.

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She took a job as a nursery nurse and married here - Ken, a survivor of the Dachau concentration camp who went on to fight in the British Army - and they had one son, my dad, John. When my dad married my mum, my grandma finally got back what she had left behind: family. Ken had already passed away, from cancer.

For Susi Linton, the biggest joys of her magnificently long life were found in roots; a sense of belonging and family are the things that fired her spirit, even in her very last hours, because she knew better than most how quickly they could be snatched away.

My brother and I giggle with fondness at the things she took pride in: being mentioned in a community newsletter or sent a Christmas card by the bank (she was Jewish, she didn't even celebrate it!) Or when people asked after her at luncheon groups or strangers made a fuss over her. And her two little great grandsons - nothing in life illuminated her eyes like them. In the same way that her parents could never have imagined the upheaval and fear that awaited their daughter, she could never have imagined, as she left Berlin, that these were milestones she would live to see.

The hope that she was extended by strangers - by another country - in 1939 is the hope on which she lived her whole life. It is the hope which allowed her to see through the horror of war and loss that remained in her mind's eye for all those years. The hope that those being taken out of immigration queues in the USA will now be denied.

As my grandma and I recounted memories together in her hospital bed, I cannot forget her taking a bite of the buttery biscuit of her childhood and asking me: 'Why do people have to suffer before they die?' She passed away a day later.

My grandmother's experience as a refugee ultimately led to great and unexpected joy but it was underpinned by a suffering far greater than the physical pain of a short illness. I know that all she had wanted, for a long time, was to close her eyes and go to sleep and, after nearly a century of life, started in one country and ended in another, that is the peaceful death she was afforded - just as 78 years ago she was afforded life. 'Cup of tea and a biscuit; finished.'

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