It felt like a wedding. There was an aisle, and two sides of seats with relatives sitting in bunches, expectant, excited, nervous. There was a podium, with a man in a robe, and a gold chain around his chest, and a lady in a suit, about to give a speech. There was a sense of occasion and decorum.
The venue was Islington Town Hall, popular for urban nuptials, where vows are exchanged next to offices that deal with parking permits and council tax. The skylight let in the light grey of North London weather, as the lady in a suit and the man in a robe prepared to initiate thirty or forty of us into British citizenship.
I was definitely getting cold feet. One by one, our names were called out in two lots: those who chose to swear an oath to God, and those who preferred to swear allegiance to the Queen, leaving the divine out of it. There was no option for Republicans. To become British you have to agree to become a subject of the monarch.
I didn't sign up for this, I thought, an odd feeling considering how much effort I put in to successfully apply to become a citizen. As the lady took us through British traditions, I skimmed a letter of welcome from home secretary Theresa May. The same home secretary who approved an initiative for vans with signs telling immigrants in no uncertain terms to "GO HOME".
The sentiment was all too familiar. In the 1990s, I was a dependant of an asylum seeker. "Appellant 2" was my title between the ages of 11 and 18 as letters arrived from the Home Office telling me in more officious, but still no uncertain terms to "go home."
But I wasn't sure where this "home" was. I was going to school here, English was becoming my first language, my friends and my immediate family were here. I listened to Pulp and had fish and chips for tea. Should I be grateful, for the education provided by the state and the council housing we lived in and my new culture and friends? Or should I think of these things as a right, deserved by any child, regardless of their immigration status?
Rare trips abroad, usually to satisfy some Home Office rule or avoid deportation, always ended with long interrogations at the border, separated from my parent. My heart would race as I answered politely, trying not to look as the official ticked boxes on his clipboard, deciding my fate.
In truth I was grateful for all the things that eventually made Britain my home. But I was also angry. Angry for all the hoops I had to jump through to get the same rights as others who were born here, as if begging entry to some exclusive club I wasn't allowed to join even though it was located at my house.
When I finally qualified for naturalisation, I didn't pick up my citizenship straight away. I wasn't sure I was ok with aligning myself with a country that had such sanctioned capacity to make me feel so unwelcome, the same capacity that continues to make others feel unwelcome - be they from Eastern Europe or the Middle East.
This summer, having lived here for 21 years, I thought I had made peace with it all and got ready to call my home a home. But here I was at the official ceremony, fighting an urge to run away. The lady was reciting the local council's successes, and I started to feel sick.
Maybe it wasn't too late. Maybe I could still say no thank you and give an officious response that would express in no uncertain terms that the exclusive club wasn't good enough. Maybe that would show "them", balance things out.
I steadied myself and looked at all the expectant faces around me. Chinese, Polish, American, Nigerian, Spanish - they were all about to become British. The lady handed over to the man in a robe and a golden chain, the Mayor of Islington. He talked about the borough's history, of George Orwell, who lived at Canonbury Square, of Turkish and Italian communities who settled here decades ago, of Mary Wollstonecraft who established a school for girls in Newington Green and wrote on the rights of women in an age when there were none.
And this was Britain too. Rebellious and multicultural, full of immigrants like me, whether they arrived here this year or hundreds of years ago. There was no "them" and "us", just a lot of different people sharing the same space, each with something to contribute, and something to protect.
The reality is, the UK is a sort of an exclusive club. It is an open democracy, where all religions, political beliefs and lifestyles are tolerated, and where all citizens are equal in the eyes of the law. It is a special place, where a great number of different people from all over the world come together. It's the unique and immense mix of human and cultural capital that makes Britain great, and that is why so many come here and stay, whether by choice, or through the force of circumstance.
I didn't walk out of the ceremony that day. I signed on the dotted line and became British. It was the end of a long journey and the start of another one. My new citizenship isn't something I will take for granted, not after everything that's gone into it.Suggest a correction