I’ve lived in London for 14 years, which is the longest I have lived in any place, and it is where I have spent my entire adult life so far. It’s where I finished my studies, started my career, met and married my husband, and had our children. It’s where I know all the hidden gems and the shortcuts and little alleyways you can take to avoid the (pre-pandemic) horde of tourists.
But despite that, in a few weeks’ time I’ll be loading all our belongings into a removal truck and boarding a plane to Finland – the country I hold a passport for, but can’t call home as I haven’t lived there for nearly a quarter of a century. Recently, it emerged that a record number of Brits have opted to emigrate to the EU following the Brexit vote, and soon my family will be joining those statistics.
I can’t pinpoint the exact moment I started to feel like life here was no longer possible for me and my family. It snuck up on me, and grew into a big stifling cloud I was no longer able to live with. The first rumblings of our impending departure began in June 2016 and the increasingly hostile atmosphere, and the deluge of failings, hatred and lies spewed by the Tory government since has grown into something I am no longer willing to accept.
The final blow came with the government’s overwhelming election win in December 2019. That very night was when we made the decision to leave – probably much to the delight of the man who shouted at me while I was walking on the street with my kids and told me that I – along with “all the other international people” – should leave Britain because English people had spoken out and told us clearly that we were no longer wanted here.
“When Brexiteers were waving their red, white and blue flags in Parliament Square, it felt like the countdown to our departure had officially begun.”
It felt like the net was starting to close in on us, and we needed to make an exit plan. At 11pm on 31 January 2020, when Brexiteers were waving their red, white and blue flags in Parliament Square, and Big Ben’s face was projected onto the façade of Downing Street, it felt like the countdown to our departure had officially begun.
With the arrival of my children, everything in my life shifted. All the things that once seemed important to me were suddenly very low on my list of priorities – and like all new parents, I was thrust into a whole new world of things I’d never even had to consider. All of a sudden, my mind was filled with worry about the quality of my children’s education and the kind of life I was going to be able to offer them, and an overwhelming guilt that by living in central London, I was even subjecting them to high levels of air pollution that might stunt their lung growth.
Despite some news headlines painting Finland as paradise, it’s not all roses and butterflies there either. I am painfully aware of the fact that far-right populism is gaining support there as much as it is elsewhere in Europe, and that life in Finland as a Black person will be challenging. I’m heartbroken that things in the United Kingdom felt so bleak that we felt we had no other choice but to leave. I keep thinking maybe there exists a parallel universe somewhere, where things are different and my family could have stayed here. But at the right here, right now, it’s not possible.
“Life in Finland as a Black person will be challenging... things in the United Kingdom felt so bleak that we felt we had no other choice but to leave.”
I do not yet know what our exact plan is when we get to Finland, which, with two toddlers and three cats in tow, is a daunting prospect. The fact my husband has quit his full-time job, and that we have decided to move countries during a global pandemic feels somewhat counter-intuitive at times. We are jumping head-first into the unknown, with uncertain job prospects. For the first time in my life, I am winging it. This feels like the ultimate ‘trust fall’, and I simply have to believe and hope that everything will slot into place, somehow. Even considering all this though, leaving the United Kingdom feels like a much better option than the alternative, as the negatives of staying here now far outweigh any positives.
I have a very tangible worry for our friends and family we are leaving behind, and those who would like to leave but have no other choice but to stay. But I’m looking forward to going somewhere with affordable childcare, and living near the sea again. I’m excited about finding out what it feels like to have a slower pace of life with room to breathe after the bustle of London.
I hope we can start to rebuild our lives, and feel comfortable enough to soon be able to call Finland our home. We will look at our time in the United Kingdom as one of the many nice chapters in our lives but right now, I’m keeping my eyes firmly on the horizon, because it feels like we are leaving the storm behind just before it hits.
Ndéla Faye is a freelance journalist. Follow her on Twitter at @NdelaFaye
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