I never thought of myself as a refugee all the time I was growing up in England in the 1950s. But the other kids in my class did – and they were quick to dub me ‘Gerry’ (I was born in a DP camp in Germany shortly after WW2) and ‘Ruskie ’ (the Cold War was in full swing). We lived in Doncaster, where we had moved from our camp at the Ockenden Centre in Sussex.
What has moved me most about the stories in The Displaced, a new book of refugee writing to which I contributed, is discovering how common my childhood experience was. Being a child refugee means that the childhood experience of bullying and taunting, that too many kids grow up with, accepting it as normal, is compounded for children of refugees with the destabilising insecurity of realising that your parents, the adults at the centre of your life, to whom you turn for comfort and reassurance, are not secure either. Sometimes they are afraid, or do not know what to do or how to behave, but are learning alongside you to negotiate this treacherous and unpredictable terrain.
Not many people go out of their way to make things easy for them; foreigners have never been very popular in Britain. But I remember like shining beacons the individual acts of kindness which illuminated my childhood. Like the woman wearing a fur coat on the bus, who leaned forward and pressed sixpence into my mother’s hand, that I wrote about in A Short History Of Tractors In Ukrainian. Or old Miss Morton, for whom my mother skivvied in Burwash Common, who plucked the only ripe peach growing in her conservatory and pressed it into my small hand. If I was too shy to say thank you then, I’d like to say it now.
Dina Nayeri, from Iran, with whom I shall be in conversation at Foyles during Refugee Week, writes about the pressure and expectation of gratitude that refugees always encounter. But I am talking about something different – not grudging national ‘benevolence’ for which gratitude is expected, but individual-to-individual kindnesses, for which one cannot but be grateful.
In the lead-up to the referendum, and the post-Brexit haze, when an anti-foreigner feeling hung thick in the air like a noxious smog, and the triumph of Trump and Trumpism in the US, I tried to recall the small kindnesses with which my family were made to feel not just welcome but fully human. As a child, I hadn’t realised that the official welcome was so provisional; I had grown up in this country thinking of it as my own. Reading the individual outpourings of hatred as well as the government’s ‘hostile environment’ policy, my first thought was: ‘as a child, I had thought the welcome was genuine, I had not realised how much you hated and resented us’. The over-zealous bungling and sheer cruelty with which foreigners are pursued in the expectation that they will turn out to be ‘economic migrants’ or ‘illegal immigrants’, the glee when boxes can be ticked and the ‘transgressors’ sent packing, still take me breath away when I read about them. Do the people who make these decisions belong to the same species of humanity as the lady who pressed sixpence into my mother’s hand?
Now in my early seventies, I am left with the feeling that this country, which I so long thought of as home, isn’t really my country at all. At the same time, it is lovely to see that there is a younger generation, snapping at the heels, for whom this is all nonsense. Most of them voted to remain in the European Union. Of course it’s not The British vs the whole world. Of course you have to treat people decently. I take comfort in that.
Marina Lewycka was born in 1946 in a refugee camp in Kiel, Germany. When she was about a year old, the family moved to Yorkshire, where she grew up, and now lives in Sheffield. Marina has contributed an essay to the recent anthology The Displaced: Refugee Writers on Refugee Lives, edited by Viet Nguyen and published by Abrams Press