As the exodus of refugees escalates and people flee all that is familiar in search of that elusive better life, and that even more elusive concept that is home, I cannot help but ruminate on the notion. Everyone has the right to a safe home, a place to sleep and eat. Don't they? Many of them are escaping persecution, a daily news stream of harrowing images reminds us of their plight. It's lamentable what is happening. Tragic. For those that make it will they manage to create a home for themselves in foreign, sometimes welcoming, but often hostile lands? Hostility that can be overt or tacit, but it's there, of course it is.
I am second generation Bangladeshi born to immigrant parents who came to the UK in the 60s in search of that better life. For my mother England meant freedom, for my late father England meant opportunity. For me, well I was born in Manchester and spent my first 19 years there. Recently I went home to visit my folks, years pass between each visit since Skype fills in the gaps. My sister came to pick me up and as we drove back my eyes strained for something familiar, but Manchester has changed beyond recognition. My old college Loreto in Moss Side, a less salubrious part of town, has been rebuilt into something like a super school; part of the old shell has been preserved thankfully. My primary school Amberliegh is no more, now a shabby vets clinic. There are super malls like the Trafford centre when before the Arndale centre used to suffice.
When I was growing up we were the only Asian family on the street, the neighbours were initially hostile apart from one Irish couple - the Walsh's - but then the others warmed to us over the years and as kids we would knock on doors, hustle sweets and entertain nice old ladies. Is that the Manchester that I hanker after? But was Manchester ever really my home, did I feel that I belonged? At secondary school there was that sense of being different from the other girls. And my sisters and I were. My parents believed we should assimilate and we are probably more English than Bangladeshi but when I left Manchester I did not pine for it, perhaps I hankered after the trees of Mary Louise Gardens or the sound of a friendly Northern accent, but not much else. I have to remind myself that I am a northerner but any trace of an accent was zapped during my London years. Did London become my home then? I was there for long enough, 17 years or more. London is a place of dreams, of hunger, of masses, of people all jostling for space to be someone. Flocks of people arrive hopeful to make a small corner of the land home, but is that possible anymore?
I spent hours drawing from the roof tops of east London in a quest to connect to the city with my pen, since it was the only way I knew how.
A Bit of Brick Lane Onion Style (pen and ink on paper, 2001)
During all these recent wars, past and present, we have seen the influx of people fleeing conflict in Bosnia, Somalia, Afghanistan, Iraq and now Syria. Did these people really want to leave if there hadn't been a war, I don't think so. Why would anyone leave all that is familiar to them to start afresh with nothing if they were not desperate? It's cynical to dismiss all of them as opportunist or economic migrants and facile, too.
My mother still regards Bangladesh as home even though she has lived longer in the UK than back there. There are people who have romanticised notions of what home is, something impossible to create in the country they end up in. I failed to cultivate a sense of home in Manchester or London or Brussels and now Asia yet I move back and forth, restless, seldom still.
As I struggle to plant new roots, to find a way forward, I think about these desperate people who are seeking the very basic of things - food, shelter, security - something I just take for granted. But once that is achieved what then? Good schools, health care, jobs and then... Home is more than the sum of all those things, it is a sense of who we are and where we came from and home for immigrants usually remains the land of their birth. I was born in the UK and yet I don't feel that sense of belonging despite all my best efforts to fit. When I was in Bangladesh though, the land of my mother's birth, the light, the colours, the sight of women cooking in a hole in the ground stirred something inside me. This was the land of my ancestors, but then when I opened my mouth people knew I was a 'bideshi', a foreigner, and ultimately I was rejected.
The Lady In The Pink Lake (oil on canvas of a rural scene in Bangladesh, 2010, size 14x16 inches)
And what of my children where will home be for them? Born in Brussels, now living in Kuala Lumpur with a Bangladeshi mother (with some Burmese lineage I have since learnt) and a Norwegian/Swedish father who is also part German and Lithuanian. They have Norwegian passports, not British ones, they speak English and Swedish, have the option to learn Spanish and Mandarin at school. Now I am trying to teach them pigeon Bangla enrolling my son and I for classes. The Bangla I learnt phonetically is all they have of their Bangladeshi heritage, so I cling to it. My dream is to take my children to Bangladesh for them to see what I have seen. They have no notion of home. Home is just where they sleep, eat and play, for now.
We are becoming a world of nomads, drifting from one country to another as borders between countries become more fluid and notions of home become more nebulous.
I think for people like me, a child born to first generation immigrants and has ended up drifting from city to city, there really is no sense of home. So what chances do the new influx of refugees have of making a lasting home when many end up ghettoised and excluded. I wish them all the luck in the world, but however hard you try, learn the language and adopt the ways it's hard to find a place to genuinely call home.