Early in 2014 I was interviewed as one of a number of people who came to East London under the age of 18 and from a wide variety of countries. No-one had ever asked me about that period of my life before, and as well as contributing to what has now developed into a valuable and moving web resource, this experience has had an unexpected effect on me.
Having told my story in some detail I then tucked it away safely, probably never to be revisited. Then a couple of months ago I was asked to check and validate my contribution to the website. Out of the blue I had to revisit all that I had shared.
Two years ago I retired as an Anglican parish priest after 35 years of working in a succession of East End churches. For the first time, since I was a child, there has been time to reflect on the jigsaw pieces of my life. Things seem to just happen in life, especially when you’re a child. You get on with growing up and living day to day and don’t think too deeply about things. Until it all stops.
When I was interviewed I could not have foreseen how the issues of migration would blow up into such a live issue; nor how, as we look helplessly on at overloaded boats in the Mediterranean, these childhood stories of migration would be so relevant. Some migrants, in their desperate attempt to make their way to the relative safety of Europe, never make it and lives are lost at sea. These are people like us but turned, by larger forces and negative attitudes, into ‘them’ – an inconvenience, a ‘problem’ to be dealt with, please God by some other country, not our own. People just like us are dismissed and diminished behind words such as ‘hordes’ and ‘swarms’ facing little understanding of the terrors and devastation they have had to flee; under conditions which most of us, hopefully, will ever know but would equally flee, to save our children and ourselves.
But it was a child who shocked us into a deeper reflection and, for many of us, into action and compassion for the plight of people, each with their personal story and dignity obscured in the daily headlines. The child was Aylan Kurdi, the three-year-old Syrian-Kurd, fleeing with his family from the war-ravaged town of Kobani whose little body we saw washed up on a beach near the Turkish town of Bodrum. His five-year-old brother, Galip, was found dead nearby. So often the larger issues which we avoid, deny or misread, can affect us more powerfully when we see their effect on a small, innocent child whose life has been robbed from him. I wept as I watched, on the news, the lifeless body of this otherwise healthy and once lively boy being lifted from the beach where countless other children might just have played. The story of Aylan and Galip is one of untold grief and shock for a family and for all who loved them. Behind all the cold statistics of casualties are human stories such as these.
The testimonies in Child Migration Stories, seen though the eyes of a child and the feelings and memories they have carried into their adult lives, have a similar effect on me, cutting across, as they do, the larger stories and prejudices about those who migrate. The stories in this collection are not all of trauma or tribulation but each speaks of displacement and relocation; of the challenges and difficulties of integration into new surroundings, new communities, new cultures and often of learning a new language. It is not always a story of welcome.
I left India at the age of 8 amidst civil unrest and bloodshed. Dreams of a warm welcome and a chocolate-box England of thatched cottages were splintered on day one by the rugged reality of East London and the shock discovery that I was brown (my sister and parents were white but I never knew that!). I was not the flavour of the day. I never shared any of that with my family, who as adults were more prepared for such change. They never realised what haunted me from what I had seen in India or that I was being racially abused in the streets of London when they were not. I rediscovered those layers of my childhood through telling my story to Eithne.
Reading the many and varied stories of child migrants took the lid off this lifelong childhood ‘secret’. With some shock and relief, I discovered others who, in many different ways, have also had to find a way of dealing with displacement, prejudice or even worse. I know none of the other contributors but for the first time I feel a solidarity with those who have experienced unacknowledged trauma in their childhood and who also were never totally welcomed by the ‘mother country.’
As votes are fought for globally, myths are propagated and this unfolding human tragedy of migration is reduced to soundbites and mindless prejudice, the honest witness of children is perhaps the most powerful corrective; to shock us into being in touch with what our own human experience might be were any of us to be displaced and dispossessed; were any of us reduced to being a number and a ‘nuisance’.
For myself I need to work on the memories that I am now in touch with. For the first time I am learning to embrace the child I once was; to feel for that little boy, as I would any other child, who has seen things no child should ever see; to assure him that, even as an immigrant, he is more than OK and fully a part of this community and society to which he has given most of his life in service and citizenship. It is hard, and this will be a long-term process, but I am so grateful to this project, both for bearing such important testimony to feed into a wider global debate, but also for touching on, and opening up, my and others early experiences, hopefully for our healing and growth.
You can read Duncan’s Spotlight Story here.