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By late 2017, Trump administration officials were discussing targeting migrant families. A memo leaked to major US publications discussed the possibility of targeting parents of migrant families and treating their children as unaccompanied and subsequently transferred to the government’s Department of Health and Human Services custody.
In early 2018, the news was riddled with images of children who had been apparently mistreated and in some instances photographed in cages causing a stir and an outcry coming mainly from humanitarian organisations, which called the “zero tolerance” policy implemented in the spring of 2018 inhumane and unconscionable.
To tackle the growing criticism that was dominating the front page of major US news outlets, President Donald Trump signed an executive order in June 2018 to end the so-called “zero tolerance” policy. But, despite the action taken, humanitarian advocates and governmental agencies agree that adult migrants continue to be separated from their children for increasingly vague reasons.
In fact, the American Immigration Council reports that 65% of children are still being removed from their parents’ care because of allegations of crime history or gang affiliation. What is important to understand is that these claims and allegations are very difficult to corroborate and therefore there’s no evidence-based justification for these actions.
The Trump administration defended the controversial choice of implementing the “zero tolerance” policy saying that the situation at the border is both a security and humanitarian issue, comments that are perfectly in line with President Trump boastful claims on the 2016 Presidential Election campaign trail of restoring “law and order” in the United States. However, this administration seems oblivious to the trauma that tearing families apart can cause, leading some to speculate that these incentive policies had been implemented to deliberately inflict harm on children to send a strong message to people thinking about coming to the United States to seek asylum. That’s when things got too far, and an already critical situation escalated to something more troubling.
In this climate of uncertainty and fear, at the height of the “zero tolerance” policy craze, we meet Yazmin Juárez, a migrant woman who was reportedly fleeing an abusive situation at home in Guatemala when she decided to step over the border line to enter the US.
Yazmin was carrying with her a little baby girl named Mariee. They were trying to escape a situation in their own home country that Yazmin refers to as “dangerous to their own lives”. They approached the border thinking that that same fear that had driven them to the “land of the free” was finally in the rear-view mirror.
Little did they know that the nightmare had only just begun.
Yazmin and her 19-month-old daughter Mariee were sent to the intermediate step before being admitted to the Texas facility. This intermediate step consisted of sharing a room with 20 people, and there they reportedly spent several days in a room named “la hieliera”, or “the ice box”, a room without comforts. They slept on a cold, concrete floor.
After finally entering the Texas facility and being examined by a nurse who found both Yazmin and her daughter to be “perfectly healthy”, Yazmin started noticing that there were many sick children around her. Yazmin was concerned. One of the kids, who was about the same age as her daughter, was described by Yazmin as “constantly sleepy” and “having a runny nose”.
Not long after that, Mariee began feeling ill. A few sporadic sneezes and a bad cough, followed by a “runny nose”, were the first red flags. She immediately took her daughter to a physician, despite hearing stories of how the offices were always closed or not properly functional. The physician’s assistant diagnosed Mariee with a respiratory infection, gave her medicine and told her to follow up in six months.
The very next day, Mariee’s condition worsened. She was running a fever, followed by diarrhea and vomiting. Terrified, Yazmin took her back to the clinic. She waited in line for what felt like years. A different physician told her that Mariee was nursing a bad ear infection. She gave her antibiotics. Yazmin left with a strange, sickly feeling in her stomach. She knew something worse was happening. She went back to the clinic several times. Twice she was denied access, the rest of the times she waited in line from dawn until almost dark. That feeling in the pit of her stomach wasn’t gone. In 10 days, Mariee had lost 8% of her body weight, and she was still coughing and vomiting constantly.
After a week, she finally got an appointment with a real doctor. The doctor prescribed her a cocktail of medicines Yazmin had never heard of, but she felt reassured. That aching feeling in her stomach mitigated by a doctor spouting medical terms she had never heard before. Unfortunately, Mariee’s condition was impervious to the doctor’s reassuring words.
Once out of the detention centre, having got clearance to enter the US, Yazmin found out that in the Texas facility they had declared her daughter as “medically cleared”. She looked at her poor child. She didn’t look medically cleared. Yazmin flew to New Jersey to her mother’s house. On their flight there, Mariee was having difficulties breathing.
Mariee was taken to a hospital where Yazmin describes seeing her daughter being “poked and prodded” with needles, and eventually strapped to a ventilator to help her breathe. Mariee was surrounded by wires that reminded Yazmin of what she saw when she approached the border and gave her a strong feeling of inaccessibility. She felt incapable of doing the only thing she wanted: touching her daughter, holding her tight just to remind her little angel, and herself at the same time, that “todo estara bien, amor”.
But everything did not turn out fine. Marie succumbed to a collapsed lung from a respiratory infection and died on May 10th, 2018.
And, along with her, a piece of Yazmin’s heart stopped beating forever.
Nicola Clothier is CEO of Accurity GmbH, a Swiss based employment service provider. Nicola has an Honours degree in English Literature from Stirling University and more than 20 years’ experience in Swiss employment, and personnel leasing up to executive level throughout Europe.
“Child Migrant Stories are a brilliant starting point for discussions around migration, refugees, welcoming and belonging in the classroom” (Teacher)
The Child Migrant Stories teaching resources have been developed with and for educators for use in classrooms, heritage sites and other informal learning spaces across the UK.
How to use the resources
Each resource relates to four (10-20 minute) films.
They include resources that outline specific activities for KS2 – KS5 pupils, with links to the National Curriculum, and for adult ESOL learners, high entry-level and above. Please press below to be taken straight to the resources:
Join us for the event Seeking Sanctuary: Refugees and Migrants Welcome at QMUL (Queen Mary University of London)
On Thursday February 23rd 6 – 8. 30 pm.
At Peston Lecture Theatre, QMUL Graduate Centre, Mile End Road (entrance via Bancroft Road), London E1 4NS
This event is particularly important given the present political crises and the recent government’s backtracking on accepting child migrants under the Lord Dub’s ruling.
Book your free tickets through Eventbrite:
A chance to:
– learn about experiences of child refugees and migrants coming to East London through films, memoir and music
– explore what the university and others are doing, and could do, to support refugees and how to get involved
6pm: Film Screenings
i) Passing Tides – story of Linh Vu who escaped Vietnam by boat followed by a reading from her father’s biography, A Catholic with Confucian Tendencies
ii) Ugwumpiti – story of Maurice Nwokeji who survived the Biafran civil war before joining his parents in East London
7pm: QMUL’s support for refugees today
Panel discussion including:
Emma Williams, Chief Executive of STAR (Student Action for Refugees) on University of Sanctuary initiatives and other work of STAR including the campaign on family reunification
Lizzy Pollard, Advice and Counselling Student Services, QMUL on financial support for asylum seeker and refugee students
Raneem Kalsoum, QMUL Syria Solidarity Society
Followed by a wine reception and refreshments with music by One Jah featuring music of Maurice Nwokeji inspired by his childhood in Biafra.
This event is also supported by CritiQues ‘Home for Refugee Children’ initiative and HSSCF ‘Child Migrants Welcome’ initiative
The films on childmigrantstories.com were funded by the Centre for Public Engagement
A moving documentary of the story of Maurice Nwokeji from Biafra
As I watch a group of orphans in Aleppo on my TV screen appealing to the world to save them Maurice’s words ring in my ears. “But no. it’s happening now. There are kids like me in Syria, in Somalia. We haven’t learnt anything.”
Maurice knows what it is like to experience war, to be continually bombed and to scavenge for food. He was caught up in the Nigerian Civil War, better known as the Biafran War between 1967 and 1970. Ugwumpiti, the title Maurice chose for his film, is the word the children invented for the mixture of corn flour, powdered milk and water that the Red Cross provided, ‘the most beautiful food that has ever been.’ Thousands of children queued each day from morning till night, some of them dying in the line. One day Maurice won the singing competition held for the children so was able, with his younger brother, to lick the remains out of the massive oil drum.
Maurice’s story of how he survived the war, how his parents, in the UK, eventually tracked him down and arranged for him and his brother to join them in Hackney, is peppered with surprising, often amusing anecdotes. He talks about how he and his brother got knocked down by a taxi as they were not used to traffic; how they stole food from the fridge at night and stuffed it under their mattresses because they could not believe they would have food the next day; how they stuffed chocolate under the car seat because they did not want to tell their parents that it tasted too sweet. “I much preferred roasted rat,” Maurice laughed.
For the film Maurice returned to the house he lived in as a child in Hackney, “This is my England’ and he returned to Benthall Juniors where he went to school. An assembly of children were spellbound as Maurice told his story about coming, “to this very school” and as he sang several of the music tracks, inspired by his childhood, that are featured in the film.
Ugwumpiti, was recently launched at the Child Migrant Stories event at the V&A Museum of Childhood, part of the Being Human Festival. There was a great response.
‘Maurice’s heart told the story well.’
People readily linked Maurice’s experience with what is happening today.
‘Then is now. Does our society really care? And is that reflected in government policy?”
Do tell others about Ugwumpiti. Why not arrange a screening alongside a Q&A with Maurice and others. Or better still invite his band, One Jah, to give a live performance of some of the music featured in the film inspired by his childhood.
Watch Ugwumpiti on the Child Migrant Stories website on https://childmigrantstories.com/portfolio/maurice-okechukwu-nwokeji/
Or on YouTube Ugwumpiti – Maurice’s Story
Former child migrants, friends, family, neighbours and the general public gathered at the V&A Museum of Childhood on November 19th for a series of films screenings, talks and performances about Child Migrant Stories as part of the national Being Human Festival. The programme of music, intercultural games, films and music by refugee and other artists attracted over 2,000 people.
The first film to be shown was Child Migrant Stories – Voices Past and Present, featuring 18 of the child migrants who came to East London under the age of 18 from 1930 to the present day. From Bangladesh to Bethnal Green, from the Caribbean to Clapton and from Somalia to Stamford Hill. People held their breath as Marie talked about the separation from her family during civil war in Rwanda. But they laughed when Heather, from Jamaica, recounted how she was told she would turn white when she went to England.
One ten year old girl said she enjoyed the film and learnt ‘that many refugees suffered abuse and racism at school.” She wanted, “to know more about all the kids stories. I was very engaged!”
The daughter of Nurul Giani wrote, “Very empowering and emotional for us as a family to hear.”
Other people commented:
“The film is fabulous.”
“Great humanity, warm and moving.”
“Increased my understanding and made me appreciate difficulties for new arrivals in a strange country.”
“It gives a friendly face or multiple faces to a topic that is often treated via a negative angle.”
Then we showed Passing Tides, the story of Linh Vu who escaped Vietnam by boat with her father. People gasped as they watched Linh, on screen, draw the small boat with 50 people crammed inside. This was followed by a Q&A session with Linh and a reading by Tina Puryear, co-author of Linh’s father’s recent autobiography, A Catholic with Confucian Tendencies.
People appreciated the film’s, “authenticity of emotions” and learnt about, “The process of refugee rescue and transition.” Several people thought it was, “fantastic to have the actual person in the film present at the showing and seeing/hearing their thoughts. It is wonderful how people survive and GROW.” They thought, “the reading from the autobiography really added to the perspectives.”
Ugwumpiti, the story of Maurice Nwokeji who was caught up in the Biafran war, was screened next. People were horrified to hear about Maurice’s experience of war but laughed at how, when he joined his parents in the UK and they offered him chocolate as a treat, he hated it. “Far too sweet. I much preferred roasted rat. ” One person felt that, “Maurice’s heart told the story well.” Another that, “Stories have to be told as part of the healing process.” Many people made the link between historical and contemporary migration. ”Then is now. Does our society really care? And is that reflected in government policy?”
The last film, Life is a Destiny, is about how Argun Imamzade rescued his family’s photographic album from his bombed out house in Cyprus in the 1960s. People loved the discussion between Argun and his grandchildren on film about what they would rescue if they had to leave home in a hurry. His oldest grandchild recounts how she would seize her mobile phone. Her grandfather looks puzzled but his granddaughter has a point. Her photographs would be stored on her phone and she would use it to make sure other family members were safe.
There were many ideas on what else the project could do – more research; more videos; more in depth stories; more talks; exhibitions; one minute films shot by migrants of their daily lives; social media for teenagers to talk about migration; films used as a resource for education, inspiration and projects for schools, NGOS, Unicef, Save the Children – the list was endless.This all needs resources, of course, and present funding has come to an end.
We retired upstairs to the hall to hear Maurice’s rousing reggae band, One Jah. Maurice thanked people for hearing his story, something he has always yearned to tell. He played music inspired by his childhood, hiding in foxholes to escape the bombs and scavenging for snakes and lizards. He and his younger brother would not have survived if the Red Cross had not provided them with one bowl of food a day, what the children named Ugwumpiti, the title he chose for his film.
Child Migrant Stories was in demand during Refugee Week. We started off on Sunday 19th June with a screening of the film, Child Migrant Stories – Voices Past and Present in the Festival Hall on the South Bank. There was a great atmosphere with dance, music and poetry performances from people with a refugee background.
Amnesty, under the banner, What have they ever done for us? invited visitors to chart the journeys of well known people who have contributed to our social, cultural and political life.
Passing Tides, the story of Linh Vu who as a young girl escaped Vietnam by boat with her father, was shown throughout the week at the V&A Museum of Childhood. After several weeks preparation Hackney Museum launched an ambitious two-hour programme with primary school children based on four of the Child Migrant Stories. Almost 200 children participated in these workshops.
At the beginning of one workshop Josie, the museum educator, asked,“How many of you were born abroad?” Four hands shot up.“How many of you have parents or grandparents who were born abroad?”A forest of hands – all but 3 or 4 children had parents or grandparents born abroad.
I watched the introductory film, Child Migrant Stories – Voices Past and Present with one school group. They were transfixed and then plied me with questions.“How did you find people to be interviewed,” asked a bright spark of a girl.“I’ve lived and worked in East London for over 40 years,” I replied. “So I knew some of the people already.”
How I found people to be interviewed was, of course, more complicated. I followed up people who I knew from when I was running a training clothing workshop with Bangladeshi clothing workers in Spitalfields in the early 1980s. I contacted Mr. Vu who I knew when he first arrived in Hackney as one of the Vietnamese ‘boat people.’ At the time I was working as a community education worker with Hackney Adult Education and helped Mr. Vu find premises for English and mother tongue classes. Some of the people I interviewed run businesses in Hackney. Argun, from Cyrpus, has sold me stationery for years. Eylem, from Turkey, has served me coffee and Turkish breakfast. Local community organisations and neighbours, too, have helped to put me in touch with people.
After the film the children divided into four groups. They looked through a replica of the photo album that Argun saved from his bombed out house in Cyprus at the age of 12 and discussed what they would save if they had to escape in a hurry.
They fingered a huge multi-coloured African cloth similar to the one that Claudine used to carry her young brother through the forest to the Congo during the Rwandan civil war.
They admired the drawings that Linh drew of her escape from Vietnam with her father. The fishing boat that took them out to the South China Sea; the British boat that rescued Linh, her father and fellow passengers when they had run our of food and a storm was brewing; the porthole through which Linh spied the Thai pirates lurking on the horizon.
The children rewrote and performed the words of Henry’s moving song, There isn’t any place safe to live for the refugees. Henry, a musician, poet and artist, escaped the civil war in El Salvador at the age of 17.
I felt sad that Henry was not there to see how children were inspired by his song featured in our introductory film. Henry died just a few weeks after I interviewed him. But I was glad that his daughter, Gabriela, who has inherited her father’s artistic talent, would see how his father is inspiring another generation.
At the beginning of the workshop the children wrote in faint pen what they already knew about refugees. At the end they wrote in darker pen what they had learnt. The results were impressive.
It is a joy to see how Child Migrant Stories is being used so effectively as a learning resource. Hackney Museum staff found that the introductory film, in particular, resonated with children’s lives: “Children have been able to compare the stories on the screen to their own family’s journey, and have been so excited to see places that they recognise on the big screen.”
This is what one child, aged 11, thought about her experience at the museum. “We’re here happily living our lives with our play stations and mobile phones. I’ve got everything handed to me on a plate, but not everyone has that and it’s important to remember that during Refugee Week.”
A year 6 teacher from Mossbourne Parkside Academy remarked, “Refugee Week is more relevant now than it has ever been. It’s vital for children to know what it means …and the workshop at the museum helps them to see the ‘refugee’ as a person with a story and not a number, statistic or news story.”
Hackney Gazette covered the initiative with the headlines, “Negative perceptions of migrants overturned during Refugee Week at Hackney Museum.” http://www.hackneygazette.co.uk/news/education/negative_perceptions_of_migrants_overturned_during_refugee_week_at_hackney_museum_1_4595139
Linh encouraged her daughter’s school to show Passing Tides during Refugee Week. This is how a Year 2 teacher from Lauriston School responded,“Poplar Class watched it and were enthralled. We had a great discussion about why people end up being refugees, and where they come from and where they go to, and what people can do to help. We thought Linh’s drawings were amazing!”
Refugee Week ended with a screening of Passing Tides at the Rio cinema before the film Fire at Sea, set on and around the Italian island of Lampedusa. It was wonderful to see Linh’s beautiful drawings on the big screen. The double bill was a success. Both films featured moving stories of people risking their lives at sea in search of safety but they differed too. Linh, who escaped Vietnam with her father by fishing boat, told her story in her own words. In Fire at Sea the migrants’ harrowing lives, and indeed deaths, are almost a backdrop to the story of a young boy from Lampedusa.
After the films Mitch, my fellow filmmaker, and myself joined Dr Anna Arnone, who has studied migration in relation to Lampedusa, in a question and answer session. People were surprised to hear that Lampedusa, besides being the arrival point for many migrants and the place where many have drowned offshore, is also a popular tourist destination.
We got some lovely feedback about the event, “I thought the film (Passing Tides) was brilliant – the story so cleverly told and illustrated with very evocative art and photographs. I actually cried and I think the combination of the harrowing details told in such a matter of fact way and the blending of domestic and international news throughout was just right. My friend thought Fire at Sea was quite wonderful and they both gave us the basis of a night’s discussion over supper.”
Another visitor was inspired to read in the credits that the film was shot on IPhone 6s. Our only regret about the Rio screening was that Linh could not join us. She was trampling about in the mud at Glastonbury.
We would like to thank all our partners for offering us the opportunity to share Child Migrant Stories – the Rio, the South Bank, the V&A Museum of Childhood and Hackney Museum. There are already plans to work with some of them in the future, “In the coming months and years, we’d love to continue to explore more of the stories and design ways of making them accessible to the children of Hackney.” Hackney Museum
But we also believe the website and films are of international appeal. Passing Tides had over 8,000 viewings on YouTube within a week – from Hackney to Ho Chi Minh City, from Sydney to San Francisco.
With the recent report showing that the 6 richest countries have only taken 9% of the world’s refugees we know there is no room for complacency.
“Passing Tides” ( 18 minutes) is the story of Linh Vu who escaped Vietnam by boat with her father in the 1970s. Linh, her father and the other passengers were picked up by a British boat just as they were running out of food and water. They were taken to a refugee camp in Singapore and then to Thorney island on the south coast of Britain. Linh and her father settled in Hackney and were joined by Linh’s mother and siblings five years later.
The film uses Linh’s drawings to illustrate her journey and settlement in the UK>
We are very excited to launch the film about the migration of Linh Vu, aged 7 from Vietnam to the UK. I first interviewed Linh for Child Migrant Stories in late 2013 and early 2014. In our third interview she drew the boat in which she escaped with her father, remarking that she had drawn the sails bigger than they really were. It was as if she wished the journey had been safer than it was. She also spoke about her experience of living in the refugee camp on Thorney Island on the south coast where her Dad acted as an interpreter and senior social worker for the other Vietnamese. The school Linh attended outside the camp had welcomed her warmly and she made many English friends there. Even then I thought how wonderful it would be to encourage Linh to illustrate more of her perilous journey and to visit Thorney Island with her.
When I secured money to make films based on some of the child migrant stories I shared some of these ideas with Linh. She responded positively. She was about to visit Vietnam during the Easter holidays, after many years away, and so was able to take images of her home town including of a full size statue of Jesus lying on a bed of popcorn. She had begun to think that she had imagined this – but there it was for her, her husband and her seven year old daughter forty years later.
Linh began to draw other images, often surreal – of the British ship on the horizon that she mistook for an iceberg with fairy lights; of shrimp paste morphing into the Eiffel Tower. We made a memorable trip to Thorney Island with her father, Thanh Vu M.B.E., who used to bellow down the loudspeaker at the Vietnamese residents for cooking in their rooms – they wanted to spice up the bland offerings they were served in the refectory.
The film is a testimony to Linh’s artistic skill, delicacy and thoughtful reflections of not only her own experiences but of how they relate to those of child migrants today.
We have already screened the film on the Floating Cinema on Regents Canal last Saturday followed by a question and answer session where children as young as seven plied Linh with searching questions – why did she leave, what did it feel like on the boat, what was it like to arrive in Hackney and why did there need to be a war? Linh’s daughter had a more personal question. What was the name of her teenage boyfriends that her father disapproved of as they were English, not Vietnamese? The barge rocked withlaughter.
Tina Puryear, who has helped Linh’s father write his autobiography, read out a moving passage of the reunion of Linh and her father with Linh’s mother and siblings five years later. We were able to screen the film again at the launch of Linh’s father’s autobiography on Monday night in a Vietnamese restaurant in Hackney run by Linh’s brother. Immediately Hackney Museum vowed to use the film in their education programme with schools during Refugee Week and Student Action for Refugees wish to use the ‘incredible film’ in UK wide activities.
So we launch this film knowing that it will be seen by people of all ages and in a variety of settings. But we are keen for even wider dissemination. We would love to hear from you if you would like to show the film to other groups, perhaps with an associated event such as a discussion with Linh or a reading from Mr. Vu’s excellent autobiography that has just hit the shelves. So get in touch with us on firstname.lastname@example.org or order a copy of A Catholic with Confucian Tendencies from Amazon on https://www.amazon.co.uk/gp/aw/d/1519568592/ref=mp_s_a_1_1?qid=1465323654&sr=8-1&pi=AC_SX236_SY340_QL65&keywords=catholic+with+confucian+tendencies
Some of the comments on Linh’s film made on Saturday June 4th 2016 on the Floating Cinema:
“It was very moving and with parallels with today’s refugee crisis.”
“Warm, beautifully told, powerful drawings.”
“Powerful impact of the subject matter, technical brilliance, beautifully edited.”
“Reminds us how fragile the politics of identity truly are. It gives me great pride to be around a diverse community of people and ideas.”
“Shows us a terrible reality of human survival. With the current situation it opened my eyes.”
“It was a wonderfully told human story.”
“Fascinating seeing such a personal account of a momentous journey.”
“Personal, authentic, intimate.”
“Very moving and humbling.”
‘The excerpt from the book was brilliant.”
“Lively discussion with children asking relevant questions.”
There were many ideas of how to take the project forward – more films, a road show, take it to schools, to local groups, to areas that are less diverse. But more ambitious aims too.
“Funding is all! I feel this needs to be seen by certain, ‘People of Influence’, also on a bigger screen.”
“Use these beautiful stories to lobby and make it relevant in our society/government’s position towards situation of refugees’ ordeal today.”
With many thanks to Linh and her family who have helped bring this beautiful film to fruition and to Mitchell Harris for his unfailing talent and commitment.
Also thank you to the Floating Cinema for hosting our films on the Regent’s Canal and to the staff of Thorney Island and Southbourne Junior School for allowing us to film there.
Child Migrant Stories set out to collect first impressions of East London at the Fun Day in Stepney Park, part of the Festival of Communities. Richard Lue, aged 7, only knew the day before that he was flying to join his mother in East London. ‘It was the wickedest winter I can ever imagine. I was trembling. I remember the horsehair blankets. I had 13 of them.’ Gabriela, our resident artist for the day, was inspired to draw Richard wrapped up in blankets dreaming of sun and sea in Jamaica.
Two people who came over as children were happy to be interviewed. Abdul came over from Bangladesh aged 10 with his mother and sister to join his father who himself had come over at the same age to join his father. Abdul remembers thinking, on his way from the airport, that Britain seemed more organised. People were not sounding their horns or ringing their rickshaw bells. He was not ‘over the moon’ when he first arrived as, from what people had told him he thought it would be a, ‘fairy wonderland.’ Now he loves East London – ‘so diverse, so dynamic’.
Rahima came to East London at the age of 17 after an arranged marriage in Bangladesh to a man who already lived in the UK. She liked nothing about East London when she arrived. It was cold, there was no sun, space or leaves on the trees. She missed people. Now she doesn’t miss anything or anyone – her parents in Sylhet have died. She’s settled. Her children and grandchildren are here and her children hate to go back to Bangladesh because of the mosquitoes.
Two women, one from New York and one from Australia, who migrated to the UK as adults thought East Enders were, ‘friendly, welcoming and nice neighbours’. A woman from the Congo wrote that, ‘Although a language barrier people were helpful.’ A woman from Bangladesh wrote, ‘ Shopping are Bengali style here … feel like living in our own country.’ One woman told us of how she was brought from India to do housework but was thrown out by her employers. The local police, court and others all helped her find food and shelter. One man, originally from Bangladesh, who moved from West London thinks East London, despite being more run down, beats Notting Hill for parks and there are, ‘a lot more activities for children.’ Two East Enders, who moved out of the area, wrote, ‘East End community is more friendly and supportive. That’s why we moved back from Essex.’
For one person migration is something that affects us all. ‘We are all drifting in one way or another. If you embrace it God’s love will bring us together on an amazing wave.’
But we weren’t just interested in first impressions of people who’ve moved here. We wanted to know what people who have always lived in East London like or hate about it. Here is what they said and drew.
Drawings of hearts and smiles underlined the words of how people love the multicultural nature of East London.
Sultana writes, ‘ I love East London. I was born and bred in Stepney. There’s lots to do and good public transport and a diverse community.’ Mahbub wrote, ‘ I love the community, the mosques, the people from other cultures and other faiths. I love Britain and Stepney because it’s a place of peace and joy.’ Someone else wrote, ‘I can be who I want to be. It’s friendly, cool and cheap.’ Sahima wrote that she is happy that, ‘strangers support others.’ Fatima and others wrote about what the area has to offer. ‘East London has everything in it. From doctors, hospitals, markets, schools and parks right on your door step.’
As if in response Meriem of French Algerian origin, whose mother was cooking delicious crepes for the festival revellers, sat down and drew a beautiful fair ground in the park (Gabriela, watch out you have some competition!)
Someone else wrote that there is, ‘Lots to do for all. From going for a curry down Brick Lane to getting a samosa in Whitechapel to the arty hipsters.’ This prompted Gabriela to get out her drawing pad again.
Freya thinks, ‘ East London smells good’. There are places to ride bikes, the marathon, the Olympics, a safe environment, music, good schools, good universities. A very assured Candy Lin, whose mother originally came from China and who benefits from her daughter’s brilliant bilingual skills, wrote, ‘What I like about East London is that London is a city with different people. This makes London unique because many people have different cultures and traditions, London has a variety of landmarks too for tourists to see.’
Wendy Simps seized my pad of post it notes and summarised her likes and dislikes.
She likes Brick Lane, 24-hour shops and Victoria Park. She doesn’t like living on a main road, the landlord and the Central line – I could not agree more!
There were other dislikes. East London is ‘busy, higgledy piggledy’, ‘food costs a lot’, ‘crime and drunk people on the street,’ ‘young people getting into drugs’ and ‘I don’t like sweet stealers!’ This prompted Gabriela to get out her drawing pad again.
But the overwhelming response was positive.
“Would find it hard to live anywhere else. Love London.”
East London has a tradition of welcoming people from abroad who are fleeing conflict, war, poverty and discrimination. When we asked East Enders what they thought about the UK accepting 3,000 unaccompanied migrant children from Europe they rose to the challenge.
‘ Of course – children’s safety and rights come first – and you know there’s plenty of space. If you’re opposed then address the wars forcing people to flee.’
‘Children’s rights are UN-DISPUTABLE!!!’
‘The EU is slacking and should do way more if people are terrified, worried enough to leave their own homes. We should help them from the safety we have.’
The woman who came as a child from Poland, now studying at QMUL, spoke from her own experience.
‘ I feel blessed to have the opportunity of growing up in London and strongly support having migrant children brought here. London is now my home and I want to share this city with others.’
3,000 is the number put forward by Lord Dubs in his parliamentary amendment. Lord Dubs has reason to be passionate about this issue. He came to the UK on the Kinderstransport scheme that rescued children from the Nazis. Save the Children says as many as 26,000 unaccompanied children arrived in Europe in 2015. The EU’s Criminal Intelligence Agency estimates 10,000 are missing, many feared to have fallen into the hands of traffickers. Given these facts and the numbers of migrants that countries surrounding Syria are accommodating, 3,000 seemed a paltry number for one festival goer.
‘3,000 is a ridiculous low number to even debate.’
This prompted Gabriela, daughter of Henry Bran, a child asylum seeker from El Salvador, to get out her drawing pad again.
If you would like to see how we have captured more experiences of children who have migrated to East London come to our next event for the Festival of Communities. We will be screening short films based on child migrant experiences at the Floating Cinema on QMUL Campus day, Mile End from 12 noon to 5pm on June 4th. If you are interested in booking a place email email@example.com.
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.