Home Is Where: an innovative new theatre performance inspired by Third Culture Kids

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Flyer for Home is Where: Mark Ota, Sharlit Deyzac, Joanna Greaney and Leonora Fyfe in rehearsal. Photo courtesy of Amy Clare Tasker. .

What is a migrant? An immigrant? An expat?

What am I? I was born in the UK to English parents, and in 1990, when I was five years old, we moved to California. I remember being friends with the children of local British families for a time, and then when I went to school, I made friends with my American classmates. Eventually I picked up the local accent, so my new friends would stop asking me to “say something in English” on the playground. My sisters and I must have changed subtly, slowly, immeasurably over the next decade or so; I will never forget, in the car park of a pub on the outskirts of Leeds, hearing my grandad’s friend remark, “It’s a shame you’ve all become American.”

Is it? And did we? We immigrated, we assimilated, we naturalised as citizens… all before I understood what any of that really meant. I went to university in California, began my career in San Francisco, and then in 2013, having lived 23 of my 28 years in the United States, I moved to London.

What am I? In some ways, I feel like an immigrant: it took me a full week when I arrived in London to figure out where to buy coat hangers; I don’t speak like the people around me; I’ve never seen an episode of Eastenders. But in other ways, I do feel I’ve “returned”: dark chocolate digestives are no longer a special treat to unpack from a relative’s suitcase; I can now see my extended family more than once every year or two; and there’s just something about being back in England that feels right.

What am I? I was never fully American, and I’m no longer fully British. But I have passports that say I’m a citizen of both countries. Is there a word for what I am now? I don’t claim the “expatriate” label, with all its colonial baggage

“Repatriate” isn’t quite right either (not that I’ve ever heard anyone call themselves that). What the hell am I? https://www.theguardian.com/global-development-professionals-network/2015/mar/13/white-people-expats-immigrants-migration

When I stumbled across the term Third Culture Kid, I was surprised, relieved, and deeply moved to learn that there were others out there like me, people who slipped through the cracks of traditional definitions, who couldn’t easily answer the question “where are you from?”

If this is ringing a bell for you, there are all kinds of resources out there for our community: start with David C. Pollock and Ruth E. Van Reken’s book, Third Culture Kids: Growing Up Among Worlds.

They write: “A third culture kid is a person who has spent a significant part of his or her developmental years outside their parents’ culture. The third culture kid builds relationships to all the cultures, while not having full ownership in any. Although elements from each culture are assimilated into the third culture kid’s life experience, the sense of belonging is in relationship to others of the same background, other TCKs.”

The world is full of stories like mine, and yet so many of us go about our lives in isolation, thinking there can’t possibly be anyone else who understands our experience. As a theatre maker, I want to tell these stories, to share them with other third culture kids who rarely see themselves represented on stage, and to give mainstream audiences a peek into our cross-cultural lives.

Since 2014, I have been working with a team of fellow cultural hybrids in London to create Home Is Where… a verbatim theatre project with music, movement, and multimedia. We’ve interviewed dozens of third culture kids, and writer Guleraana Mir is weaving together their true stories with a fictional narrative inspired by our post-Brexit political landscape. Our cast of five actors will take on the role of a resistance movement in a futuristic dystopia, using an innovative headphone verbatim technique to tell real-life TCK stories from the interviews.

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Sharlit Deyzac, Kal Sabir and Mark Ota in an early performance of Home is Where at Camden People’s Theatre. Photo by Charlie Kerson.

Alongside the performance at Rich Mix on 2 September, we’ve partnered with HOPE not hate to offer a free and inclusive workshop before the show, using theatre games to explore the themes of the play: identity, culture, and belonging. This is one of many events in a national Weekend of HOPE, part of the #MoreInCommon campaign. 

Even if you’re nowhere near London, you can listen to the stories in our Online Oral History Library, which holds short audio clips from the 30+ third culture kids we’ve interviewed.

These are stories of incredible journeys, difficult transitions, identity crises, daring adventures, teenage rebellions, hilarious misunderstandings, horizon expansions, international friendship, and above all common humanity.

“I hate that question, ‘where are you from,’ because I was born somewhere, but actually all the other countries where I’ve lived are part of who I am.” Valerie Teller

“I just belong to this world, that’s my nationality. I’m global.” Ria Ulleri

“We have the same experience. We talk about it and it’s such a relief. To hear that your experience is not unique, and other people have felt this same way their whole lives. And so you belong in your not-belonging.” Aslam Husain

Working on Home Is Where… has brought me into a community of people whose stories span the globe, people who look different and speak different languages, who have had vastly different experiences from mine, and yet we find so much common ground. We all see the world through a wide lens, we don’t always know which team we’re cheering for at the Olympics, we have friends and family in every time zone. We feel at home in airports and train stations… and with each other. You are welcome to join us.

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Cast and creative team of Home is Where: Kal Sabir, Joanna Greaney, Mark Ota, Amy Clare Tasker, Guleraana Mir, Sharlit Deyzac, Yaiza Varona, Paula Paz and Leonora Fyfe. Photo courtesy of Amy Clare Tasker.

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Amy Clare Tasker is the artistic director of Amy Clare Tasker Performance Lab, the theatre company creating Home Is Where…

You can read more about the project and creative team at http://www.amyclaretasker.com/hyphenated

 

On the Road during Refugee Week

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Children watching Child Migrant Stories in Hackney Museum

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.

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Refugee Week in the Royal Festival Hall

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.

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Amnesty’s interactive, ‘What have they ever done for us?’

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.”

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Being quizzed about the film in Hackney Museum

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.

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Argon’s photo album that he rescued from his bombed out house

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.

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Children examine Linh Vu’s drawing of being rescued by a British boat

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.

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Children compose new words for There isn’t Any Place Safe to Live by Henry Bran

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.

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What children knew about refugees before and after the workshop

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.

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Waiting for the screening at the Rio Cinema

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.

It’s a New Life – Saqib Waqar

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Shalimar Gardens in 1895

I was born in Pakistan, Lahore, on the 2nd of August 1994. I didn’t live far from Shalimar Garden, a pretty famous place.

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Shalimar Gardens 2014, by Meemjee

I don’t have a rich background. The house was pretty much made out of mud and [laughs] you used to get things coming off it. When it used to rain it went all gooey. Then slowly, slowly my dad collected a bit of money and we built a little bit of a proper house. But my dad wasn’t earning much so it took a long time.

It was my mum, dad, grandparents, uncles in the same street. We used to have family all around us. My dad had some government job. My mum was a housewife. My mum cooked basic chicken curry, lamb curry, vegetables. As long as it’s cooked by my mum it’s good. I’ve got a brother and a younger sister. I’m the middle one.

I used to play cricket and they used to have lots of goats and sheep. There always used to be  something to do. I used to get in trouble a lot of the time. Mum used to call me, “Come and have your lunch,” but I’m running around, playing with my friends. [Laughs]

Dad used to take us out. There used to be some ice cream parlour we used to go to. But I prefer it in the neighbourhood rather than going out. I used to have a little bike and we’d just go out exploring. All good memories.

I did go to school when I was young. I was three, four years old probably. Eid, we used to love. The main thing you look forward to is your uncles and your aunties giving you money. Basically you buy sweets, chocolates. There used to be rides like a little banana boat and it used to go up and down. It wasn’t a proper fairground. It used to come once or twice a year, like the way it comes here.

My cousin, he’s a qualified Imam. So every morning we used to go to his house. He used to teach us how to read Qur’an, how to pray in the Mosque. From the roof we could see the Mosque literally two minutes walk.

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Badshahi Masjid, the Royal Mosque in Lahore, Pakistan 2015 by Zaki Imtiaz

Yeah, it was a big Mosque. I was a little kid and you mostly pray at home. Your parents don’t want you to go by yourself. I used to muck about, so my mum was extra curious. [Laughs]   I used to tell her I’m going Mosque but I used to go somewhere else.

I came with my grandparents. They used to come and go ‘cause my uncle lives here. I couldn’t come with my parents. My parents are still there. I did know that I was coming here, but it was weird. I made sure that I sit by the window, seeing the world with the bird eye view.

When I landed I thought wow [laughs] this is completely different. It’s another world. There everything is all over the place, here everything is organised. And you don’t hear people shouting and screaming. There people are beeping horns all day long.

At the start, leaving your mum, did hurt, But after a few days you kind of get used to it. I used to live in Whitechapel. From Whitechapel, Roman Road.

I used to live with my uncle, his missus and he got two kids. To be honest they looked after me, brought me up. They were my parents and they fed me, everything. So I did miss my parents but I kind of had my parents here. I went to school in Bethnal Green, Bethnal Green Technology College. I was about 12 years old. I had a pretty bad experience at the start ‘cause my English wasn’t really good. I was close to my head assistant. She used to know that my problem is that I’m Pakistani and they’re Bengali and then sometimes they bully me. She used to tell me, “Just walk off from here.” Slowly, slowly, I got better. I think the hardest was in Year 9. I was going to get kicked out of school. Messing around, fighting. [Laughs]. So I had to sort myself out.

I used to love PE and Art – abstract, spray painting and that. You can relax, do the work and it was pretty chilled out. I joined Bow Adventure Places after school for biking, canoeing, shooting and they take you to residentials. It was wicked.

In 2010 I went to John Cass Sixth Form. I studied Level 3 Business and Finance. That was even a better experience than school. My teacher was pretty laid back. She used to know that at the end of the day we’re going to give her the work. I had distinctions in Level 3. I would go back any day. [Laughs]

My friend he’s Sikh, he’s Indian. Another friend of mine he’s from Nigeria, and another friend [laughs] was from Bangladesh. I’ve been to a few Sikh festivals and they walk for about two hours. We’re all different [laughs] and we’re all pretty close. I think we all had a similar personality. I met them all in college.

Obviously your education is important. But it’s basically your friends ‘cause from 16 to 18, you’re becoming an adult so you want your friends around you. You’re going out to places. We used to mess around with girls quite a lot [laughs]. It’s that age. I used to know a few girls in college and then Facebook and social networking and all that.

But I got married now. I’m 21. I met her through a friend of mine. I was with her for about three and a half years, and then I got married. She was working in Bradford, in a community centre. She used to get people to go out a bit more, the women. Asking them to get more involved with the community. She’s Bengali so it was pretty hard to convince her family, but we’ve got kind of got around it.

It wasn’t a really big wedding ‘cause I didn’t have much money. We had all the family, all the house and that. I’ve done the Islamic ceremony in the East London Mosque. I haven’t done the English ceremony, so need to sort something out, do a little big, a big little party and invite a few of my friends. It’s a new life, new life definitely. It should be pretty good.

After school I started learning how to cut hair rather than being on the street. I would love to open my business one day. [Laughs] A lot of people around me speaks Urdu, even Bengali people, they speak Urdu as well.

What I like about East London is people blend in quick. Here I see people coming from all over the world. Today I saw a Spanish guy. He’s only been here for a month. He was telling me about his culture, and I was telling him about my culture

I rent a property in Roman Road. I’ve always lived in a flat. It’s too expensive to live in houses. I go to the Mosque on a Friday to pray in British Street, Merchant Street, just right by the station. When you come into East London you feel home. Everybody knows you so if you ever need help you can call somebody up.

Mile-End

I ain’t got much contact back home now. At the start I used to, but not much now. What you miss from back home is the weather, the food. But other than that, I would prefer UK. I wouldn’t know what to do back home. Here I know what I want to do, where I need to go and how to do it, so I’m better off. I never thought I would spend the rest of my life here.

It is difficult to blend in, really difficult, especially the language barrier. It takes time, but once you get there people around will support you.

Passing Tides – story of a young girl escaping Vietnam with her father

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 world@childmigrantstories.com 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.

Eithne Nightingale

 

My involvement with Child Migration Stories

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.

Duncan Ross

You can read Duncan’s Spotlight Story here.

Spotlight: Duncan Ross

The Brown Sheep of the Family

Duncan’s family lived on the first floor of a block of flats where a leper used to sleep in the doorway. “It wasn’t the poorest area… it was middle of the road Calcutta.”

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Syed Amir Ali Avenue, Calcutta. Duncan’s family lived on the first floor. The boy on bicycle was killed where blue railing is now. Photo by Duncan Ross.

Duncan experienced the street from the first floor balcony as he was not allowed to play outside. He remembers the clamour of the chai sellers, lean rickshaw pullers, trams with overhead wires, bicycles tottering under heavy loads and Hindu festivals. “Holi, holi… oh, it scared the wits out of me. A huge wonderful, colourful, chaotic mess, where people would throw coloured powder and coloured water at each other. It was an anarchy and we were very controlled.”

The flat was on a borderline between the Hindu and Muslim communities and riots were common.“This was post partition. Hindus and Muslims had got on brilliantly beforehand.  [Sighs]  Ah, bless you lot, with respect, partition happened, Britain withdrew, high and dry, countries are split. It never did get sorted, really.”

The location of the flat meant that Duncan experienced more terrifying sights than people throwing coloured paints at each other and Hindu goddesses with too many arms. “There were people who would get wheelbarrows, open the manholes, load rotting bodies on, wheel them about and demand money to take them away from outside your house.”

One day Duncan watched a boy being pulled off his bike and killed. “Whether he was Hindu or Muslim, I don’t know.” Duncan was pulled back into the flat and sat back shaking, cradling his trembling dog. Duncan still suffers from flashbacks from that incident – “a hand with the whole palm covered in blood…. as a child you don’t have the means to deal with this stuff.”

Beryl Phyllis Ross in 1956 b 1 Aug 1914
Beryl Phyllis Ross in 1956 born 1 Aug 1914, Duncan Ross family archives.

One day the riots were particularly bad so his family urged his mother not to go to work. Ignoring the warning she left the house hoping the official flag of her chauffeur-driven car would provide some protection. But “the car was surrounded by very violent rioting youths who gave the driver two options, ‘One you stay in the car and we burn you all to death, all the women and you, or you get out and we kill you.’  So he (the driver) had the presence of mind to put his foot on the accelerator and plough his way through the mob.”

Duncan’s mother escaped with her life but the incident changed the direction of all their lives. “And I have this clear memory…..of my mum, who was really quite a timid woman, coming home, standing in the doorway, icy cold, determined, saying, ‘I’m leaving.  You can come with me if you want, or you can stay here.  Enough.’”

As they prepared to leave for the ‘motherland’  Duncan became more and more excited. “I knew there would be a thatched cottage. I knew I would have a garden to play in.” Two years after the incident when his mother was nearly killed the family crossed India by train and embarked on a PO liner. Their ship was near the end of the last convoy to go through the Suez Canal before the Suez crisis erupted. “And the left side was all desert and the right side was green …and men on horseback with guns.  It was all terribly exciting. This was, oh, the peak, the pinnacle. Britain, going to Britain”

A friend picked up the family from Tilbury Dock on a cold September day in 1956 and they all drove to Clapton. On the way an excited eight year-old Duncan bombarded his parents with questions.“Can I play in the garden when we get there?” “Will there be smoke coming out of the chimney?” “Will there be, will there be…?”

Duncan soon realized his future was not going to be as he imagined. “I remember my head pressed up against the taxi window and the total silence in the cab. And the growing up that happened between Tilbury Dock and Clapton. All this processing in my little eight year old mind.”

Duncan walked up dark stairs to a Clapton flat. “It wasn’t this thatched cottage. It was basically one room, and another room which was best, which we never used, and a kitchen.”

age 12 tower of london maybe
Duncan Ross, aged 12 approx.outside Tower of London with his mother and sister. Duncan Ross family archives.

Five years later the family were able to put a mortgage down on a house without a thatched roof near Clapton station. Duncan had, not only his own bedroom, but a garden where he could put up his huge six-foot telescope, something he keeps to this day.

age 10 northwold rd. school
Duncan Ross aged 10 Northwold Road school, Duncan Ross family archives.

Duncan went to Northwold Primary School where he did well. His education at the prestigious La Martiniere school in Calcutta served him well. He then went onto Hackney Downs where over half the students were Jewish. School was everything to him and he, along with his friends, thrived academically. “We were East End kids.  It didn’t mean we had patched, ragged trousers and went core blimey. We were bright, but East End kids.”

Joe Brearley, the deputy head teacher who taught Russian O level, was just one of the teachers who inspired not only Duncan, but Harold Pinter, a former pupil.“He (Joe Brearley) taught us the instrumental case in Russ, by him getting the whole class up, walking us around Hackney Downs in the snow, plonking an instrument with us, chanting the endings, ‘som, soi, som, sami.” Over 50 years Duncan has still not forgotten the instrumental case in Russian.

Duncan’s complexion was darker than that of his parents and sister, something he was unaware of until he came to Britain.“I didn’t know in India I was brown….my mum and dad and sister basically are white. I’m clearly brown, so way, way, way back, way back somewhere almost certainly there was an Indian woman.  It would never have been an Indian man who would dared to have taken up with an English woman.”

As the, “brown sheep of the family” he experienced a level of racism in Clapton unknown in Calcutta.

2003 - the landing where terrible things happened - left door was our front door
‘During the riots either Hindu or Muslim mobs would chase lone stragglers of the other persuasion up on to such landings and trap and kill them.’ Photo when Duncan Ross returned to his family’s flat – left door 2003.

It was many years before Duncan took an active interest in his Indian heritage.”I didn’t go back to India for 47 years and I then realised I’d been having flashbacks of looking out our balcony window…I had to go back three times over the three visits. And finally, got it into my head that actually there’s a road barrier where that boy was.  He isn’t being killed anymore.” He has also returned to the place where he believes his mother’s car was surrounded in the riots.

Duncan’s early experiences have given him some insight into what other young migrants might have suffered.“Some of our Somali lads, who first came over, kept themselves to themselves.  And I had this heart and feeling for them. They wouldn’t speak to me, but just thinking you guys have seen some awful, awful stuff as children, you know.”

DuncanIMG_7369
Photo of Duncan Ross outside his house in Mile End in 2014. © Eithne Nightingale

Those early experiences have also influenced his approach as a Church of England priest. “Growing up along all these fault lines, Hindu, Muslim, Christian, non-Christian, Catholic, there was a determination in me somewhere, and I never knew I was going to be a priest, that never ever would I do anything to foster division.”

Despite his popularity and the respect with which he is held in East London Duncan still feels that he has never totally belonged, that he will be rumbled one day. “That the ice I walk on is quite thin, and when Farage starts, and you see people gathering ..I just suddenly feel, there’s a horrible feeling they’re going to send me back.”

You can hear Duncan and excerpts from his story below and on Soundcloud. You can also read Duncan’s blog post describing his involvement with this project.