IF YOU WERE A REFUGEE, WHAT WOULD YOU DO? THIS IS MY STORY.
Refugee. A word loved by the media and the fascinating groups like the EDL. But do you know what that word means? Or what it means to be that word? For those that don’t know me, my name is Vanisha. And I come from a family of refugees.
What is a refugee? Where are they going?
A refugee is “a person who has been forced to leave their country in order to escape war, persecution, or natural disaster.”
Considering there’s 65 million refugees worldwide, we’ve taken in a pathetic amount over recent years (there are an estimated 117,234 refugees living in the UK. That’s just 0.18 per cent of the total population). 86% of all refugees are currently placed in developing countries including Turkey, Pakistan, Lebanon and Ethiopia. So are we doing enough as a developed, western, capable country? No, nowhere near enough. Are they all flooding in to take our homes and jobs? No, evidently not.
These are people who never imagined that they would be in these circumstances. People who were in education, people with homes and jobs as teachers, doctors and engineers. People like you, people like me, and people like my own family.
(My beautiful mum and me)
Why would anyone choose to be a refugee?
Over the last few years I’ve seen a number of narrow-minded, heartless and misunderstood comments and questions assuming that people make the choice to become refugees. No one chooses to leave their home and livelihood in fear of their lives. No one chooses to jump into a boat or to run across borders because the unknown is safer than home. No one chooses to have their title of ‘doctor’ or ‘teacher’ scrapped to ‘refugee’ and a statistic. And if I popped you in the middle of war torn Syria or famine struck South Sudan, you’d want to run a thousand miles too. You’d want a better life, a second chance, safety and food to eat.
So why am I here and what’s this got to do with me?
Originally, my family had emigrated to Uganda from India in hope for work and a better life. Succeeding like many other Indian Asians, and helping the Ugandan economy to thrive, my family had a home, an income and security. But everything changed in the summer of 1972 when the brutal Ugandan president and dictator, Idi Amin, ordered for the expulsion of all citizens without a Ugandan passport, and all Asians. An idea that apparently came to him in a dream. Over 35,000 Indian Asians were given 60 days to leave. Using extreme violence and placing curfews throughout his reign, my family along with many others were forced to rethink their lives. After seeing people hanging from trees, seeing their businesses burn, my family fled leaving their whole lives behind.
(Ugandan Asians arriving at Stansted Airport 1972)
As British nationals, my family sought refuge in England. It was winter here and they’d never seen snow before. They were homeless, jobless and knew no English. Could you even imagine? They were put in refugee camps near where I grew up, were given work, a home and have stayed ever since. They were hard, manual jobs in the local factories, and very different to their old professions, but still they stuck with it and both my grandmother and grandfather stayed in them same jobs until they retired and until my grandfather passed away. Another family member works in a job centre, coincidentally instead of ‘taking our jobs’, is giving out help and opportunities to others for work.
Contrary to popular belief, my family like many have fully integrated without fully forgetting their traditions, religion and culture. And what a blessing it is to have the best of both worlds. A life full of culture, religion, tradition with a mix of fish and chip Fridays and paneer, all thanks to my Indian mum and English dad.
Though life sounds simple and quite happy now, there’s nothing simple or happy about fleeing your lives in fear to a country where not everyone accepts you and everything is alien. It’s terrifying. Although there are happy endings, no one would choose to flee. No one is choosing to put their children in boats that sink. No one chooses to be a refugee. No one chooses to have their education, careers and families being torn apart. Where is the choice in staying in a war torn country or in a home where you’re life could end at any minute? Where is the choice when you’ve lost all family members, there’s no safe drinking water and bombs fly over your head everyday? People don’t have a choice when it’s a matter of life or death. People don’t have a choice.
My life is a complete blessing thanks to a time where a country opened its arms to a family in need of safety. We must do the same to those living in unimaginable situations today. We are not entitled to this country any more than anyone else on this planet. It’s just plain luck that we’re born on lands that give us safety, comfort and lives of luxury in comparison to lands like Syria and Somalia where people die everyday from things completely curable and non-existent in England.
The refugee crisis is bigger than ever before. Over 50% of all displaced people are children.
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Thanks for reading this fairly deep piece. Any feedback, questions or comments are welcome.
Vanisha May is a criminology and sociology graduate from London. She has a passion for international development and issues related to education, crisis for refugees, conflict and gender inequalities. Her dream is to travel the world while understanding, learning and resolving inequalities faced for the affected people across the globe.