When times get tough economically, communities often look to the people who arrived most recently to blame. When we become insecure ourselves – anyone “different” can be perceived as a threat. Strong in our identity – and we easily welcome others. Perhaps one of the reasons I find New Yorkers so appealing, is that diversity seems built into their identity – making them appear almost unshakable and charmingly confident.
Countries like Britain have experienced migration for centuries. My ancestors crossed seas as a result of persecution and economic struggle to find a new home in the UK many generations ago. It’s worth looking at Eddie Izzard’s informative TV series A Mongrel Nation if you still believe that our English heritage is solely indigenous.
And yet somehow the term “migrants” is laden with negative connotations. Google reveals hundreds of negative British news stories with “Immigrant” in the title – usually relating to the cost to the tax payer. In fact, a report has shown that foreign-born people (including refugees and asylum seekers, who are usually spoken of most negatively despite their plight) contribute around 10 per cent more to UK Government revenues than they receive in Government spending, equivalent to £2.5bn a year.
With this in mind, I wanted to use my creativity to approach the subject. Earlier in the year I interviewed five people who had moved from other countries to live in the UK – with an idea to communicate their stories in a visual way. Among them, a 60-year-old women from Hong Kong, a South African teacher and charity worker, and a fellow artist who had moved from Texas, but was born in the UK to Asian parents who had fled Uganda in the 1970s – a complicated journey.
The last two were a young Pakistani student and a Kashmiri who moved here as a child and who had fascinating stories of feeling on the periphery of not just mainstream British culture, but of Pakistani culture too. His words were moving, funny, verging on the radical at times – and I hope I made a friend of him through the process of listening to his story.
I learnt a lot about my own latent prejudices through the conversations and email exchanges that took place. Eventually I decided to curate their stories into an adventure book. One where the reader has to decide with path the migrant took on their journey. I posed questions like: “Do you think Shoaib decided to stay permanently in the UK because a) he was escaping violence in Pakistan b) his parents were forcing him into marriage, or c) because he failed to get in the army”. This plays with a few stereotypes and the readers who select answers a) and b) will turn to the signified page to discover the following:
a) Is incorrect. There is violence in Pakistan – but it does not impact everyone’s life, all the time. Most people are able to get on with day-to-day living.
b) Is incorrect. Shoaib was not forced into a marriage. Lots of marriages are “arranged” in Pakistan, but this is very different from “forced”, which is technically illegal. There are also “love” marriages in Pakistan.
The five journeys also have a light-hearted side – I learnt that my friend from Hong Kong loves Elvis, my artist friend likes to grow a beard when he travels, and my Kashmiri friend was taught to cook by his mother – and still loves his food!
The book was illustrated with my own drawings and paintings and some of the subjects photographs (and their art too!) Included in the images were my grandfather’s sketches and photographs from the 1930s and 1940s – for I discovered amazingly that he had visited Hong Kong, South Africa, Indian, Kashmir and Rawalpindi during his time in the Royal Airforce.
One hundred and eighty four pages and many late nights later, the work was finished and published. In May it was short-listed for the Searle Award for Creativity and this week it has been published as a soft-back entitled “Getting There – Five Migrant Journeys”. This name was chosen after Gertrude Stein’s words: “when you get there, there isn’t a there there”. This echoed the sentiment of those featured when asked about national identity. For them it was a fluid thing, sometimes alienating, sometimes empowering, but it was clear you don’t stop being one thing to become another.
Migration and the impact it has on communities is a complex affair. In Britain we have seen waves of migration from our former colonies and beyond. As well as, being home to millions of people of Indian and Pakistani origin, the UK has the biggest Somali diaspora outside of Africa – many of them in my home town of Bristol.
Their arrival, along with others, will inevitably have an effect on British society and culture – as did the arrival of the Huguenots in London, the Mirpuris in Yorkshire and the Normans in Hastings. Our food, language and culture is changed – and it is something to be celebrated. Britain is a temperate island and newcomers have been and will forever be part of its identity. This should be and can be a strength – even in difficult economic times – we can be charmingly confident with it if we choose.
The views expressed by this blogger and in the following reader comments do not necessarily reflect the views and policies of the Dawn Media Group.