Archive for the ‘Immigration’ Category

Don’t forget me

June 30th, 2013 | Alina Müller

Adrian Paci, 'A Real Game', 1999

My first childhood world was made up of a town, a bigger city and a village. The town was connected to the bigger city by a road lined with poplars and to the village by a railway and a path through vineyards. We would take the bus to the big city and the train to the village. Sometimes we would hitchhike. Everybody did. (I don’t remember ever travelling between the village and the bigger city, though I’m sure we did.)

There was that and there was Abroad. I grew up knowing that that’s where we would end up. It was never really talked about, at least not that I can recall, but I had accepted this place as our final destination. I knew of no road or rail leading to it. I imagined Abroad smelling of bubble gum, the kind that my grandmother used to keep locked up in her special drawer of ‘goods from Abroad’, where packs of coffee were arranged in orderly stacks next to Palmolive soaps, Chinese fountain pens and German chocolate bars. Hard currency in the widespread bribery system, my father later told me.

One day we were ready to leave. I remember standing in front of my class in school with my favourite teacher, her hand on my shoulder, announcing that I would be moving Abroad. The afternoon lesson was cancelled so that we could draw and write goodbye cards, something we would otherwise only do on the last day before the summer holidays. The next day I used some of my piggy bank savings to go to the photography studio in the centre and take photos with my two best friends. I didn’t tell my mother I was going there so I could have my favourite hairdo for the occasion , a side parting, instead of the straight fringe she preferred (and that, in retrospect, was a better look). My friends and I were eight years old and we kept a black and white photo each. We wrote our names, the date and  ’Don’t forget me’ on the back.

When we finally got there, it turned out Abroad smelled more like Milka chocolate and caramel. Entering my new room and finding a table full of sweets waiting for me, I remember being pleased that it was just as I had imagined it. I wrote and received letters and figured out the country code I had to dial to call my friends and managed to run up a huge phone bill before I was discovered. We had a red automatic camera and we documented everything during that first year: my father drinking coffee at the kitchen table, my mother arranging her hair in front of the mirror, me standing next to the fish tank and the three of us in front of palmtrees at the botanical garden.

A few months ago I visited my parents in Sweden. My mother and I looked through some photographs from those first months. ‘I remember that bright pink jacket.’, I said pointing out a photo of my mother and I standing in front of the Christmas decoration in the shopping centre. ‘Yeah’, she said studying another photo of our first Swedish living room, ‘That first year, every single day I wanted us to leave and go back home.’

The nostalgic citizen

March 5th, 2013 | Alina Müller

With the increased mobility of people and sustained emigration, what we see emerging is not a global citizen, not even a European one, but a nostalgic one.

The moderator, who was a stand-in for the advertised one, was not doing a great job. The talk was coming to an end and she had barely touched on the subject of the evening: politics, identity and the importance of  place. The panelists, three contemporary writers, were all acting out their discontent with the discussion in their own way: the French Philippe Claudel by being general, the Croatian Dasa Drndic, sarcastic, and the Haitian-Canadian Danny Laferièrre, aloof.  For the last question the moderator turned to Danny Laferièrre:

‘Being Haitian and living in Canada, you must have encountered racism. How did you deal with it?

Laferièrre, leaning back in his chair, replied through his French translator: ‘It’s not up to me to fight racism. That’s their problem. I didn’t go there to sort out their problems.’

The same writer had spoken passionately throughout the evening about the social, cultural and political situation in Haiti, his country of birth. The contrast between that and the engagement with his second home country that his reply suggested was striking. This difference could be attributed to the circumstances which had made him an immigrant in the first place: Laferièrre, then a young journalist, was forced into exile by the Duvalier dictatorship in 1976. One could expect that, throughout his stay in Canada, he would continue to look back.

But this exile state of mind is common among most types of emigrants, even the ones who left their countries in less dramatic circumstances. Many immigrants continue to read their no longer local news, passionately support their no longer local football teams, mobilise to protest against the latest injustice back home and even vote in their countries of origin. (To some extent, I too belong to this group. I have never exercised my right to vote in the local elections in the UK, for example, and I followed the national ones with the kind of interest with which someone might follow the Eurovision song contest. But I was devastated when, in 2010, a far right party won seats in parliament in Sweden, a country which I left 12 years ago).

Over and above technological developments and ease of travel, this link to the country of origin is further strengthened by the good old nation state. In an attempt to reverse the brain drain, open new markets abroad or harness remittances, nation states work hard to keep their emigrated citizens close. Meanwhile, national political parties are becoming increasingly interested in winning the external vote. This drive of countries of origin to maintain a strong grip on the hearts and minds of their nationals even after they’ve long left their territory is facilitated by the lack of interest of receiving countries to capture them. It’s not hard to see how the discrimination, racism and general hostility that immigrants are often met with today can kill even the strongest desire to integrate.

So between emigrants nurturing their sentimental attachment to their home countries, governments taking a growing interest in their diasporas and host countries failing to engage them, what we see is a growing number of people exercising their citizenship, or desiring to do so, in countries where they no longer reside.

The book Danny Laferièrre was promoting that evening is a semi-autobiographical account of his return to his country of birth, 33 years after he left it.

Can it be that we’re all just waiting to do the same?


Where are the 13 percent?

January 9th, 2013 | Alina Müller

Immigrants in the UK are taking quite a beating these days.

Immigrants, the government seems to suggest, have problems ‘forming social bonds’ and building relationships with their neighbours and can ruin the community spirit. Even primary school children have been pointed out as a problem for social cohesion.

They put pressure on the infrastructure and ruin public service. They increase the house prices, keep ‘local people’ from getting a job and force them onto benefits.

Immigrant students are called ‘bogus’, and are kick out of universities and threatened to be deported. (How important it is that they are ‘bogus’ or not is unclear, as Theresa May remarked that they’re “not the best or the brightest” anyway. )

We hear that immigrant couples are probably fake and their marriage often a sham. They decided that if you’re an immigrant in love with a British person you shouldn’t be allowed to live here unless your partner is at least moderately rich. They also decided as a consequence that children who have an immigrant parent should get used to living without them.

The government even learned to use the power of social media to drive the message home – that if they really want they can come to your work or your house at dawn and drag you out of the country in handcuffs.  Finally, a few weeks ago, they decided to stop beating around the bush, and just text immigrants directly to leave the UK.

In the mids of this, the latest census was published. It showed that 13 percent of the total population of England and Wales – that is 7.5 million people – are born abroad.

Surely at some point a significant number of them will stand up and shout  ‘You talkin’ to me?