—Can the UK—
still be called Home?
Beautiful photographs and interview by Katrina Campbell
Afua Hirsch recently shared a conversation with her uncle. “He was in Berlin in the early 1930’s and talks about the similarities between the populist rhetoric then and the messages that we have been receiving in recent times. People always think of gas chambers, but in reality, it started with newspaper headlines, cartoons, claims about belonging, who you would want to live next door to and so forth.”
We all know that post-Brexit polls showed immigration was a significant factor in how some people decided to cast their referendum vote. So what does that mean for the people who live in the UK and consider it their home?
We asked two women how their lives have been affected.
I am Stella. My nationality by birth is Italian but I have lived in the UK for 27 years. When I arrived in London, I was in my mid-twenties. I could barely speak English and my plan was just to be here for six months, improve my English and go home.
But look, I’m still here. I fell in love with London, a 21st century city, with a history that goes back to the Romans.
After six months, rather than going back home, I found a job in a travel agency where they needed Italian speakers. After the travel agency, every year, my career went in many different directions, studying different topics, I don’t even remember when I stopped thinking about going back to Italy because I felt I was at home.
I studied and worked at the same time. I went to university and completed a degree in writing, publishing and Spanish language. My main jobs at the time were as an interpreter, translator and teacher of Italian to fashion houses based in London. I always enjoyed teaching, passing on my passion for languages and culture, so I decided to do a PGCE. I’m now Head of Spanish at a secondary school.
London is definitely my home, where I’ve built my career and had my family. In all these years I never felt unwelcome.
So, what’s changed?
Well I always felt supported by my friends, teachers at university and colleagues. But then, the referendum happened and everything changed.
I remember the day of the referendum like it was yesterday. I just couldn’t believe that this was happening in England. I was shocked and for the first time, I felt unwelcome. My first thought was to leave and, if it wasn’t for my son who cried desperately at the prospect, I would have already left. He was born and brought up in London and has only been away for school holidays. So, as a mother, I am putting my child first, and have decided to stay but honestly, I feel insulted.
I have lived in this country for 27 years and I have always contributed, not only financially but as a secondary school teacher, educating the next generation. I have repaid my student loan and I have been paying my taxes and national contribution religiously, and now I have to apply for permission to stay and pay £130 for my son and myself (with no guarantees that I will be allowed).
If the Home Office agrees, then I can request citizenship for myself and my son.
Despite the fact that he was born here, if I cannot prove that I lived here for five years before he was born, the Home Office will not automatically issue him the British Passport.
In my opinion Brexit was handled very badly from the beginning. It was based on lies. Despite the fact that we need immigration to reinforce the economy of the country and support vital services like the NHS and education, Theresa May still hasn’t said anything reassuring about what’s going to happen to people like me. My life is on hold.
Have you seen the European residency card?
I’m now officially a card holder, but don’t understand why I need to have this stupid card. It looks like something that would be more at home in a Berlin Museum. My intention is not to conflate my experience with that of a Jewish person in Nazi Germany, however I want to echo the sentiment as a warning to what we are supporting and becoming.
I am Damaris. My nationality by birth is Swiss German but I have lived in the UK since I was sixteen, when I moved here with my family. So I’ve been educated in London and studied at both Bath and SOAS universities. I now live in South London with my husband and three children, all born in the UK. We run a reputable building business together in Forest Hill, living in our dream house that we saved for, designed and built. My three children are all settled at local schools in which I regularly volunteer. This is our home.
My son recently started at Forest Hill secondary school, which has been in the press recently for its severe lack of funding. As a family we are keen to support the school and the teachers and not turn our backs on them, because it is a part of our local community and that means a lot to us. These are the values we hold in high regard and want to pass on to our children.
For the first time ever I have become acutely aware of being a foreigner here, a place for many years that I’ve called my home. It’s been very emotional for our family. We have taken to not travelling outside of the M25 and blending into the background, not feeling free to express who we are. I’ve even found myself not speaking in my mother tongue to my five year old when we’re on the local bus, just in case I’m singled out for not being British.
Before now I'd never really seen the need to apply for British citizenship because I had an indefinite leave to remain stamp in my passport. However, Brexit has thrown so much uncertainty into the air, and made the fate of EU and non-EU residents so ambiguous that I started to worry about our status.
For peace-of-mind I started down the route of acquiring citizenship. I have jumped through so many hoops and handed over vast sums of money and I am still not clear about what will happen to us.
When I attended my first citizenship test centre I was met with hostility. They are strange unwelcoming places.
My first interaction with someone when I arrived was through a speaker phone. The man refused me entry because on one of the four pieces of Identification that I handed to him, my middle name was initialised rather than spelt, despite all of the other names being correct. He exercised his power to turn me away without a refund, to rebook, take another day of unpaid leave and purchase another seat in the centre for the same examination.
I passed the test a few months later, even though it was pretty tough, wondering how many of my British friends would pass it if they hadn’t revised? From random information about Mother’s Day to specific facts about the founding members of the EU, it’s no easy feat. This wasn’t the end, but one of many hurdles I was expected to jump.
Brexit has stirred up strong emotions in our family: my mother is outraged that she might have to ‘carry a card’ and refuses to do so. I cried for the whole four hours it took filling in the EU residency card application, because I felt totally betrayed by a country I felt was my home. Why do I have to fill in all this stuff? Why am I being singled out?
I still need to complete a full application for my British passport, and the amount of red tape is overwhelming.
The many hours that I have already invested just don’t seem to be enough. I’ve had to apply for a freedom of information act on myself because there is no room for error. I am expected to remember every minute detail of my life - holidays, work and studying - to make sure I supply precise information about my comings and goings over the years. If I make even a tiny error, I could be denied.
What’s next for you?
Well we’ve both had sleepless nights thinking about our status here and what to do for the best. It feels really sad and unsettling. We’ve decided to apply for both British citizenship and EU passports but in the meantime, we’re going to give ourselves a break. I’m done with feeling so unsettled and uncertain.
So we’re all going to live in Spain for a couple of years. It will be very hard to leave our life here behind. But hopefully it’s only for a bit. It will be an adventure to try and find life elsewhere. London is still home to us, and we hope it will continue to be but for now we need this break.
It will be both a really good experience for the kids and also really hard. But it will hopefully also give them an insight into other people’s lives, and maybe make them realise how privileged they are.
I will come back when I know it’s all sorted. Makes me feel horrible for the young asylum seekers. I am dealing with the nice end of this system and it makes me cry and scream, they are experiencing the other end of it.”