In 1946 a young, half Serbian, quarter Spanish girl arrived in the UK on a Cessna plane from Belgrade. She spoke only Serbo-Croat. She had seen her Jewish friends carted off to the concentration camps and her mother’s hair had turned white with the effort of keeping her alive during the wartime years in Yugoslavia. Her mother had left her husband behind in Yugoslavia and flown, pregnant, to the UK. Mara Bozic, as she was called then, and her mother Isabel, had but a tenuous claim on British citizenship, according to the Home Office. Isabel’s mother was English by birth, but her father had been a Spanish artist (and his father before him a well-known Spanish Republic MP). The Home Office was not convinced of their claim to reside in the UK. The resident English family offered to pay a bond, and thus Mara Bozic, age 10, became a British citizen, lost a father and her first language, gained a newborn sister and became Mary Bozic. She grew up in Cambridge. Her mother, now a lone parent with a tiny baby, somehow managed to support both her girls by teaching at the Convent School and other jobs, such as, rather improbably, typing up one of Wittgenstein’s manuscripts. Later, that older daughter attended teacher-training college and, one summer, worked at Chivers jam factory in Cambridge as an 18 year old to earn much needed money. She met a young Yorkshire man, a Cambridge student also in need of money. They fell in love over an assembly line of Christmas pudding trays. Later they got married.
They had three sons, and that young Yorkshire history graduate, the first in his family to attend university, became a promising teacher. Later, the young woman became a talented teacher too. They wanted to put something back into society, and they wanted a girl, so they decided to adopt a daughter. They didn’t care what colour the baby was, they told the adoption society, so they were offered a three-month-old ‘coloured’ child, a half Persian girl who was, at that time, ‘hard to place’. (Most adoptive parents then didn’t want a child of uncertain racial heritage. Most ended up in children’s’ homes.) The birth father, an Iranian sailor who desperately wanted to keep the child and take her back to Iran, was not allowed to do so. He was forced to relinquish her and later he experienced imprisonment and torture during the Iranian Revolution. Luckily for me – that baby – those two young idealists became my parents, and those boys, my brothers – although I count myself very lucky to have met my birth family too.
So there are two generations with somewhat tenuous claims to citizenship, in our family, although it must seem very British to the casual observer. My parents are pillars of the local community – retired teachers now, who still volunteer at local schools and who have given selflessly of their time throughout their entire lives, to public service. My parents are churchgoers and bell-ringers – the very bedrock of rural society. My mum has even served on the planning committee of the parish council, striking fear into the heart of many a local builder with her forensic attention to their plans. Britain – by way of Belgrade and Barcelona.
And yet – in many ways my grandmother brought my mother here because she was, in the words of our tabloids, an ‘economic migrant’. My grandmother was desperate. She was pregnant. She had nowhere else to go. I, too, was a ‘half-caste’ child with just half a hand on British citizenship when I was born. Our right to be here was perhaps a little questionable – and yet I think we have served our country pretty well – as many who pitch up here do. And while our stories might seem a little strange, the story of why each family or individual ends up on these shores is probably equally extraordinary or even more so. To give but one more example, there’s my dear Ethiopian friend, a singer, who fled the civil war as a child of 14, when her parents were killed, and was brought here by another family – and then abandoned on a tube. On a tube. At fourteen. At night. When my fourteen-year-old daughter slopes off to bed, in a comfortable house, surrounded by those who love her, I remember that. My friend has done so much for other people since she arrived here, yet some people would – and do – write her off as a scrounger who has no right to be here. I disagree. I think all of us have served the community in which we live well. Many migrants and refugees do so – and will continue to do so, given half a chance.
Behind every phrase that belittles every migrant and every refugee is a family and a history that seeks to be told. Often, as in my case, there are links with the UK. Sometimes there are not, but there is often a wish to forge links, or to work hard to make them. When my Spanish great-grandfather first came to the UK as an artist, he painted with the Staines group of artists. We still have the letters of condolence to his wife, when he died of TB in Switzerland, from British artists who had met him here and recognized his talent. There is nothing wrong with having a generous and international view of the world, of travelling beyond the shores where one is born. Is there? I sometimes think that this insularity that is gaining ground here is a hangover from the war, and that we have never recovered from winning that conflict. One of the prizes of victory has been a most unfortunate one – a rupture with continental European culture that has been profound and that has left us unable to understand and appreciate what we gain from mixing with other cultures, and that we have become increasingly xenophobic as a result. This is not why we went to war – to fear and dislike other cultures. This is not why my mother lost her Yugoslavian uncle, the Jewish friends she used to dance ballet with, or indeed the family lands in what was Yugoslavia. This is not why millions of people were murdered or gave their lives fighting for freedom and human rights for all – to safeguard the rights of disabled people, the Roma, Jewish people and gay people to live alongside other citizens as equals in a new Europe. But it seems to be an unintended and negative consequence of that victory.
We seem to have forgotten, in our latest moral panic, that we are one of the richest nations in the world, and that the migrants who do arrive on our shores are far more likely to want to work hard for their living than draw benefits – far more, in fact, than many British citizens. Many employers bear witness to this. There is nothing wrong with wiping bottoms, laying out the dead, cleaning toilets, collecting scrap and working in the fields. But if some British workers don’t want to do it, you cannot blame British employers for looking elsewhere for an eager workforce (although you can blame them if they then exploit that workforce).
In January visa restrictions will be lifted for Bulgarian and Romanian citizens to come here. Cue the rising moral panic about chaos in our schools, rocketing crime, baby-stealing and general anti-Roma rhetoric – both by journalists and politicians. The Roma and the way that they are talked about is the litmus paper for how all immigration is talked about (although it’s worth noting, by the by, that C4’s Homeland, now openly stirs up dislike of Iranians). I will be watching how politicians and the media report on the Roma very carefully over the next few months and will be doing what I can to redress the balance, as will the Romani journalists I’ve worked with over the last seven years, as I researched my latest book, No Place to Call Home. Suffice it to say that a nation of several million people can’t be lazily stereotyped, as it has been so far, here in the UK, without distorting reality. The truth about the Roma people is far more interesting, more layered – and full of rich, individual stories – than we’ve heard so far. We would do well, for a start, to remember the Roma history – which includes slavery in Eastern Europe, the gas ovens during the Holocaust, hangings, floggings and deportations here in the UK, enforced adoption here and in Scotland and enforced sterilization in Eastern Europe.
My suggestion, therefore, in the coming months, for politicians and journalists would be two-fold: use statistics wisely and not mendaciously. Thus far many statistics about immigration are hotly argued. Surely it’s possible to agree on numbers, prevalence, data, and move on from there. And, secondly, if you are going to make generalisations about people, please go and talk to them. It is the height of incivility to stereotype a whole nation, as both journalists and politicians have done about the Roma people, for instance, without actually meeting them and spending time with them. In conclusion, therefore, get both your stories and your statistics straight. Then we can have the debate we should have about immigration. At the moment we’re not having a debate; too many in this arena are indulging in dirty propaganda wars. That’s not the same thing at all. And it belittles our reputation for honesty, integrity and generosity as a nation – and our place in Europe – if we don’t mend our ways.