I had an airport nightmare again. In last night’s instalment, I was soaking up the comfort and camaraderie of spending an entire day with Tara, one of my very oldest, dearest friends in America. In my dream, Tara had already pranked me. She had asked me if I wanted to see her new puppy, and when I agreed eagerly, she took me to the puppy’s crate, where I saw an animal resembling a very large bunny with golden curly hair and long floppy ears.
“That’s not a puppy! That’s a rabbit!”
“It is a puppy! It’s a Goldendoodle, a cross between a Golden Retriever and a poodle!” Tara had protested, with mock indignation. We had locked eyes for a moment, then the bunny had hopped towards the water bottle hanging by the crate door. Tara had erupted in peals of laughter, I had shaken my head mournfully, and we had begun to chase each other through the house, because in my dream Tara and I were simultaneously eight and nearly fifty years old. After tiring ourselves out, we had spent the afternoon reading; we were vaguely considering satisfying our growing hunger pains with some dinner when the clock struck four.
“Oh no!” I shouted. “It’s four o’clock! I have to be in Boston to catch my flight home to London by six! I’m never going to make it!”
The bottom of my stomach fell to the floor and Tara’s house began to spin. Tara tried to help. “But is the actual flight at six, or is that just when you’re meant to check in? You might be able to make it to Boston in two hours.”
“The flight is at six! There’s no way I can get to the airport in time!”
In my nightmare, the airport in Boston— which should be Logan, but is not—appeared on the horizon like a sinister mirage, taunting me. “You can drive like a banshee,” the airport, in all its glimmering silver glory, seemed to say, “but you can’t get on that shiny plane at gate D17. You’re not going back to England, not today. You won’t see your husband, or your children, or your dog anytime soon.”
“No!” I screamed back at the airport as it hovered tantalisingly at the edge of the dreamscape. “No!”
At that point, as is customary when nightmares devolve into screams, I woke myself up. I was in my bed, in London, next to my husband, who was still asleep because it was Saturday; I could hear our son downstairs with our dog, and I knew I would find my daughter, tousled hair resting on the “Frozen” pillowcase her grandma had sewn her, fast asleep under her duvet. My body, still in fight or flight mode from the nightmare, relaxed, and I sunk into my own pillow. I was home.
Sometimes, in the airport nightmares, I do arrive at the actual airport, which is represented with a curious consistency, always resembling but never exactly replicating Logan, Boston’s actual international airport. There is a train in my airport complex that takes the passengers to the gates, and there are drop-off points for passengers arriving by car; at both of these dream locations I have, in previous episodes, realised with sickening desperation that I will not make my imaginary flight home to Europe.
I am, by birth, as American as apple pie, but I have spent the last thirteen of my forty-eight years in England. Before settling in England, my Swedish husband Markus and I see-sawed for years between the United States and Sweden. As the backdrop for our marriage, neither of our homelands quite worked, but England does, and we have no plans to leave.
I feel safe in England. Although the current government in the United Kingdom is doing its best to tear the welfare state to pieces and has already ripped huge holes in the national safety net, if you are going to fall into that net, it is still safer to fall here than in the United States. At least in England, at the moment, you can break your leg, suffer appendicitis, or even fight cancer without worrying that the cost of your treatment will leave you or your family broke. (While Obamacare has mitigated this possibility for many Americans, there are still millions for whom medical bills mean the difference between just scraping by and debt or even bankruptcy.) I may be burgled, raped, or knifed in London, but chances are I will not be shot; becoming a victim of burglary or rape would likely leave me with mild to severe trauma, but it would leave me alive, and although stabbing may kill me, it would not do so as certainly as a gunshot. The history of England comforts me; while the United States is the Wild West, exciting but dangerous, England is the Victorians, staid but reliable. I could do without England’s classism and sexism, but because I didn’t grow up in a particular English class, I stand mostly outside the class hierarchy, and because I spent my girlhood as the child of hippie sympathizers in the United States, the still male-dominant culture of England has only stoked rather than snuffed my feminism. So here I sit at my table in southwest London, a grateful immigrant, contentedly sipping my English Breakfast tea from a ceramic mug emblazoned with the Union Jack.
In the late 1980s I worked for awhile as a telex operator at a shoe import company on an industrial estate outside Sweden’s second-largest city, Göteborg. At that time in Sweden it was customary for a workplace to allow two ten- to fifteen-minute coffee breaks each day, at ten and two. At one such afternoon coffee break, twelve or thirteen of the shoe company’s employees had assembled in the designated break room, and the discussion had turned to the proposed building of a mosque in the city. Most of the employees were grumbling.
“I think the immigrants should adapt to life in Sweden,” the man from the mail room said.
“We see enough of the immigrants without having to see their mosques,” a female secretary agreed.
“They’re everywhere,” the mail room man continued, sucking air through his teeth in the traditional Swedish sigh.
“I’m an immigrant,” I piped up.
The secretary, the mail room man, and everyone else in the break room turned and looked at me in surprise.
“I am an immigrant just as much as the people who want the mosque,” I went on, feeling the blood rising to my cheeks.
“You’re not an immigrant,” the secretary said, hoping to silence me. What she meant, I knew, was that because I was white, American, and not Muslim, I didn’t qualify.
But by then I was committed to making my point. “Yes, I am,” I said vehemently. “And doesn’t Sweden have freedom of religion? Shouldn’t Muslims be able to go to a mosque, just like I can go to the Anglican church in town?”
The others stopped sipping their coffee and stared at me. There was an awkward silence.
“Yes,” my best friend at the company, who later travelled all the way to America to attend my wedding, said finally. “Yes, there is freedom of religion in Sweden, and I have no issue with the mosque. And yes, you’re an immigrant, but you’re not the sort of person people talk about when they talk about immigrants.”
I settled back into the sofa, justified. “Thanks, Ebba,” I said, and the red began to fade from my face.
Ebba grinned at me, and we sat and savoured the last of our coffee while the others shuffled past us, eyes hooded, on their way back to work.
I am still an immigrant now just as certainly as I was then. What I am not, however, is a refugee. I didn’t leave America to escape war, persecution, or natural disaster. Were it to become necessary for me to resettle in America, I would fear neither probable death by military violence (only unlikely death by a deranged civilian gunman), nor grave hostility based on my race or beliefs (only microaggressions sparked by my femininity), nor loss of home or livelihood through force majeure (unless I were to choose a part of the country prone to natural disasters). I am confident that, if made to return, I could re-establish a not-uncomfortable American life similar to my cosy English life, and if I were to stumble, I would even have family to— if not catch me— at least cushion my fall.
This is not the case for refugees. We have all, by now, seen before-and-after pictures of Syria— the tree-lined avenue with parked cars and well-kept blocks of flats in the first picture, the deserted, dusty street lined with the rubble of bombed buildings in the second. The Syrians of 2016 are not like the me of 1985, the year I first left America: they don’t just have a vague feeling that they would be better suited to life abroad— they know, in their very bones, that only by leaving their homeland can they entertain the hope of a peaceful life. It should go without saying that both the United States and the United Kingdom, as well-to-do nations who have not been subject to war on their own shores since WWII (both countries have suffered acts of terrorism, but terrorism does not meet the definition of war), would accept refugees with open arms, but this has not been the case. Unable to escape legally, many refugees have turned to perilous illegal methods, resulting, often, in death in appalling circumstances. Mass drownings of passengers on people smugglers’ boats have received the most media attention and taken the greatest toll; the data team at The Economist reported on September 3 last year that by that date, 2,600 people had lost their lives in 2015 attempting to cross the Mediterranean.
Whatever individual resistance to assisting refugees remained among my compatriots was washed away when the picture of Alan Kurdi lying face-down on a beach spread across the globe; the three-year old drowned on September 2nd, 2015, in an attempt to reach Greece. The image of the tiny lifeless boy galvanized my community; several good friends at my daughter’s primary school spent whole days collecting, sorting, and packing winter clothes, blankets, towels, even crutches and baby baskets, for distribution at a refugee camp. Louise’s school was not alone; nine schools and four churches took part in our borough alone. When I caught sight of volunteers carefully folding donated children’s clothes in the church hall my daughter and I routinely pass on our walk to her school, a hall normally buzzing with preschool children, I asked Louise, “Remember how we carried a bag of clothes up to school yesterday?”
“Look in the church— they’re sorting through clothes donations. I think when it comes to refugees, people truly want to help, but they just don’t know what to do. This effort has rather restored my faith in humanity.”
“OK,” Louise, who is used to my random pronouncements, said. My daughter moved on to matters more pressing. ”Did I tell you that I’m paired with Sarah for literacy and we did drama about the Blitz yesterday?”
While my friends— and many others— are eager to aid refugees both by sending boxes and, more importantly, by offering asylum, large swathes of Britons, including the far-right political parties and their members, are opposed to any and all immigration. Only after the publication of the “boy on the beach” photograph did the British government cede to domestic and international pressure and agree to increase the quota of refugees to 20,000 over the next five years. Compare that number to the 1.9 million Syrians Turkey has taken in since 2012, the 1.1 million Syrians Lebanon has accepted, or, to use an example similar to, but smaller than, the United Kingdom, the 64,985 Syrians granted asylum by Sweden; the United Kingdom’s projected 20,000 over five years would be farcical, if it weren’t tragically xenophobic.
How can those opposed to welcoming refugees justify their stance?
Fear, for one. Patrick O’Flynn, who at the time was a member of the European parliament representing UKIP, the far-right party that gained several seats in the last general election, claimed last spring that after increased vehicular traffic, “uncontrolled” immigration is next most responsible for the decline of street football games amongst children (Matt Dathan, The Independent, April 1, 2015). Mr O’Flynn must be hanging with children wildly different from mine, because during my now more than thirteen years of study, I have yet to observe my children letting lack of a common language or variations in skin tone rule out other children as suitable playmates.
While Mr O’Flynn is an extreme example, scores of more moderate Britons also succumb to fear when formulating their opinions about immigration: the migrants and refugees will take our jobs, they will suck money from the economy through benefits, they will destroy neighbourhoods, or perhaps most damning, they have no valid reason to leave their own country and are only coming to ours because they wish to engage in acts of terrorism.
Some of these worries are not completely unfounded, but most crumble when scrutinized. In an article for The New York Times, for example, Adam Davidson writes, “Nearly all economists, of all political persuasions, agree that immigrants— those here legally or not— benefit the overall economy.” (February 12, 2013) And when it comes to terrorism, Anne Speckhard, again for the New York Times, writes that the data clearly indicates that active terrorists in the United States are overwhelmingly American-born radicalized citizens. Ms Speckhard maintains that, contrary to popular belief, it is actually more dangerous to not accept refugees, because “experience from many conflict zones teaches us that the longer these refugees are left to languish in despair in camps the more prone they become to radicalization.” (September 29, 2015) The problem is, most people will not make the effort to research the accuracy of their fears, and many may not even be able to vocalize their own position, instead blindly parroting more eloquent leaders.
Depersonalisation accounts for another chunk of anti-immigration sentiment— when refugees cease to be seen as individual people but are reduced to numbers, or “swarms,” as Prime Minister David Cameron disturbingly called those attempting to enter Britain via Calais (BBC News, 30 July 2015, http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-politics-33716501). In contrast to Mr Cameron, Angela Merkel, the Chancellor of Germany, reluctantly demonstrated an appreciation of the plight of an individual refugee when she attended a meeting titled “Good Life In Germany” at a school in the German city of Rostock in July 2015 (Kate Connolly, The Guardian, 16 July 2015). During the assembly, a 14-year old Palestinian refugee, Reem Sahwil, spoke of her fears that her family may be deported. When Ms Merkel’s response fanned rather than doused Reem’s anxiety, the girl broke down in tears. Upon noticing Reem’s distress, the Chancellor awkwardly attempted to comfort the crying girl by stroking her arm; a clip of the incident went viral on social media with the hashtag #merkelstreichelt (Merkelstrokes).
Although it was cringeworthy, the exchange between Angela Merkel and Reem Sahwil in July may have been a pivotal moment for the Chancellor, as it thrust her into a position wherein Ms Merkel could not escape briefly stepping into the shoes of a well-spoken, terrified refugee. Certainly by the time of Alan Kurdi’s death, three months later, Germany had cemented a strong welcoming stance towards refugees.
This ability to truly empathise is where David Cameron and many of the politicians who oppose immigration in general— and the entrance of refugees to the United Kingdom in particular— fail most noticeably. David Cameron is not afraid of refugees or immigrants, like some Britons, but his own life experience has been so privileged that the idea of feeling desperation to leave one’s own country, even at great risk, must be utterly foreign to him. Mr Cameron is a member of the privileged class: he attended Eton College, the illustrious boys’ boarding school; his wife, Samantha, is from an aristocratic family, and the Camerons’ net worth is estimated at £3 million, although this does not take into account the millions that the family is likely to inherit. Only extreme danger or political enmity could prevent Mr Cameron from going where he wants to go.
I appreciate that privilege does not preclude empathy; as George Monbiot puts it in an article for The Guardian, “The left would be a bleaker place without thinkers from privileged backgrounds.” (6 January 2016) But wealth does add to the distance between the “haves” and the “have-nots”, a distance that the “have-nots” can not cross regardless of how much they would like to, and a distance that the “haves” must actively try to retrace if they wish to truly grasp the challenges facing the “have-nots.” Britt Peterson described the effects of money thus in an article for The Boston Globe in 2012:
“As a mounting body of research is showing, wealth can actually change how we think and behave—and not for the better. Rich people have a harder time connecting with others, showing less empathy to the extent of dehumanizing those who are different from them. They are less charitable and generous. They are less likely to help someone in trouble. And they are more likely to defend an unfair status quo. If you think you’d behave differently in their place, meanwhile, you’re probably wrong: These aren’t just inherited traits, but developed ones. Money, in other words, changes who you are.” (February 19)
Mr Cameron’s political positions on refugees and migrants indicate that the gulf between his own life experience, particularly now as the Prime Minister, and that of a typical refugee or migrant may be so vast as to be insuperable. Cameron, and many others who oppose accepting immigrants, may be unable to mentally put himself in the shoes of, say, Saeed Othman Mohammed, an Iraqi Kurd who lost his life through suffocation in the back of a lorry found in Austria in August, 2015. Saeed had left Sulaimaniya, in Iraq, with the goal of reaching Germany, where he hoped to receive treatment for his remaining kidney and earn a living as the owner of a car wash (Fazel Hawramy, The Guardian, 7 October 2015). Saeed Othman Mohammed was determined enough to be somewhere else that he was willing to play a game with very bad odds, entrusting his voyage to people smugglers. Saeed would have understood my airport dream completely, but unlike me, Saeed was never given the chance to wake from his dreams in the country he had chosen, in the safety of his— however humble— own home, amidst those he loved. Instead, Saeed died a death worse than any nightmare, suffocating amidst a crowd of strangers in the back of a refrigerated lorry with an advert for “Honest Chicken” emblazoned on its side. Fifty-nine men, eight women, three boys, and one baby girl lost their lives in that truck; at first, authorities in Austria were unable to positively identify any of the victims because of the advanced decomposition of the bodies.
Markus and I have been fortunate. Our marriage has flung open geographical doors that would have been otherwise sticky or closed to us, first allowing Markus to join me in the United States, then permitting me to live with Markus in Europe— first in Sweden, then, since 2003, in England, where we have settled. But despite my long residence here, I have not yet managed to jump through the hoops required to attain citizenship, and there are a few catastrophic conditions that could realistically result in my deportation. These scenarios are unlikely, but they are not unthinkable, and they niggle like an injury that refuses to completely heal. I am still an immigrant, and my status as a second-class citizen is evident to me every time first-class citizens of England go to the polls, but I am thankful every day that I am one of the favoured ones: I woke from my dream to find that I had made it to the airport, and the plane had taken me home.
We should all be so lucky.