Here are sixteen different tales from people who have been forced through no fault of their own to escape from their previous homes to the safety of Britain. Menaka takes time to adapt to our climate and fashions. Vesna was just 16 when she escaped from Bosnia to a new home in Penrith. Nimer still fears that he is being followed although he is safe in England. Xenia's parents are stateless. Nina lived in cold, leaky, sub-standard rooms when first reaching London. Toni endured two weeks in a dark insanitary ship from Lithuania. Ali tells of his terror that the customs man would not allow him in. Jade tells of her husband being shot, her children abducted and of her own rapes. She is still having nightmares about her life in Uganda. All these immigrants have struggled to make a go of life in a strange country they would have preferred not to go to. They endured racism and struggled to learn English but they all did enough to produce eye-opening and heartwarming stories.
I found this book - the stories of 16 different immigrants to the UK - rather variable. At the end of the book was a potted life story of each of the sixteen contributors to the book, and I very much wish that these histories had been split up, and put at the beginning of each piece of writing. It would have given a nice background to each story. The stories were often descriptions of quite short spaces of time - and it was very good to get a fuller picture of each writer - as given at the end of the book. The stories were about immigrants, mostly about their fresh arrival to the UK, but the descriptions at the end were about British citizens - people who had often lived here for many years, and were now part of the living tapestry of Britain.
As it was, some of the writing felt a bit disjointed.
There were however a few of the stories that I really learned a lot from, found deeply moving, and I am very glad that I read them. All of these deserved four or five stars.
*Culture Shock by Kirti Joshi
*A Leaky Roof in London by Nina Joshi
*We are in Heaven by Toni Jackson
*My Painful Journey by Jade Amoli-Jackson
Elements of the book that I will take away with me:
Racism. I was young when a lot of these writers were coming to the UK, and didn't notice the popularity of the National Front, the placards at airports telling immigrants to go home, the people who were beaten up, and the innumerable lodgings that advertised "No blacks, No Irish, No dogs". This was in spite of the fact that at the end of the 1940s the UK had actively been recruiting in places like the West Indies for workers. By the 50s and 60s there were many in Britain hostile to immigrants. Fortunately, as time went on, this greatly lessened.
Weather. Darned weather! The cold was often a bad shock to people coming from hot climates. I personally enjoy our cold, overcast and wet climate - but time and time again immigrants write about how incredibly shocking and uncomfortable they found it.
Love of one's country of birth. In spite of many of the immigrants in this book being refugees, and having to leave their country's of birth in difficult circumstances, the love for the country and culture where one is born seems incredibly strong. More than anyone else, perhaps nostalgia belongs most of all to the immigrant.
The work of The Medical Foundation and Refugee Council. The first is a British charity that helps victims of torture. One writer had the most horrendous and tragic experiences before leaving Uganda, and she writes inspiringly of the help she received from both these organisations. It was good to read something positive about help that is being given to people who arrive here with nothing, and that there are people prepared to offer the hand of friendship.
I would like to end by saying that for anyone interested in immigration issues, I would recommend the book Arrival City: The Final Migration and Our Next World. This book was more a set of disparate cameos of different people's experiences, but with The Final Migration I felt I got access to a really strong investigation and overview into the current situation of immigration in the world (although it was written before the current situation in Europe came into such focus, so that is not covered.) Or lets put it this way - I'm glad I read both books, but I would definitely read Arrival City first.
Anthologies are often hard to read, jolting from one writer to another, but that's the beauty of this book - it's a collection of migrant tales and together they form a fascinating community of different voices. The change of tone and language is part of the pleasure. From Menaka Raman's wry tale of hand-me-down cardigans to Xenia Crockett's earnest celebration of freedom, this is a heartening book full of insight into what makes us belong - or not.