From Divided Kingdom: How Brexit made me an immigrant
I’m not political. I know enough to know I know too little. And besides, politics is often about winning arguments and proving your point, and I have neither skill nor interest in those two things. But there is something stirring inside me, a voice low but firm. It is unsettled and it’s unsettling. It wants to be heard. It is the voice of the EU exile, the resident-turned-immigrant overnight. It is the voice of those who found out yesterday how quickly a right can be overturned; that a right can be taken for granted but it can equally be taken away. It is the voice of all of us who learned yesterday what politics actually means. And it is turning us political.
We are privileged, and we cannot conceive of a world where our right to live the lives we’ve built, where we’ve built them, could be challenged or taken away. But that is the world we live in, and it happens every day. Those refugees washing up on our borders and terrifying us: what do we think happened to them? They had lives, too, that they took for granted, in places they called home. They had rights that were snatched away. And here they are now, at our borders: unwanted, and wanting nothing but to be where they feel that they belong. These things happen, all over this world we live in, but not here. Not to us.
I don’t want this happening to me, either, and I’m not advocating for cynicism or what goes around comes around, though it does. I’m not saying that it serves us right or that we deserved it, this blow to our naïve arrogance, or that it’s a lesson we needed to learn, though perhaps it is. I don’t believe in carrying the weight of the world on our shoulders just so we know how heavy it is. I don’t believe in cross-generational karma or history dictating the present, or inheriting the sins of the past. I’ve done nothing wrong and whatever’s coming around I did not bring onto myself. I am only guilty of taking for granted a right that was granted to me, at one time. I don’t want this happening to me, or you, or anyone, here or in any place. But times change and rights are revoked, and it’s happening: here, now, to us. We are exiled in the land of limbo, with the lives we’ve built in bundles on our backs, travelling in a direction entirely uncharted and we don’t know, when we reach the borders, what we will find.
It doesn’t serve us right and it isn’t fair and we don’t deserve it, but it’s humbling and, perhaps, a little humility is something we need. Along with the shock and the hurt and the indignation that we’re feeling, justifiably, and the strength we’ll need to muster to see us through. Along with the hope that we’ll need to summon if we don’t want to remain voiceless, because it’s only hopeful voices, now, that have a chance of breaking through boundaries, of crossing the borders and being heard. That is our task, now; that is our responsibility: to find that hopeful voice, and let it be heard. Dignified but humble; understanding, at last, that we are not immune. That we are not too privileged to find ourselves outside; to be turned from us to them.
It isn’t fair, because we have been voiceless. Because the citizens of the UK were granted a voice but we were not. Those of us who’ve built our lives upon a right granted in this country, but when that right was challenged, we had no voice. All those who spent the day in a daze yesterday, with heads lowered and heavy hearts. Silent, or only muttering the same stock phrases; who, in many cases, could manage nothing more eloquent than what the fuck.
It’s isn’t fair, because our British counterparts, the citizens of the UK who’ve built their lives in our countries, were given a voice. They had the chance to protect those lives. They had the right, but we did not. It isn’t fair but it is politics, and that it just the way it works. And this is not against those who rightfully voted, our British counterparts and the citizens of the UK. I want to thank you, the 48% who voted for unity, for yourselves and for all of us, and even those who, infuriatingly, voted to Leave and then changed your minds. I want to thank you for lending us your voice when we were voiceless, and for speaking up for us when we were rendered mute with shock. You have done more for breaking the boundaries between us and them than you imagine, and you must not be ashamed for the choices of the other 52%. Don’t carry that weight on your shoulders; it’s too heavy, and it isn’t yours to bear.
There is something stirring, a voice that had been muted, and it is turning us political. But this is bigger than politics and numbers and the laws that grant and revoke our rights. This is about people, and the voices we use to talk to each other, so that we can be understood. Anger, hurt, indignation are all justified, but we’ve heard those voices before and they never take us very far. This is history in the making; this is when we choose what we bring on to ourselves. If those tightening borders can serve to bring us closer rather than driving us apart, together, we have a voice. Bigger than any number a referendum can throw up. The voice of people, regardless of where they were born or what rights they were granted by the paperwork they carry. Low but firm, dignified but humble, and hopeful: that is the voice that needs to be heard. Positive. Not political, but human. This is what needs to be understood: we don’t want to prove a point or win an argument. We just want to live our lives in the place where we built them, and not carry them in bundles on our backs, camping out at the borders, unwanted, and wanting nothing but to be in the place that we call home.
This is the third of five essays written in the immediate aftermath of the EU referendum in June 2016. The first four were published as Divided Kingdom: How Brexit made me an immigrant. Click here to download the Kindle version of the book for free on Amazon – or read part one, part two, part four, and part five here.
And before anyone else rushes to point this out: no, I no longer live in the UK. And yes, in a way, Brexit won. It drove me out. I left London, the place that I’d called home for 20 years, and moved to an island in Greece. But not without sadness, not without regret, not without looking back. I look back all the time because, no, I still haven’t given up on the United Kingdom that I love. And yes, in a way, I still identify as a Londoner. And I’m lucky in that I had other options, but I’d still like the option to come back.
Photo credit: Refugees walk to cross the border into Croatia, October 2015 © Antonio Bronic / Reuters