For most people, the place where they grew up is an integral part of their identity. But what happens to those who left their home country to seek a different life? Do they still feel tied to their birthplace or does their for most people, the place where they grew up is an integral part of their identity. But what happens to those who left their home country to seek a different life? Do they still feel tied to their birthplace or does their identity adapt to their new environment? Katy Guest finds out.
DUBLIN → LONDON
JL: When I arrived here in 2001, I’d never been to Britain before. I’d lived in Germany and the Netherlands and spent some time in Australia, but not here. I had this idea in my head that people hated the Irish because of the IRA campaign, and I remember saying to my brother-in-law, who’d been here for a few years: “Well I’d better keep my accent to myself.” And he said: “Sure you should - if you don't want to score!” London was a real wake-up call. There were so many accents: on the train, in the workplace… It was a true melting pot, and I loved it.
I’m still very aware of my nationality, and that I'm in a different country, albeit one that’s very close, culturally speaking, to where I’m from. I'm also aware that I'm middle-class, white, educated and well-travelled, and that a lot of people aren't as lucky as me.
As a journalist, I'm lucky to work and live in a fully advanced democracy where the rule of law prevails. I'm very proud of our profession. Working for the BBC has been my identity for 17 years, and wherever you go in the world those three initials mean something. If I ceased to work here, I would always say, “I used to work for the BBC” – otherwise it would be like pretending you weren't married for 17 years after getting a divorce. I always wanted to do broadcasting, and the reason I moved from Ireland to Britain was because the job that I had dreamt of was here.
My wife is Estonian, and my boys consider themselves to be half Irish and half Estonian. They both have West London accents, but they know where they’re from, and what colour Ireland plays in. Most Saturday mornings they go to Estonian school, and learn Estonian songs and language and culture, and I have pushed for that because I want them to be completely bilingual and aware of their own identity.
My wife and I are Theresa May’s typical citizens of nowhere. Between us we speak ten languages. But, at the moment, I would define myself as an Irishman proudly working in the United Kingdom.
DUBLIN → LONDON
KUWAIT → LONDON
KENYA → LONDON
KUWAIT → LONDON
FA: When I was trying to reach the UK, I realised that animals have more rights than my people. Pets are allowed to travel, with their own passports. And we didn’t even have that. To be honest, I miss everything in my country. Even though my life was not normal, there was some magic in my childhood. But I can’t be proud to be a Bedouin person because it is similar to being a refugee or a migrant. Bedouin is a name for stateless people who do not have an identity. In Kuwait, where I grew up, being a Bedouin means that you can’t prove anything about your life, or that you have rights. In 2000, my father went to protest for us. He was taken to jail for two weeks; they said he was “anti-government”. They used hot water on his hands, and he still has the scars today. That’s when he decided to go to the UK, which was sympathetic to the situation of the Bedouins. Eventually he was granted access to the UK as a political asylum seeker, and he heard from a solicitor that he had a right to bring his family with him. First we went to Syria, where we were stuck, until the war came. My neighbours were shot trying to leave during the night and we were separated from my brother during a terrorist attack. At every border, we were stopped because we had no papers. From Lebanon, where thousands of my people are living, stateless, we bought papers to get us into Turkey, then found smugglers to take us by sea to Greece. Several times I thought I was going to die. We travelled all the way through Europe to a camp in Dunkirk, and from there a smuggler brought me to the UK, where I claimed asylum.
The government here has given us a flat, and some benefits. They give me more rights and respect than my own country. I am now a student in Birmingham, doing English and maths and hoping to go to university. In July, I was given the first ‘passport’ of my life – it’s called a Travel Document. I am still stateless, but one day I hope I can apply for British citizenship. This country has given me the right to live again, and I hope I will end my life here. Identity can be compared to life. And this small ID card gives me the right to that.
KENYA → LONDON
The question of my identity is quite a tough one to answer. My parents were born in Africa, I’m from an Indian ethnic background, and I live here now. So, where do I belong? When asked, I just tend to explain the whole story. My grandad moved from India to Nairobi when he was 15; my mum’s family moved to Tanzania during the same migration, and my siblings and I were all born in Nairobi and moved to the UK when we were in our teens. But in terms of identity I think I would say I’m Indian, based on how my parents brought me up. Even now, if I meet an auntie or an elderly person, the first thing they will say is: “Where is your village?” and I’ll tell them the village where my grandad’s from. We all do that. And you don’t want to lose that, because it is part of you; there have just been a lot of other additions along the way.
Nairobi was all I knew as a child. We lived amongst a lot of other Indian communities but we always knew it wasn’t home. When we moved here, the obvious difference was the lack of space. Everything looked so similar in the UK - all the terraced houses. But the other difference was the independence – being able to just jump on the Tube to go to work or school, whereas back home it wasn’t always safe to go out on the street. We all got jobs as teenagers, and I think that made us who we are. My husband’s family came from Nairobi too, and went through the same migratory journey. At home we speak English but I speak Gujarati to my mum, when it comes out naturally, and to elderly relatives, out of respect. My nephew is six, and when we want to say something and we don't want him to listen we converse in Swahili, and it’s nice, it takes me back.
My identity is partly to do with the way other people look at me. Because of my skin colour, I think it's always going to be more Indian than African. If someone said to me today: “Shall we move to Australia or whatever?” I might consider it. But I wouldn’t leave my family. Home is here because my family is here.
Portraits: Kate Peters