Last month, I took my birthday off work because, well, who wants to work on their birthday if they don’t have to? I had booked in the kittens second round of vaccines for that morning and Luke said he wouldn’t be leaving work for it, so I would just take an Uber there and back with the kittens. This was the Tuesday after the deadly weekend in the US with the El Paso and Dayton shootings.
Sometimes I chat with Uber drivers, sometimes I just put my headphones in and catch up on the next podcast in my feed. On that particular day, I was very apologetic about having cats in the car (but he didn’t mind and I hope it goes without saying they were in their carrier) and I think I got all tangled up in the seat belt and my headphones. By the time we reached the end of our street, we were doing the usual British chit chat about the weather (it was pouring rain), but clearly neither of us were British. He asked me where I was from originally and whether or not I like it better here or in the US.
Then I asked him where he was from originally and he told me Turkey. He said that he’s Kurdish and he left Turkey 15 years ago because he didn’t feel that it was safe to be there anymore. He said, “What would you do if the government wouldn’t even let you name your child what you wanted?” I don’t know a lot about the Kurds, but I had heard mention of them in regards to Syria and told him so. He said that that area of the world is a very dangerous place for Kurds to be. He told me a bit more about his background and his choice to flee. He shared some of his feelings about the US and the UK in regards to how they’ve helped or haven’t helped his people.
It was a really powerful experience to have a conversation with someone who comes from such different circumstances, from such a different place in the world, and yet we both find ourselves living in Birmingham, England now.
The next day, I started thinking about the conversation and it dawned on me that I, too, am an immigrant. It’s truthfully something that I occasionally forget. It’s also probably something that people wouldn’t think about me walking down the street in Birmingham. I couldn’t help but contrast that to what some people might think about this Uber driver when they first see him, including my own prejudgement of where he might be from. I couldn’t help but contrast that to what some Brits and some Americans think about brown people they see in their day-to-day lives. I couldn’t help but contrast that to how people would see my British husband if we moved back to the States. I guess the main reason that I forget I’m an immigrant is that I have the privileged of identifying as an ex-patriot being from a wealthy and predominately white country.
I’m not at all equating my situation to anyone who has been forced to flee their home country to escape violence, oppression, or persecution. I chose to “move abroad” to the UK. Before Luke and I were even engaged, we had many conversations about where we would settle together. In fact, we get to “joke” about being each other’s back up plan for the Brexit vote and the 2016 election. I had the privilege of choice when the candidate I didn’t vote for was elected. I even get to use more positive sounding words and phrases when I talk about it, like “expat” and “move abroad”. Sure, it was scary to apply for my two visas, especially the first one, but at the end of the day, are they really going to turn down a middle-class white couple with no red flags with one person emigrating from the United States?
I met Luke on a mission trip to the UK. What if I had gone on a mission trip to another country my church partnered with—in the Middle East or Africa—and met a man there? What if he lived in one of the countries included on Trump’s travel ban?
The shooter in El Paso posted a manifesto to 8Chan before he opened fire in the Wal-Mart. There is no doubt that his motives were racist and xenophobic (and it’s worth noting that many of the rhetoric he used came from Trump’s own Twitter feed). He later stated plainly that he purposefully targeted Mexicans in the attack. Nobody has ever implied or explicitly stated that I “invaded” the UK. If Luke moved to Colorado to be with me, no one would ever say that he’s an “infestation” or that he’s just having babies with me to get his own US citizenship. That’s the privilege we have of being white and middle class and unfortunately that’s the battle that people migrating from Central and South America to the US or from the Middle East and Africa to the UK face every day. I mean, the reality is that ICE has already detained actual US citizens and not a single one of them was white. How can there even be a question that these attacks (verbally and physically) on immigrants aren’t based in racism? Trump himself said he’d rather get immigrants from Norway and Sweden, two of the whitest countries on the planet. And his policies are backing that up. Just last month, his administration announced that it would start considering education, household income, and health to determine whether or not to grant legal status to someone seeking a green card. That policy is absolutely intended to favour people like my husband, should he ever seek a green card, and his brother who currently lives in the US with a green card and discriminate against the people coming from countries other than Trump’s preferred Scandinavia. Later, the Trump Administration announced that babies born to US soldiers oversees will not automatically get citizenship. They will still be able to, but there will be more hoops to jump through. And throughout his entire administration, Trump has questioned birthright citizenship, which is a part of the US Constitution.
The day before that Uber ride, I was sitting at my desk in the afternoon when all of a sudden a conversation broke out in my office about how terrible Pakistani people are. The rhetoric they were using didn’t sound all that different from the rhetoric that’s being used to talk about Latinos in the US. It was obviously racist. I’m not going to repeat any of what was said here. It was awful. And I’m ashamed that I didn’t speak up. My blood was boiling. I felt paralysed at my laptop. I wanted to say something but I never found the courage to do so and I truly wish that I had. I’ve worked with this people for almost two years and unfortunately it’s not the first time there has been racist, xenophobic, sexist, or homophobic comments or conversations. And while I have been the subject of at least two outright sexist remarks, not a single one of them has ever said anything negative about the fact that I’ve emigrated to England. None of them say that I’m stealing their resources, that I’m not deserving of access to the NHS, that I took a hardworking Brit’s job, or stole a young eligible British bachelor so I could have anchor babies in another country. The fact of the matter is that it’s perfectly acceptable to them and many other people for me to be here and they don’t extend that same welcome to people who don’t look like them.
I don’t know if I want to continue to identify as an expat. But I also don’t know if it’s okay for me to outwardly identify as an immigrant. I’m torn between not wanting to equate myself with people who truly go through hell to give themselves and their families a new and better life, who leave no stone unturned to get there, who are the victims of racist and xenophobic attacks both in the US and the UK (and other countries) and wanting to draw attention to the fact that I, too, emigrated from another country and, guess what, that was perfectly okay with you. Does speaking up about my immigration status detract from the plight of people who feel they have no other choice or does it draw attention to the racial biases that white Americans and white Brits have towards the people who are coming into their countries? I honestly don’t know what the line is.
But I do know that I need to speak up next time a conversation like that breaks out around me, not because I’m an immigrant but because I’m a human. I do know that I need to spend more time listening to other people’s stories and finding more human connection, not because I’m an immigrant but because I’m human. And I do know that something needs to change in the countries these people are leaving and in the countries they’re fleeing to, because we’re all just human.