In 1970s, whilst growing up as a child in Brighton, I knew little of politics or conflict in the outside world. It was not that I was sheltered or without a thirst for learning. By the age of nine I could identify most of the flags in the world and could probably tell you where countries were as well as their Capitals. I had an insatiable desire to understand what lay beyond the borders of my existence. There were good reasons for this, and my experience of refugees and immigrants in Brighton was most of them.
A very good friend of mine, in fact thinking about it, two friends of mine are from Ghana. This former British colony on the west coast of Africa has always been a subject of fascination to me long before I met these folk. The reason for this was a mischievous little boy I made friends with whilst I was at school in 1976.
Fidel was Ghanaian, possibly a refugee, and we quickly became friends. But this friendship wasn’t greeted well in every quarter. It was once suggested to me, as a child, that ‘If you see the white in a black man’s eye you should run’. This term was probably a hang over from the deeper colonial days. Sadly I grew up with a deep suspicion, inherited, and not born of experience. My view of racism is that it is inherited or formed from isolated and traumatic experience. I once challenged a South African friend to tell me why he had such a poor attitude towards black people- had he had a traumatic experience at someone’s hand ? “Yes”, he told me, “I was held up at gunpoint”. My view is that is better to engage than judge. We then had a long conversation and his thinking seem to be altered. We are all shaped by our experiences in some way, and it takes a long time to offload them. Coming back to Fidel, he wasn’t around for long I seem to remember, but it set me on such a journey for knowledge beyond my sphere that I often recount it to others.
A couple of years later, whilst in Junior School, I made a new friend, Carlos. He was born in Santiago and came to England when he was at a very young age. All I knew was that he was a refugee. Apart from that the details are sketchy, except that in later life, when remembering this time, I realised that the Pinochet regime was the most likely cause of us crossing paths. I know, like kids do, we went round each other’s houses for tea. I met his parents and would have asked them all about the country of Chile. It was learning, it was food for my inquisitive nature. Around the same time my Mum, a childminder by occupation, looked after a little baby called Manaz, the daughter of a Sudanese exile. And as I grow older so the stories keep coming- but it hasn’t made me a lifelong campaigner for the rights of refugees, despite being well versed in the work of the Refugee Council, and it hasn’t made me donate lots of money to organisations that support them. But it has changed my worldview.
When I first saw the image of the Syrian child laying lifeless on a Turkish beach this week I was genuinely shocked. But frustration would probably be a better word. There are many images coming out of Syria and other places that show the corpses of children. And they have been doing so for many years. But our news is our world. We rarely see them, unless we take an interest in international affairs. Even if we do, the feeling of helplessness that ensues, and complexities of the environment that those people inhabit, causes our minds to turn away to something far easier to digest. I completely understand this pattern of behaviour, If I didn’t I would be a hypocrite.
Despite having been a keen subscriber to the ideology that our village is our world, I often feel snug away from the upheavals and turmoil of existence in other places. Apart from a mild piece of outrage at an incident that might merit three minutes on the BBC news, or indeed a picture such as published this week, I don’t really think or react to them much. But I wish such injustice didn’t happen, naturally. I just find myself rapped up in dramas of my own- the changes to my local bus route for example, or the fact that I can’t afford a season ticket for the Albion this year. I doubt whether I am alone. Concern and sacrifice are rarely bedfellows.
My thoughts on the events of this week, the change in media rhetoric, the promise of action from our Government, are not as hopeful as those of others. This is because we live in a society that has a subtext of influence that comes from a micro group of its whole. Granted, I suspect this crisis will not disappear easily- certainly not for those who are being forced into action in its dealing. But the public view of these events afar will be influenced by the reporting of them- and I wonder how conciliatory those headlines will remain. Seeing some of the newspapers under right-wing ownership, and we know their views on migrants (I deliberately use that word, even though it is not the right term, as it is their word) this week has caused me confusion. This change in tone is too dramatic to be permanent, and my hope that this graphic and so heart rendering image would bring about a new view of our responsibilities to the outer world may seem to have been realised, yet my doubts remain.
As a child I was excited by flags and the names of countries. I even learnt the population figures. But for me countries were just defined by lines on a map, not a lot different to all the county borders that I learnt around that time. I thought that travelling from one place to another was as simple as boarding a plane, a boat, or catching a bus. In my mind Chile was no further than Chichester, Ghana no further than Glynde. It was just a place that practicalities suggested that I wouldn’t visit until I was older. To me there was no such thing as a foreigner; there were people from the other side of the wardrobe that I just hadn’t met yet. There was no division of opinion, everyone was the same, some were clearly more fortunate than others- I learnt that at a young age. Such a view was probably similar to that of the small boy that we saw this week- and feel we know so well.
A crisis such as this will always be dealt with through the suspicious eyes of tribal affiliation, however sad we are to see its outworking. I remember seeing a very articulate Nigerian girl being interviewed in Italy after having been safely brought in from a dangerous Mediterranean vessel. A British interviewer asked her where she wanted to go. The answer was the UK, for an education, a job, and a better life. Not an unreasonable ambition- not to me anyway. She was then asked what she thought of the hostility that some folk in Britain felt towards her dream. “I don’t understand (it)” she replied. Well that’s it really, because the seven year old me didn’t understand it either- and I don’t now. Neither did that little boy laying dead on that beach in Turkey.
It’s easy for us all to share his gruesome end with a click and a comment of sorrow and horror.
So what will be his legacy ?