“May your choices reflect your hopes, not your fears” – Nelson Mandela
A week has gone by since the referendum that shook the United Kingdom. I’ve got to say, I’m still reeling.
The initial shock has given way to pure disbelief and countless questions.
Yet I have been told not to “panic”. I have been told “we were fine before we joined the EU”. I have been told not to “overreact”. And I have been ridiculed for questioning the validity of the process and its outcome (“you wouldn’t be questioning it if the vote had been 52% remain and 48% leave”).
Let me get this straight: I am not panicking, nor do I need patronising, empty reassurance.
I am shocked. And I think I’m within my rights to feel that way and to express it. Even if it makes people uncomfortable. Because in Britain we’re well known for our capacity to brush the difficult stuff under the carpet, not say anything upsetting and not rock the boat. As we know, the truth is not always pretty.
But since our boat has now been well and truly rocked, here is my unpretty truth:
I am stunned. I am struggling to accept the harsh realisation that there are swathes of the population (including people I know and love) who feel it is preferable for our country to cut ties with our neighbours and undo 40 years of cooperation and compromise in favour of going it alone. Swathes of the population who – whether they feel strongly about it or not – have validated the opinion that our migrant population does not deserve to stay, that our borders should be closed and that the way to develop our public services and build our community is to isolate our people and our economy.
I am especially saddened by the increasing reports of racially motivated attacks against migrants, ranging from name-calling to physical abuse, letters through people’s front doors and defacing public property. I am saddened by attacks against people based on how they cast their vote. I am saddened by the abject lack of compassion and understanding.
How did this happen? It makes me feel sick.
If even just one person endures physical or psychological harm as a result of the monster unleashed by this vote, then things are definitely not “going to be fine”. I fail to understand – whether we’re for or against the EU and whether we’re from the UK, Poland, China, Micronesia, Outer Mongolia, or anywhere else for that matter – how we can inflict so much pain on each other. Call me naive, but haven’t we been working since the end of World War 2 to ensure that racial and religious hatred are no longer tolerated in Europe? Haven’t we striven for 40 years to build our society together, on the premise that we are stronger united, and that we can protect each other and support each other?
So why now, at a time of increasing global volatility and insecurity, have we actively chosen (wittingly or unwittingly) to unravel our society and add to the already overwhelming levels of instability, vulnerability, violence and hatred? This is surely not what will make Britain “Great” again.
And how to reconcile being tarred with the “leavers” brush, out in the big wide world? Aside from the concern that my life, career and home in Europe might not be open to me for much longer, I’m dealing with a very mixed reaction: a great deal of surprise and sympathy from some, and antagonism from others. Despite the fact that I clearly didn’t vote for this, I am now subsumed into the “majority” that made the decision. So I have to smile and laugh politely at the sarcastic comments when I in fact want to scream “I VOTED REMAIN!”. And this is just the beginning.
All that, not to mention the practicalities or the economic and legal implications, not only for us but also for the rest of Europe, of extricating ourselves from this large and somewhat cumbersome system we’ve actually actively contributed to building and have now chosen to disown at the drop of a hat.
I know it’s not simple. The campaign was complex. There were lies, cheating, and very valid concerns on both sides that were not adequately dealt with. The UK is not a bed of roses. Far from it. There are pockets of poverty and marginalization that are shameful. Health and education services are painfully strained, and everyone is trying to do more with less. I can understand the overwhelming sentiment of frustration. I can even understand some of the “leave” votes to a certain extent. What I fail to understand is how unleashing a torrent of hatred is going to help build a better future.
If I aspire to one thing in life it is to be open-minded.
I was brought up with people of all nationalities coming round for tea. My Dad did a lot of international business in the 1980s – well before the advent of Easyjet and the Internet – and often entertained clients at home. Mum had the often dubious honour of hosting dinners and drinks for people from as far afield as Japan and Ukraine, New Zealand and the United States, not to mention a whole host of European countries. Interpreters were a regular presence in our living room. Dad travelled often, popping in and out of other European countries with metronomic regularity, and engaging in long-haul treks to far-flung destinations several times a year. I was raised on a diet of exotic languages and fascinating cultures.
No small wonder then, that I ended up studying languages, travelling from the moment I obtained my first passport, and gravitating towards a life abroad. No small wonder that I became a European migrant. And this could well explain why I feel this so acutely. I cannot conceive of thinking my life anything other than enriched by the foreign influences around me. And I cannot begin to imagine how I would feel if certain members of the population of my adopted country turned against me and expressed their desire to boot me out of the place I now call home. The people I’ve been reading about in the press this week – the victims of hatred and abuse – could so easily be so many of my friends in the UK or elsewhere. And they could so easily be me.
A career in and around the United Nations has only served to feed my interest in what’s happening in the world, how other people think and what is important to them. It’s a fascinating business, communicating on a global scale, and not without its challenges. But the longer I spend looking at life in so many other countries, the more certain I am that we all want one thing: to live in security, with sufficient food and money to give our children better opportunities than we’ve had ourselves. This is why my grandparents and parents worked so hard. It is why people who are given the opportunity to do so migrate away from economic hardship. It’s why people flee conflict. I am increasingly certain that those in this world born without great opportunities are willing to risk their lives to create a brighter future for their children. And that those of us born into situations of privilege are likely to take our opportunities for granted.
Only this week I met – on two separate occasions, on two separate flights between work and home – two phenomenally inspiring women. The first – a former Eritrean freedom fighter, granted asylum some 30 years ago in Norway, who is a maths and sociology teacher, married to an Eritrean economist, with three high-achieving offspring – is a shining example of how migration benefits both host and home societies. Not only is she economically active and contributing to public education in her host country, she is still fighting for freedom in Eritrea. She is actively campaigning for the recognition of crimes against humanity and to bring an end to the dictatorship. And while she acknowledges the difficulties of adopting a culture that is not one’s own, she is fully aware that without asylum in Norway, she would either be long dead or languishing in prison in Eritrea.
My other encounter was with a lovely young lady from Georgia who moved to Canada four years ago in a family reunification programme after her father had gone in search of a better life and better opportunities for his family on the back of years of oppression in Georgia. She takes nothing for granted. She misses her granny (who stayed behind) more than she has the words to say, yet she acknowledges this as a sacrifice worth making in exchange for the opportunities she has been afforded. She studies constantly and works part time to help make ends meet while she paves the way for a good career and financial stability for the future, which she is acutely aware she could not achieve in Georgia.
Engaging with these people, learning their stories, sharing hugs and taking selfies when we disembarked the plane, was a humbling, enriching and inspiring experience. I am absolutely convinced that humans need communication and compassion for well-being. And that happiness – and thus productivity – is intrinsically linked to helping and supporting others. And that these are the things we need to bear in mind as we deal with the fallout of the referendum and begin to lay the pathway to take us forward, as we now must. Whether in or out of the EU we do not need to be closed-minded or petty. Let’s all move onwards together, wherever we’re from, and however we voted, and let’s talk to each other, learn from each other and respect each other. We all have a part to play in turning the tables now and ending the ugliness.
Violence and hatred may well be self-perpetuating. But so are love, compassion, kindness and hope. Let’s focus on those. Please.