Everyone needs a dream

“Where I come from

I cannot return

But where I am headed I will,

Live, grow and learn”

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After a year of semi lockdown life can become somewhat introspective and ‘samey’. Fortunately, I volunteer with a number of charities and get the opportunity to hear about other people’s lives.

Take Lien a  Vietnamese refugee who came to the UK age 13. Like many refugees who flee their place of birth in search of a safe haven, there were many obstacles to overcome but Lien always had a dream and it was this dream that propelled her forward.

It is difficult to dream when you are in turmoil and trauma but dreams are necessary because they give life a purpose, a shape and most important – hope.

I can’t imagine what it must feel like to be 13 and suddenly catapulted into an entirely alien culture where you don’t speak the language and the food, the clothes, everything you have known previously is now strange and frightening.

“The first time I saw a westerner was in our brief time in Hong Kong and to then become a person distinctly different to everyone else, a minority in a country full of westerners was very disconcerting,”  explained Lien

Her dream was to work hard in school and become something.  No mean feat when you have only spent three months in a resettlement centre learning  English before moving to Milton Keynes a predominately white city.

She explained that at school she was an oddity, older than her peers both in age and maturity. What did her peers know about war and trauma? “They talked about boyfriends, clothes and pop music about which I knew nothing. In Vietnam teenagers at this age were not interested in these things.” Lien was desperately homesick and lonely but she had a dream.

And it was the realisation that she could excel at Maths that helped her to achieve this dream. Here her poor English was not a handicap.  When moved to the top maths tier life changed. Her peers no longer teased her and viewed her as ‘just a poor boat person’ but someone who was clearly clever. 

 “It gave me self-confidence and changed the game. When you have nothing, education can set you free.  It is all we had and so I had to make it work for me. When we arrived, we had no possessions no money, just each other but I was determined to make a difference,” said Lien.

And she did and she has. Lien is the mother of five, married to a fellow Vietnamese who also fled the country and she is now an academic, author and a university lecturer.

So, this got me thinking about the children that I volunteer with at the Separated Child Foundation.  What are their dreams. And indeed, do they have an opportunity of achieving any of them.  It was tough back in the 1980s and it is a lot tougher now, but that doesn’t stop the dreams.

Take Stephen who arrived in the UK as a separated child from Cameroon. Now aged 19 he is hoping to start a law degree. When he arrived, like Lien, he spoke no English. But he too had a dream. He wants to defend those who are dying in silence around the world and are not listened to. “I would like my voice to be the voice of those without a voice.”

“As long as I’m in control of my brain and my mouth, I will continue to entertain the dream and the hope that one day there will emerge leaders in my own country and region, on my continent of Africa, in Britain and all over the world who will not allow that any should be denied the right and freedom, that any should be turned into refugees like I am, that any should be condemned to go hungry, sick and homeless as many refugees are, that any should be stripped of their human dignity.”

A thought echoed by Egerton Gbonda, a teacher who fled to the UK from Sierra Leone. Here he worked as a supply teacher in a number of London schools and completed a Master’s degree in Refugee Studies at the University of East London. He has run Club Class for  separated refugee youths since its inception in 2010.

Last week he asked them about their dreams and what they wanted to do with their lives.  They all had goals.

To be a politician, business man, engineer, teacher, solicitor, social worker, soldier, nurse, doctor, bus driver and of course like so many young men a footballer.

I remember speaking to one young man who had fled Syria and was passionate about making something of himself here in the UK.  “Now that I feel safe, I can dream. When you are just surviving this is not possible,” he said.

“My father was killed by a bomb and my mother used all her money to pay for me and my brother to leave Syria.  When I get a job, I will send money back so that she and my sister can join us.  That’s my dream.”

A bit of Gloom

I had a bit of a blip last week – not surprising as I have been semi isolating since March — and this was before Boris’s weekend lockdown announcement. My IPAD and I became best best friends as oppose to just best friends.  I sat on my rocking chair watching hours of Netflix,  BBC dramas and listening to Radio 4 plays.   Mind numbing but it was just about all I could muster up any enthusiasm for. It didn’t  help that my oven packed up, my Kindle broke and I had a row with my unreliable  roofers who having let me down four times  refused to do the job  because apparently I had been rude to them! Leaving  me with scaffold costing over £500. So,  guess going into a bit of fug  under the circumstances can be excused.

 But I realise just how dangerous it can be if we allow ourselves to get sucked into a gloomy place.   I had  to go to the  —   how-lucky-am-I place  —  and I am, and I know it.  I just needed to remind myself. And it came in the  guise of a  children’s book that  was recommended.   When Stars are Scattered by Victoria Jamieson is a  graphic children’s book  which tells the story of 11-year-old Omar who aged four fled worn torn Somalia with his little brother to a refugee camp in Dadaab in Kenya. Separated from their mother, they were looked after by a friendly stranger.  As I know only too well from my work with refugees and asylum seekers no one chooses to be a refugee. And with  so many mixed stories circulating about refugees and asylum seekers children can become confused and in some cases frightened by newspaper headlines. So, I was delighted to be able to find something to purchase for my god children. I know not a very exciting Christmas pressi, but they will get something else as well. Isn’t that the role of a godmother. I might not be very   godly, but I do have a social conscience and thus can hopefully steer them in the right direction.

 Omar and Hassan  spent 15 years at the camp before being resettled by the U.N. to Arizona. Omar graduated from university in 2014 and now works as a resettlement case manager in Pennsylvania, working with refugees to help them reach self-sufficiency in the US. So, although a sad story there is a happy ending of sorts.

Helping children to understand some of the complexities of life is important. I remember sharing the graphic novel The Black Dog with my children to help them understand their father’s depression. It is an excellent book and really helped them. Definitely recommend it and its sequel Living with the Black Dog to parents and indeed to partners of those who suffer from depression.  Hopefully When Stars are Scattered will also help children to gain an understanding of how no one would ever want to leave their country unless circumstances forced them to. It should be required reading in all schools.

I realised also last week the importance of structure on one’s mental health during this COVID time. Reading some of my early blogs it became apparent that my structure had slipped and last week it had become almost non-existent. Just getting out of bed was an effort. Luckily I saw the warning signs and I am happy to report that I am back. 

Psychologists agree that structure is increasingly important when we are stuck  in a lockdown and that the reasons why  so many of us are feeling lost at the moment is that humans tend to thrive off structure and routine.

 “A daily routine helps us put healthy habits in place, so we get the most out of our day. And when we feel like we’ve achieved something – no matter how small – we’re going to generally feel much happier in ourselves,” explains psychologist Dr Elena Touroni. Of course, I knew this I had just allowed myself to become lazy and a bit too self  indulgent.

And remembering Joan Bakewell’s comments about scheduling reading time in one’s daily plan I ordered Isabel Allende’s book A Long Petal of the Sea.

“Let’s be careful out there”

Poignant Moments

Feeling grateful this morning that I am alive. I have just spent the last few hours trailing through a list of names on My Heritage for a possible tv documentary looking for people who might have been saved by a friend’s uncle from the Nazis. It is a very sobering experience and puts everything else in to context.

The list is long. All these names all these people who had families, stories, lives, friends, lovers and yet so many of them perished. Born in Berlin, in Leipzig, in Vienna, in Romania, in Poland, died in Auschwitz. One entry was particular poignant; born December 1942 in Auschwitz, died January 1943 Auschwitz.

It’s a place I rarely go as it is too painful. As a young Jew I went through a stage of reading everything about the Holocaust – I needed to know. But stopped after reading Primo Levi’s Book If this is a man. A good place to stop. Remarkable book. Remarkable man.

Odd that it coincided with me finishing reading last night The Last Kings of Shanghai by Jonathan Kaufman which shines a light on the role China played in offering a temporary refuge for some 18,000 Jews fleeing Europe. Shamefully one of the few countries to offer a home to eastern European Jews escaping Hitler. Despite Britain’s pride in rescuing several thousand Jewish children before WWII, the truth is that successive British governments failed Europe’s Jews before the Holocaust – and afterwards.

It is something I am acutely aware of when looking at the plight of the current refugees fleeing their war torn countries. It feels like there is an uncomfortable parallel in the language being used to describe those seeking asylum today and the language used to describe Jews seeking refuge in the 1930’s. The Daily Mail back in 1938 referred the Jews escaping Germany as “Stateless Jews pouring into this country” and it warned of “aliens” entering the UK through the “back door”. Sound familiar?

I know its all getting very heavy so I will leave writing about Patrick Melrose, the SKY drama series, depicted by the brilliant Benedict Cumerbatch and whether his psychopathic father was genetically evil. I had been thinking of discussing whether one could be born evil or whether the environment had a part to play – but maybe I will leave that for another day.

Instead I will end with the random statistic that apparently according to a new study by Leeds, Edinburgh and UCL universities Earth has lost 28 trillion tonnes of ice since 1994 . But of course climate change is a myth!