Raifa Rafiq discusses her experiences of being sent to the UK by her parents in search of a better life
The American dream is not the only ideal that has plagued citizens of a country with its beguiling allure of opportunity, equality and the upward social mobility that dares one to be hopeful for a better life. In fact, across the Atlantic there is another dream that has lit the bellies of parents and careers alike, so much so that they separate themselves from their young children, removing the conjoined bond of mother and child, father and daughter, grandson and brother – all with the expectation that at least one of these children will climb the social strata and drop the ladder back down to haul the rest of the family up from years of penury and impoverishment that life has thrown at them. One’s lifetime sacrifice for a generational change – that is the life of some migrant children.
I am a child of that sacrifice. At the age of five, my mother decided to give me away to her younger brother whose wife was coming to England to be with him. Why did she make such a sacrifice? Simple – to give me a better life. Did she want to? Absolutely not. Ten years later I confronted her about that decision and in her own words, ‘I looked around me and the limitations that you would have had if you grew up here. The school system is terrible. The opportunities little. I saw how much you loved to learn, how voracious you were about life. I needed more for you so you could be more for us.’ This is a decision that many parents in foreign lands have had to make, a decision with consequences that lie with the three Fates – not the witches of Macbeth but the hands of luck, finances and the child’s own determination.
I almost think it an injustice for a young child to be given ‘opportunities’ and to have their horizons widened only to then be told to always remember that it could be worse. These first generation migrant children are given money to shop for any sweet they want but in the same breath told that their brothers and sisters are not privileged with such delicacies and thus their choice should be the wisest one. It causes such a child to freeze, cripples their decision-making, strips the pink-lensed-bubble-gum-smell of childhood right from under their feet, makes them fall hard on their buttocks and rise up an 8-year-old adult, conscious of this dark and menacing thing called ‘the future’ and oh how terrible that thing is. Whilst I could explore the harsh realities in some of the poorest countries of the world and the forces that push the hands of mothers and fathers to such an extent as to separate from their young loved ones, you already know the story. The conditions of such places have been written, the western world, the British Empire, the modern day enslavement of foreign investors in Africa have all left us high and dry. I could add to that narrative but I’d like to focus more on that child and their psychology, what existing in that tentative space feels like. The tremors it accompanies each achievement.
Take 26 year old Said Salum for instance. His parents brought him from Kenya to live with his uncle when he was 9 years old. ‘There was always this responsibility I had which made me worry all the time. I knew that I couldn’t mess up. I couldn’t enjoy school just because… I had to work hard because people ‘back home’ were depending on me. Me coming to England was like an investment and relatives were waiting to cash in as soon as I could work’.
There is a gratefulness that first generation migrant children grow up with not only to their parents and carers but for countries and social systems. A gratefulness that I believe impacts risk-taking, impacts the ability to dream outside of the scope of the expectation that their investors have put into them. A gratefulness that is weaponised to suppress dreams in a way that strict parenthood could never as this gratefulness comes from very deep within the caverns of the child.
An interesting aspect of the migrant child’s existence abroad is this aspect of ‘back home’. It is definitely something that has always been at the back of my mind whenever a big life decision needed to be made. How will this impact ‘back home’? How much do I need to send ‘back home’? Will ‘back home’ accept them? This isn’t how things are done ‘back home’. It has been nearly 20 years since I came to this country and home is never England – this could simply be the natural state of the African diaspora and our existence in a land surrounded with people who do not look like us. Simply the consequential symptomatic result of a violent history of national abuse – but back home to a first generation migrant child sent off to make something of themselves is more than just a case of history. The link to ‘back home’ is ever so present. It is never an intangible ‘ancestral’ home. Back home has a face, a mouth, a voice. Back home says ‘we gave you this opportunity, it is time to pay up’, in a very loving way. This is by no means is to berate the parents and careers who simply want the best for their children. Faced with the same position, I would do the same and encourage others to follow suit. My only concern is the diresome emotional toll it puts on young children.
The way in which to approach such a move should be one of encouragement. Opportunity should never incur debt. Whilst the intention is to abet social mobility, and it may sometimes fall on an unlucky child to be the vessel of this upward jostle (how toilsome and desolate that task is), I fear that many a first generation migrant child, separated from ‘back home’, unable to assimilate entirely in the country they are domiciled in, alienated from the cultural norms, the shared familial history in the ‘back home’ and yet still carrying a debt on their shoulders as they grow up are being robbed of a fulfilling childhood, are not harmoniously calibrated into adulthood like their advantaged peers, are being mentally abused for the ‘greater good’. The questions remain – at what cost and to what extent?
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Raifa Rafiq is a trainee solicitor and also the creator and co-host of the literature and popular culture podcast Mostly Lit – named by the Guardian and the BBC as one of the top podcasts of 2017. Raifa is a writer and an avid reader but most importantly, she is a proud Black Muslim Woman who ‘stans’ for each and every one of her intersections.
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