Victor’s happy homeland memories
When I think of my homeland Brazil - an ocean and a hemisphere away from my chosen home in London – I feel a gentle sense of longing. I remember my family, my school friends, my childhood places, my favourite TV shows, the vibrant colours, tastes and smells.
I can almost sense the beach and the joys of carnival right before my eyes.
Brazil is now the country of the future. The unrelenting prophecy that “the sleeping giant is going to wake up” is now becoming reality. The economy is booming, poverty and social inequalities are diminishing. Violence is still rife, but most other indicators are very positive.
I couldn’t hope for a better fatherland: it combines peaceful, loving memories from past with exuberant hope for the future.
Unfortunately not all immigrants have the same privilege as me. Most did not opt to leave their homeland like me and instead were brutally forced out by a series of unfortunate, often catastrophic, circumstances. I work for the Guardian and last March I joined a volunteering-day initiative and visited Migrant Voice, a small publication aimed at publicising the plight of immigrants in the UK . I interviewed two refugees. Their feelings towards their homeland are in violent conflict with mine.
Patrick Ramzani and Jean-Luc Kasigwa are both from the Democratic Republic of Congo, a country devastated by decades of civil war, with little prospect for improvement. A deadly combination of a bloody past and a gloomy future.
Patrick is a 40-year old man from the Eastern town of Bukavo, near the Rwanda border. His voice is raspy and yet placid, his manners are kind and agreeable, his speech is eloquent and educated. He used to be a headmaster and a preacher back home. He has a wife and three children, including two twins aged 7. In 2004 he decided to sell his small art collection and flee his country to the UK because of his vocal opposition to Joseph Kabila, the country’s president. He had already been arrested five times without a charge and constantly feared for his life.
He hired a black market agency, which took him to Rwanda and then South Africa, where he embarked on a flight to London. Once in the UK he lived for two years in accommodation provided by the National Asylum Support Service (NASS). He was coerced into signing up for voluntary return in exchange for asylum claim money (Section 4 support). Having failed to return to Congo after the given period, he was sent for eight months to the Colnbrook Removal Centre. The Home Office describes it as “the most secure removal centre within the UKBA estate” and “built to category B prison standard”.
Patrick contacted several media and all British MPs using the prison computer and his case thus received widespread publicity. Journalists quickly picked up that his ordeal was in stark contract with the Home Secretary’s claim at the time that refugees were detained for no more than “seven or eight days”.
In 2006 Patrick finally won his case and was released with a work permit. He has since been humiliated and worked in “inhumane” conditions in many substandard jobs, such as a kitchen porter. He now works for a charity called Get Away, which caters for the integration of refugees into British society. His wife and three children have now fled to neighbouring Namibia .
Patrick’s relation with Congo is very different from mine with Brazil; his memories are ridden with blood and fear; he has no family left home to visit; he has no desire to return to his childhood place and does not see even a faint hope of improvement in the future. He sleeps every night in a country, which “welcomed” him with an eight-month prison stay and with which he has developed no strong bonds (he finds people in the UK too “individualistic and fake”, albeit “polite”). Yet he does not miss the nation where he was born and brought up. I imagine that his heart is in limbo, an off-road ravine or sleeping rough in some cold and dirty backstreet.
I was asked to focus on the subject of family rights when interviewing Patrick and Jean-Luc, with a view to support their cause.
This seemed like child’s play at first: Patrick has been fighting for years for the right to bring his wife and three kids from Namibia to the UK, but the Home Office has told him that he needs to earn a minimum of £2,300 a month (liquid) in order to sponsor them. This is so absurd; it would have been more honest and virtuous if the Home Office had just said “no”. Patrick now sees no hope of reuniting with his family and has now turned depressive and suicidal. His wife and kids are now confined to a derelict refugee camp outside Namibia’s capital, Windhoek .
Anyone meeting with Patrick is likely to identify with his cause. I hope to be doing my part by publishing this piece and raising awareness of the issue of family rights. Patrick’s case for family rights was clear as crystal. To my surprise, the same did not apply to Jean-Luc.
Jean-Luc’s saga is similar to Patrick’s and they are also friends and housemates. Both involve political opposition, arrests in Congo, fleeing with the help of a black market agency, leaving wife and kids behind and living in NASS accommodation. But there are differences: Kasigwa comes from a city called Uvira and has not been to a removal centre (euphemism for prison) in the UK .
But the most shocking revelation was still to come. I was very keen to find out about Kasigwa’s desire and difficulties in bringing his family to the UK so that I could corroborate Patrick’s case. To my surprise, Kasigwa was not concerned about family rights and instead wanted to start a new family in the UK. This is not because Kasigwa was careless and selfish. His wife and kids had been killed by pro-government forces, like most of his friends and relatives.
Kasigwa was very comfortable at talking about his family ordeal. But I felt it was disrespectful and exploitative delving into detail and so I ceased asking questions about family matters. I didn’t want to be the intrusive tabloid opportunist. It is sufficient to know that they have all been murdered I thought. As a result, I still don’t know how many kids he once had.
I again must point out the contrast between these two men and me on the subject my immigration. I speak to my parents and sisters at least twice a week. I visit them twice a year. They visit me whenever they like and we even go on holidays together. I feel very connected and in touch with them.
Spending a couple of hours with Patrick and Jean-Luc made me feel like a champagne immigrant: a bourgeois alien, who decided to move to a richer and more promising nation on a sudden juvenile caprice.
This was not a sudden burst of self-loathing. I had clear objectives when I started overseas endeavour and I have fulfilled some of them. My life in the UK has made me learn a lot and fully appreciate my Brazilian and Spanish heritage (my father and sisters are from Spain ). I have helped to divulge Brazilian culture in the UK through writing and attending events and I like to think that I make a contribution to London’s diverse cultural landscape.
As a critical writer, I have often questioned notions of “Britishness” and national identity, and I initially wanted to explore these themes with Patrick and Jean-Luc. That is, until I heard the details of their lives and felt that such questions would be non-pertinent – lest they make me look idiotic and pedantic.
What’s the point in asking about concepts of nationality, or about your favourite British dish or artist when your priority is staying alive? I chose to live in the UK because I admired the cosmopolitan vibrant cultural scene of London . Patrick and Jean-Luc came here simply because this was the most tangible opportunity for survival.
I have three passports: a Brazilian, a Spanish and a British one. I could spend hours talking about how I relate to each one of these nationalities. Patrick and Jean-Luc possess no passport. Instead, they have a Home Office travel document, which allows them extremely limited mobility (Patrick called it a “black passport”).
My parents and sisters don’t even need a visa in order to come and see me. I speak to my cousins on msn and Facebook quite often. When I have kids, I have no doubt that they will have great flexibility in braving the world at their convenience. Patrick cannot even dream of reuniting with his family, which desperately need his support. Jean-Luc doesn’t even have one.
Perhaps Patrick and Jean-Luc would feel perfectly comfortable talking about their notion of being British and Congolese, and what they really admire and enjoy the most in this country and in Congo . They are certainly intelligent and sensitive enough to make a judgement. But I felt humbled by the callousness of their lives. I felt like the Marie Antoinette of immigration. So, I kept my mouth shut.
by Victor Fraga