This story was originally published by New Statesman.
As make my morning coffee, I listen to the radio detailing Cameron’s latest refusal to face up to the refugee crisis on Europe’s doorstep. The discussion turns to the latest in a growing collection of photographs that document the appalling reality of the situation: a drowned Syrian boy has washed up on a beach in Turkey. Before my brain has even has time to process this, I am sobbing into my kitchen sink. The matter-of-fact reporting continues over the airwaves. The information stagnates and sinks in, stopping me dead before breakfast.
The emotive elements of viral stories are not the sole cause of my visceral reaction to news reports like this. There’s a deeper human connection between me and those suffering across Europe. With every case comes a reminder: every one of those people could be me, every one of those families could be mine.
My father arrived in Britain in the 1980s and was granted asylum here as a refugee. In Iran, he left behind his own father who was incarcerated at Evin Prison, two sisters he knew he may never see again, and the only country he had ever known as home. His mother made the arrangements for him to leave; she was adamant that she would not lose her youngest son to compulsory military service, an obligation that awaited him after his 16th birthday.
The 1979 Revolution brought political and social upheaval in Iran, and soon afterwards, thousands of teenage boys were sent to fight on the frontlines of the Iran-Iraq War. Attributes of the newly-named Islamic Republic of Iran included public hangings, the stoning of women for “indecency” and economic ruin. By 2001, there were over 40,000 Iranians living in Britain, many of them refugees escaping these difficult and unprecedented circumstances.
It’s a difficult transition to abandon life in one country and start again in another, an observation that is lost in much of the political rhetoric that today labels groups of migrants “swarms” and wants to disallow “economic migrants” access to our country. My father hasn’t yet been able to return to Iran, even for a brief visit. Among many other things, this means that he barely knows his two sisters, that he has never met his nieces and nephews, and that he has never been able to visit his parents’ graves.
Two years learning English at college, three part-time jobs to support himself, and then a steady full-time position as a tyre fitter – my father was one of those allowed to make a life in Britain. From humble beginnings, he worked his way up the ranks of the motoring industry until he was able to start his own business. He fell in love, bought a house and started a family. Now he provides employment opportunities, pays into the tax and national insurance system, and contributes to both his local community and the economy as a small business owner. He also votes in elections, uses the NHS and will one day receive a state pension. These are the normal, inoffensive freedoms that any person should be allowed to enjoy, and this is all that today’s refugees are seeking.
Today, my parents live in the Norfolk countryside; a three-bedroom house with a patio and a lawn. At the weekend, my mother tends her flower garden and my father cuts the grass. They buy furniture at IKEA, eat a mix of British and Persian cuisine, and keep the company of cats. It’s a happy, uncomplicated life; nothing extravagant or untoward, nothing exciting enough to be condemned by The Daily Mail. Why can’t others be given the chance to do as my father has and settle peacefully in a new country?
My father may never have had the chance to thrive if he had not been offered a place in our society. I am reminded of this every time I hear of the hundreds of thousands of people being denied access to a safe life in Europe. It’s not just that they are the same as us; it’s that they are us. Let’s stop pretending that those seeking a home here are any less deserving than we are of the opportunity to simply live.