21st September 2015 London, UK
Proud to be British – Proud to be me. My journey as a refugee to a British diplomat
Like many, I have been moved by the tragedies unfolding amidst the great migration crisis of our time.
I want to share the story of my journey from a refugee to a British diplomat. I hope my personal reflections can help both combat the stigma attached to refugees (and some criticism aimed at the UK), whilst at the same time helping to tackle some legitimate concerns about how potential newcomers can successfully integrate into the social fabric of the UK.
Arrival and welcome
My parents arrived in the UK as UN refugees, fleeing persecution. I joined them soon afterwards as a young boy who did not speak English, only Balochi. Fast forward a few years and I find myself in the privileged position of serving my new country as a diplomat, most recently as an Acting Ambassador.
For me the sanctuary provided by the UK was nothing short of amazing, including countless acts of individual kindness coupled with opportunities to realise my dreams. I will never forget a school trip to Mont Saint Michel and where at the border with France my remarkable teacher (Mr. Willis) had to usher me down a separate immigration line on account of my blue UN Travel Document. He called it a ‘special’ queue for special people. Rather than being weighed down by notions of difference, that experience enabled me to view my difference through a positive prism – giving me the confidence to embrace myself and be embraced by those around me. This sort of encouragement helped me to successfully audition for the role of Winston Churchill during our school community presentation – all of which entailed hours of practice to get his lisp just right. Admittedly it may have been a bit too much for the local OAP population to see a small brown boy playing the part of their hero – but the rousing applause from the majority was enough to make it worthwhile.
Acceptance – British values in action
Nevertheless, even my own family stared on in disbelief when I told them I would be applying to join the Foreign Office – firmly of the view that the UK diplomatic service was not ready for someone of my background. How could the inner sanctum of “Britishness” accept someone not born in the UK to promote our national interest?
Suffice to say I am happy they were proven wrong. My country’s willingness to fully embrace me and my family is not only a testament to its confidence in who it is but also a powerful message that British Values – fairness, tolerance, and freedom of speech to name a few, but probably the most important – are not solely rhetorical flourishes to evoke during times of crisis or uncertainty.
Instead, British values are being embodied and lived by on a daily basis: be it by foreign nurses and doctors maintaining that great British institution the NHS or by multi-medal Olympic champions setting records. However, this is not to suggest that the welcoming of newcomers does not come with risks. The sheer number of people seeking a better life in such a short space of time and the continual struggle to reconcile competing cultural norms rightly raises concerns about social cohesion, economic competition and security.
If my experience is anything to go by, it is the renewal of our commitment, at the level of our national consciousness, to the enduring appeal of British values; both by those within the country, and the unconditional acceptance of these values by newcomers, which is crucial to ensuring migration is successful and complementary to our national interest.
My message to future newcomers
With this in mind and my own personal reflections to draw upon, I have a few messages to potential newcomers to the UK:
First and foremost: the UK will embrace you if you also embrace the UK.
The onus, however, has to be on you. I will never forget my mum reminding me of how grateful we should be to our new home and how we should aim to embrace our new found freedoms and give something back. Feelings of privilege and gratefulness should not be viewed as patronising instead they should be used as inspiration to make the most of your opportunity.
Dump the cultural baggage that has not place in the UK. Remember that whilst you can be a source for demonstrating the best features of your culture (hospitality, volunteering, hard work etc), you are inevitably a carrier of cultural norms that may look out of place or even ‘alien’ to your new hosts. For my part, my exposure to gay people at university for the first time helped challenge internalised homophobic values I have been exposed to. As a rule of thumb – what makes Britain great is its space to allow you to be who you are – under no circumstances should you deprive others of this same right.
My Message to my fellow citizens
My message to British people is twofold: thank you for welcoming me and accepting my family and allowing to me serve my country. Seeing my mother view her Balochi dress as a source of pride during my graduation rather than a point of embarrassment as her past suggested was unequivocally down to the non-judgemental environment this country can rightly be proud of.
Secondly, please continue with your individual acts of kindness and empathy – all of which embody the best of British values, fairness. By this I mean the treatment of people as individuals: people who harbour hopes to better themselves and their family; people weighed down by fears and worries; and people moved by love, just like us all irrespective of our backgrounds.
This strong British disposition to see problems and issues through a human scale prism, as was so sadly evident during Aylan Kurdee’s death, or through the millions the British public routinely raises when faced with misery on its TV screens, is the basis for ensuring our country adapts to change. I urge you to continue in this vein and as frustrating as it can be at times, especially when people don’t seem to (yet) understand British customs or speak our language – give them time, hope and encouragement – for most will.
Defending our values
Nevertheless, there will inevitably be those who either through ignorance, a misplaced sense of entitlement or righteousness zeal that their values are immutable, will be uncompromising in not wanting to engage. This risks evoking anger and frustration on all sides. The total sum of this confrontation risks destroying the very market place of ideals and norms that British values facilitate. In other words we risk becoming a much less fair and tolerant society.
History tells us that migration is a primordial human urge and an inevitable symptom of change. Either through our desire to better ourselves or a just through plain curiosity, we, as have our ancestors for thousands of years, will move in search of pastures new. It is impossible to remain isolated and cocooned from this wave – indeed a mark of a great nation is its ability to be the focal point for change, people, values and goods far beyond its borders. Instead, we should be asking ourselves what steps we can take to successfully ride this wave of humanity and in doing so ensure we remain a fair and tolerant society. The first step is to recommit ourselves to the values that make our country great and defend them (rigorously where necessary) from both those within and outside.