I've realised that we are leaving really quite soon (still not sure when, thank you BA for informing us of you rescheduled flights in a manner that is neither timely nor helpful). Anyway, I've also realised that I still have quite a lot to say. So, expect quite a few posts over the next week or so. My notebook is brimming with ideas and I want to write them whilst I can look out of the window and see the country, not whilst I'm remembering how it was.
First up is an excerpt from an excellent and surprisingly funny book that I recently finished. Vesna Maric was 16 when she fled the war in Mostar, exchanging it for a life in Northern England. I highly recommend her book, Bluebird, for an insight of what it is like to leave your country and to become a refugee.
One passage really stood out to me, it highlighted much about the Bosnians, but also, more revealingly perhaps, about the British. It takes place as Vesna is about to board the bus that will take them to England, cementing their status as refugees.
"None of us knew exactly where we were going. All that Dragan had told us was to dress down and look as bedraggled as possible, because the previous group, he said, was too dressed up. The British had complained they didn't really look like refugees. Dragan had described it to my mother the week before, over the telephone: 'They looked as if they were dressed for a wedding!' I imagined my vain compatriots in their Italian fashion suits rescued from their homes, lipstick and eye shadow intact, like armour.
The British had, understandably, expected something a little more like 'proper' refugees: people suffering, hardship visible on their faces, clothes torn and wrinkled, children's eyes crusted with tears. Dragan wove through the crowd, closely inspecting everyone's outfits by pinching a shirt, a skirt or a trouser between two fingers, rubbing it to feel its quality, a look of disgust on his face. It seemed we were well below standard. But the unspoken motto of these Bosnian mothers was: 'If we are going to be refugees, let's not advertise our misery, let us at least look good,' and I could understand how they felt. It's not easy suddenly becoming a refugee." (pg. 28)
It sums the Bosnians up perfectly. It doesn't matter how terrible their situation, how difficult their life is, whatever happens they are going to look good. You can see it everywhere today. Whatever their situation, the Bosnians will manage to sew, mend, share, create, borrow, whatever the right clothes and they will look good. Night after night you will see the kids walking down the roads dressed up to the nines. Their hair is immaculate, their make-up flawless. The look is a little over the top for my tastes, but there is no doubt about it, you notice the Bosnians. The men too like to be well groomed, they spend hours tweaking and gelling their hair to its imagined perfection, choosing the right t-shirt, teaming it with the perfect leather jacket.
The only time you don’t see a well turned out Bosnian is if they are working in their gardens, in which case the dress code is tracksuits and wellies. Very sensible if you ask me.
I can understand that there was no way, absolutely no way, in which the Bosnians were going to go to England underdressed. They were going to look good and that was that. To not do so would be to let down their country and their culture.
But it is the British point of view that I find fascinating. The British wanted to help. They organised a bus to spirit people away from the awful conflict. But, they wanted to know that they had helped. They wanted to see traumatised people climbing off that bus, people who had suffered. Their idea of a refugee, someone who had suffered during the war did not include a few well-dressed women with dignity and pride.
Somehow, it seems that once people have had the status of refugee tagged onto them that over-rides any other identity. It matters not that the person had skills, was a Doctor, Engineer, Vet. Nor that they have opinions of their own. Nor that they are an individual with their own thoughts and experiences.
I’m only just restraining myself from starting a rant about the Daily Mail, but it does seem to me that if we can’t see the people who are forced to come to our country for reasons out of their control as people and individuals, but force them to inhabit a role of our perceived notions about refugees, we are guilty of an enormous disservice to those who most need our help.