When I was an Immigrant
I’m an immigrant and have been for most of my childhood, adolescent hood and adult life. I’m going to start with the first experience which was the one that most marked me because the change was so huge for my young brain to process.
Back in the 90s my family decided to immigrate to West-Sussex in the United Kingdom. I’m Portuguese. Economically the atmosphere in Portugal had been pretty bad. I was nine years old when my parents made the decision to move. It was because no matter how hard my father worked and how arduously my mom tried to find jobs which were scarce, our financial situation was a constant downward battle. My dad was an International truck driver and transported products to and from other countries such as France, Spain and the UK. He would often not get paid or only be paid a low amount and the conditions of the vehicle weren’t up to scratch legally so he’d be fined by traffic police and the company wouldn’t pay for it. He would have to take up those bills and pay for them himself. There was a lot of fighting and demanding pay within his company and eventually it got to a point where he was threatened by his bosses. When he confronted them one evening at their headquarters and demanded to be paid, they held him at gunpoint which I know sounds like a bad mafia movie but it’s just what the poor side of Portugal and other European countries can look like. People don’t like to talk about it but it happened. I should know! I was in the car with my mom and baby brother waiting for my dad’s meeting to end. He came back very shaken up. They had threatened to kill him and us. I was a child and even then, I understood the gravity of the situation. I’d never seen my father so pale. This was the tipping point for my parents who soon after made the decision to get the hell out of Portugal and move to England. My dad found a construction job out there and that was it. We’re moving!
I was nine years old so I associated moving to England with princess Diana. I was a big fan of her work and I wanted to be a princess one day so in my head, it was going to be the most beautiful experience of my life and I was going to become royalty in the process. I was so proud that I told everyone at my school and I felt really special. Four months later we actually made the move. My mom tried to teach me English at home. She was a very impatient woman so that didn’t work. I went to the UK with a very basic knowledge of the language. I was nine and I didn’t have the discipline to learn on my own. We didn’t have a lot of money so my parents decided to trade their hi-fi system which was really expensive at the time and all of my dad’s CDs for a van. This way we could take most of our things with us. It was a three-seater which would be a problem because there ware four of us: my mom and dad, myself and my brother who was three. It was one hell of an ugly van, bright yellow but it carried most of our belongings such as mattresses and the washing machine and dishwasher, things that we knew we wouldn’t be able to afford right away. We said goodbye to my country house and my grandma and grandad whom I was very attached to. We took off in our van and caught the ferry in Santander, Spain. It was the second of January and we took a 2-day ferry boat trip to Dover, England. I’d never been on a ship before. I’d never really been outside of the country besides Spain. Whereas I was loving the sense of adventure of the whole thing, I could feel the adults being very sad and anxious which made me worry especially for my little brother. I was the one that looked after him the most and as his big sister I felt responsible for his happiness and safety. When we boarded the boat, I immediately got my first culture shock. As a child from a small rural town in Portugal I was used to playing with plastic dinosaurs and well…dirt, mostly. Suddenly I was faced with a “play area” where there was a swimming pool filled with colored plastic balls. It was amazing! It was such a fun idea and there was the slide and a swing set that looked like a pirate ship and I’d never seen that concept either. It was so awesome! Where I was from, everything was what it was! If it looked like a car, it was a car, not a special fun play area… I suddenly saw things being made for the sake of fun. That was really luxurious for me. They also did face painting which I had never experienced and I didn’t know that people did that sort of thing. That we could paint things on our face. I asked for a butterfly and my brother got a tiger and we were just in kids heaven. It was also the first time I watched a Disney film on a big screen in their cinema room for kids. We watched 101 Dalmatians and I remember getting teary eyed because of how magical it was for my brother and I. It felt as if this place that we were traveling to was just so much more magical than anything we had ever seen. I was overwhelmed with joy.
Then the sea got choppy and most of the leftover days of the crossing were mostly construed of me throwing up into a paper vomit bag or trying to sleep so that I don’t throw up again. When we docked in Dover and drove out of the humungous ship’s belly in our very bright three-seater yellow van, we had a hurdle to overcome. England’s laws were very strict so we had to find a way of hiding my baby brother and making it look as though it’s just 3 of us crossing the border. So, we put him underneath my seat which was hollow because it was initially made to store tools and stuff. We convinced him that we were playing hide and seek and that we were going to have to play it really seriously this time. I know how it sounds and yes, we basically smuggled him into the country. As I’m writing this story, it sounds like I’m pitching a Netflix script. Sometimes even I have trouble believing that this happened in my childhood. But kudos to my parents. They did what they had to do. Desperate times call for … cramming your younger child into a box.
At the border, the police took our passports, we smiled, they flashed their lights inside the van. I could feel my brother trying to push himself out of the hollow seat beneath me. For a moment we thought we were done for. However, by some miracle we managed to get in. I remember the immense feeling of freedom that fell over us when we drove out onto the English motorway. We got my brother out and the four of us just sat there very happy and relieved looking onto the road ahead of us. It started snowing and I’d never seen snow before. Everything was very grey with a white light and the little white snowflakes were falling out of the sky and onto our windshield. I distinctly remember feeling that I had landed on a different planet and that perhaps the people here would be aliens and this idea worried me.
The windshield wipers didn’t work so my parents tied a piece of rope to each windshield wiper from their respective windows and pulled them from one side to the other to wipe the snow off. Needless to say that their hands were purple by the time we arrived at our first UK home. Once we were settled in, I was driven to my first day at school and they told me to wear a tie and a really ugly grey skirt and a blazer which I found really insane but I did what I was told and went to school dressed like a post office clerk. My mom cried when she left me there. She was terrified for me which made me feel even more scared myself. Before class began, I was told to sit outside on a picnic table. There was lots of green grass everywhere and everything was so clean and tidy. That was new for me too. Lots of kids in the same uniform rushed towards me and spoke away in a blurry mess of sounds. They seemed to be asking questions but I didn’t know how to communicate with them. They were aliens. I panicked and suddenly my visual perception was like a broken wavy black and white TV. That was the beginning of my process of understanding what it’s like to be a nobody in a country I don’t understand. It’s very lonely when nobody thinks like you and you’re the odd one out.
When people talk about immigrants it’s usually under a horrible light. There’s a fear that we’re going to steal jobs and become a burden. It’s simply because we’re not in that position ourselves though. Portugal denied entrance to Syrian refugees yet over half of our population is currently living outside of the country. I feel that the same can be said about every nation in the world with regards to immigration. At some point in history, we’ve all had to move in search of better living conditions or to flee from horrific wars. Since I’ve been on both sides of the “wall” I know what it takes to immigrate and what it takes to open your borders to new comers. It’s not easy taking such a huge risk. It’s scary on all fronts but it’s what’s made us who we are as humans. It’s been our movement as a species and our need to chase our dreams and provide our family with a joyous existence, that’s played a key part in all our discoveries and creations. I have great respect for that type of courage.