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Notes on Immigration by Jamal Mehmood

He could’ve been a liar. Amongst the sea of commuters, lovers, students, friends, families, and all else, the immigrant chose me. He asked me if I spoke Urdu, which thanks to my immigrant parents I did. He had perhaps found someone like him in me, a shared language; his broken, and mine less so.

This migrant from Bangladesh told me his story on Buckingham Palace Road, in Victoria. He relayed his predicament, and I questioned him, over and over. Though I didn’t live here, I’d spent enough time in London and in the world to know the kind of characters that roam our streets looking for a way out. I’d never usually be so cynical, but that evening I felt almost proud of myself, picking holes in his story and proving to myself I had street smarts. My sister once said I’d hand the knife to someone who was going to stab me. Not today.

I heard his confusing story in broken English. How he’d spent time in a detention centre for illegal immigrants, and how he needed money to afford a seat on a coach to Newcastle, where he knew someone who could help him. I needed to outsmart him, to let him know I wasn’t a fool who’d believe his tall tale and hand over the money he said he needed. All the while the heart in me was tapping me on the shoulder; trying desperately to shake me into having my usual empathy. The detention centre I’d heard stories of from my own family, my own grandfather’s incredible story, and my parents after him. Immigration was in my blood, but I kept on with my cleverness, and he with his rebuttals. He grew frustrated, and as my questions subsided, I looked to my right and saw the face I won’t forget. His eyes shimmered like only those covered in tears could. He had stopped trying and looked out on to the road stunned. As if in that very moment the weight of unmet expectation came catastrophically upon his chest. The path he took, to support his poor family in Bangladesh, had come to this. Arguing with a kindred stranger in a foreign land in a third language to gather enough money to make it to a fourth city with no guarantee of a second home. My heart finally won, and I may have almost cried too. I offered to help him but he refused to take my offer — I felt as small as the coins I tried to give him. It all returned to me again as I told him about my grandfather and insisted that he take my offer. After a short while he accepted, and offered to repay me as soon as he reached Newcastle. He asked to take my number and bank details to transfer the money. I was too ashamed to comply and asked him only to pray for me. He did so there and then, and I had to leave.

To the cynics, this of course, could’ve been an excellent con from an excellent actor. The important point is that it could have just as easily been true. How many souls from all the countries on Earth end up in London or any other city of ours, not fortunate enough to have family or friends nearby, nor a place to go? How many human beings at this very moment lay unnamed on the bed of our seas? Those who had promised love through the echo of their last goodbye and a warm embrace. Look what we have done.

Who would leave their loved ones, their homes, their histories and familiarity to spite the people of the country they were leaving for? For so many, as Mark McGowan puts it, they are only following the wealth stolen from their homeland. We live in one of the most advanced economies on the face of the Earth. I do not believe for a single moment that we do not have the capacity, economic or otherwise to tend to our fellow humans. Perhaps, if our economic priorities were realigned with compassion, instead of an insatiable, unsustainable quest for perpetual growth and military pursuits, the economic argument for being anti-immigration would subside into the margins where it belongs. As Russell Brand put it, immigrants are of course, just people who used to be somewhere else. It really is as simple as that.

I abhor the suspicion, the derision, and the demonization of immigrants that pervades our popular media. What will the Bangladeshi in Victoria do? Why do we want to limit him, curb him, and cap him? I don’t want to make this an overtly political piece, though inherently political it most certainly is. I am more concerned with that man’s story. The uncertainty of it, and as a selfish writer, somewhat the romance of it. One day his grandson could be me. If we allow the fear and the lies to continue, we risk cutting his great story short. His and so many others.

Many years ago, my grandfather and his family would have no curry to eat chapatti with, so they would eat it with onions to give it at least some sense of flavour. As a young man he was cleaning the oil from the bottom of ships at the port in Karachi, and in years to come he would spend nights in jail, sleep in telephone booths and train stations in Paris, and miraculously swim to an English shore without knowing how he did it. Some decades, and many stories later, he drove to his daughter’s house in the garden of England, on a particularly crisp November morning, to take a nervous grandson for an interview at one of the finest academic institutions in the world. I can’t quite ever get over that feat of his. After all his pain, his toil, he had made it this far. I can’t help but think it made it him feel it was all worth it. His story requires more than just a small paragraph at the tail end of a short article, but the synopsis should suffice for now. I am vehemently pro-immigration, I am pro-the making, living, writing and telling of stories that will inspire generations, and it pains me that our current cultural recipe of fear and prejudice risks taking beautiful narratives out of our future. Tied to these stories are human lives. Lives that will sometimes depend on the hope of a new beginning on a foreign land. Let’s not take that away from all of us. For as one of my heroes Yasiin Bey might say, we’re all on a country called Earth.

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