I had moving encounter in the toddlers drop in gym session today. There is something about the place that makes connecting to others easy. Maybe because it draws people from all walks of life together in one enclosed space with nothing to do but play.
She was a young mother of a beautiful girl who gracefully shared the trampoline with my daughter whilst we chatted. She spoke perfect English with an accent that I initially mistook for Italian. She was in fact Serbian although she had lived in London since she was thirteen. She was calm, eloquent and measured. We chatted about schools in the area, which led her to talk about the one she first attended when she arrived in the UK as a teenager. The experience had been quite traumatic. Almost overnight she went from being a popular, outgoing girl who was also quite rebellious to a being a quiet, bewildered teenager who craved solitude. Leaving her homeland and moving to a new country and a new school had changed her. She was still the same girl on the inside but had no one to reveal herself to so she shut down. In Belgrade she had been loud, cheeky and funny. Here she was a fish out of water. She was misunderstood and an easy target for bullies. She finally left the school and moved to another one further away. She was happier there as she was left alone. She still had no friends but at least she was given space and that gave her solace.
I asked if her parents had felt bad about bringing her to London. She laughed… “On the contrary” she said. “They had managed to get us out of Serbia during the civil war and that was something they were proud of. As far as they were concerned they had brought us to safety and given us the possibility of a better life. We were taught to be grateful and to get on with it”. She paused, “In truth they were right. They were very hard years, but not damaging in the long run. I am happy now. I have a good life and a good husband who is also from Serbia. I didn’t plan to marry a Serbian man but in the end I realised it was important to have a shared understanding of what we had been through and anyway you don’t always choose what comes your way in life.” She was gentle and wise. She told me she was from an educated family in Serbia and as such was expected to do well and go to university, which she did.
I was intrigued by how the expectations placed on us and the values we are raised with shape us. I thought of all the other economic migrants and refugees of war that weren’t so lucky. But even for the lucky ones the experience of having to make your way in a new country is not an easy one. You come with no entitlements. Your old identity must be left behind and everything constructed anew. My mind turned to my own husband who is still constructing his new identity ten years on. In Nepal he was a pop star, a lead singer in a band. When he goes back he still is but with the added kudos of living in the West and having an English wife. His identity is there. Here in London he is simply Nepalese and he doesn’t care. Here he is raising his kids, giving them the education he never had, earning money to support his family and waiting to one day go home. I wasn’t sure that the mother from Belgrade felt the same way. She didn’t completely belong here but she had been here too long to call Serbia her home. Her children would have a different story to tell.