When I was looking for a place to call “home”, exhausted beyond words after nearly a decade during which I lived nowhere for more than 4 months, I chose London. I’d lived in the UK previously, I had family in the UK, London is a hub for people in my career, and London is a great base for travelling anywhere in the world. I knew people in London. And, it has been a very, very long time since war or natural disaster has uprooted people from London. It seemed like a safe bet.
As a U.S. citizen, I have no special immigration rights to the UK. I couldn’t just show up and stay, and I couldn’t just head over to the nearest government office and apply for residency. I needed a sponsor, which meant I needed a job. It took me a while to figure out who I wanted to work with and to work out an arrangement with them. I felt I was taking a small risk by signing up for a job I wasn’t sure I wanted, but I was thrilled I got the visa. Now, I’m pleased that the job has worked out pretty well after all. With my visa application, I had to provide a number of supporting documents and go through a very impersonal system, but I suspect that my U.S. passport smoothed the way a bit – after all, what kind of a threat was an American going to pose to the UK – politically or economically? Probably no more than a native Brit could pose. In short, it was easy enough: I was given the visa and now I live in the UK. Every day I feel privileged to be here, but I don’t worry about it. I just thank God and go on with my day.
This past weekend I accompanied some friends down to Calais, France, a lovely little seaside town on the northern coast of that most romantic of all romantic countries. Cheese, caffé au lait, blue seas with big waves, kite-flying and a lovely outdoor market were among the things we saw. But that’s not why we went. We went to learn about the people hanging out in Calais on their way somewhere else. In most cases, “somewhere else” was the UK. Calais was just a stopping place, there is nothing for them there.
I met a couple dozen young men, all of whom told me that they were trying to get to the UK. Most of them are sleeping on the streets, under bridges or bushes, or in makeshift tents, while they figure out how to cross a few short miles of water to the southern coast of England. When I met them, they were scarfing down hot food provided by local charities. A plastic plate-full of food, some bananas and a little tub of yogurt, a piece of bread and something to drink were what they received. They had no control over what they ate and they had to eat at the time the charity handed out the food. When we were there with them, we were hiding under a tiny awning barely protecting us from freezing rain that was swirling in the seaside wind. Someone brought some clothing donations and these men flocked to the box of clothes, hopeful they might find a winter coat or a scarf or something to protect them from this horrid chill.
Men were living like this after investing their life savings in getting themselves safely to the UK. Long journeys, financial risk, personal risk… all to get the the UK.
And why did they want to get to the UK? Because it’s the best country, they told me. Because they were told it’s a great place to live. Because they might be treated half-decently here and had a chance of getting a reasonably good job. Or so they heard. Because they had family and friends in the UK. For many of them, it was because they’d lived here previously. In short, their reasons were not that different from mine. But their African, Arab or Asian passports raised eyebrows, whereas my American passport quickly raised a visa stamp. Their lack of knowledge of English immediately estranged them, whereas my American accent evokes the type of informal jest one might expect of a friend.
And it really got me to thinking… how grateful I should be that I live here. I already am grateful, but I can’t forget to thank God each day. This is, for so many, the promised land.
It also got me to thinking that these guys know hope! They are willing to risk loss of limb and freedom, starvation and illness, freezing weather and an existence as outcasts, just to get to the promised land. If that’s not hope, I don’t know what is.
To be continued…