Sometimes it’s wrong to not talk about politics or our own story. I’m proud of the public figures and businesspeople who have been talking openly about their own experiences and perspectives lately, using their words and influence to open minds regarding the plight of refugees.
This is a story about this video, Syrian refugees…
…and my grandfather.
This story hit me on a personal level because my grandparents were caught in a similar situation during the UK’s wars with Germany.
At one point, you see the girl narrowly escaping a bomb blast destroying what looks like a school behind her. Later on, you see her cough, and her hair starts to fall out. Later on still, she spends some time in hospital.
My grandfather went through exactly that. At the age of ten, he was one of two children to survive the bombing of his school. He then spent six months in hospital during the war, having developed bronchitis.
The bronchitis shaped his entire life: he moved to St Albans, away from his beloved Epping Forest, in the hope being away from the trees would improve his condition (it did, so he stayed). He was also forced to give up a promising singing career (opera, like his mother) because it was too much of a strain on his lungs – so he focused on the piano and organ, eventually becoming head teacher of a secondary school specialising in music in North London.
Fast forward sixty years from that original bomb blast, and it is that bronchitis that eventually killed him, resulting in his non-recovery from a relatively routine operation.
My grandfather lived his entire life a pacifist. He was one of the two million to march against the Iraq War. He’d seen the civilian cost first hand.
He strove for understanding between different peoples, and in his North London school, he was a trailblazer in intercultural understanding and comfort in school environments. The Jewish boys wore their skull caps. The Muslim girls wore their hijabs. The Catholics wore their crosses. And aside from inevitable scuffles between children, they got on, and religion itself was rarely the issue. A devout and true Christian (CofE), he always took pride in his connections with other communities, especially the Jewish community of North London (it amused him that he was always taken for a Jew, based on his appearance, although his father did have Russian Jewish heritage).
As he lay dying in Waltham Hospital, I remember his fantasies as the toxins yellowed the lines between reality, his memories, and his dreams (of a better world).
My last memory of him is him enthusiastically trying to tell my gran that he’d met a lovely Afghan couple. My gran is hard of hearing, so he repeats, “No, AFGHAN. AF-GHAN.”
It was either a dream or a memory; we’re not sure.
I remember turning to my cousin, and proudly laughing to her, “I’m so proud that even when he’s delusional, my granddad was never a racist.”
This was him all over, and it was not limited to race: he was a good personal friend to Jeffrey John, the first person to have openly been in a same-sex relationship to be nominated as a Church of England bishop. Jeffrey John, in his role as Dean of St Albans Cathedral, presided over my grandfather’s funeral.
My grandfather especially loved the fact I was interested in languages and culture. We would have long discussions about these things, and in our family, he probably had the most similar experiences and mindset to me. He loved to explore and get to know new people and cultures, with his most prominent flaw being his naivité.
It pains me that he never got to see the conclusion of that story; that he never got to see my career and life flourish in a country his was once at war with, and my engagement to someone who grew up behind the Iron Curtain.
It pains me even more to consider how absolutely, completely and utterly WRONG my country is in its stance on refugees, when so many of its elderly citizens have themselves fled from conflict in their youth.
It pains me to consider how hurt my grandfather would have been not just by the photo of a young Syrian boy drowned on the Turkish coast, but by the stories that have been going around for months. You see, my grandfather, like all good human beings and perhaps somewhat less like the ones we elect, did/does not need graphic imagery to care. It’s who he was.
Still, I’m going to share this video, because I support the idea behind it. I want my country of birth to befit my values on this matter as well as the country I adoped as my home already does.
I want my country to remember my grandfather and all those like them every time we debate how many people we can afford to accept.
We owe it to him, those like him, and humanity itself, to do our very best.