A few days ago I was asked I thought of myself as an immigrant. I said, I did. And here is why.
The first time I understood I was an immigrant was not at Heathrow when I first landed in the UK in 1991. I was going to a post-doc in Lancaster and a very officious immigration officer, after 5 minutes of various questions, asked me what my name was. My jaw collapsed and I retorted: Surely, you can read.
The first time I thought I was an immigrant was when there was fire (or a fire drill – I can’t remember now). I was staying in halls of residence on campus and one night the fire alarm sounded. As everybody was rushing out of the building, I remember myself running upstairs to my room. I didn’t pay attention to the bewildered looks of other residents, because I needed to get to my room. I had to get my passport. If, indeed, there was fire, I could lose the only thing that I had that proved my right to be in the UK. And the thought of having no documents was just about unbearable, fire or not.
I started thinking when I was clutching my passport in my hand. Surely, I was overdoing it, there would have been plenty of ways of proving who I am. Yes, yes, yes, I quickly dismissed these thoughts. It’s better to be safe than sorry. After all, I was an immigrant. A legal alien who has leave to stay, but, at the end of the day, is a problem.
And this is what being an immigrant means for me. It’s not about foreignness. It’s about being, shall I say, institutionally unwelcome. It’s very important – it’s not about the people around you, it’s about ‘the system’ which constantly challenges you to prove who you are, why you are here.
A year later, I had a job, a work permit was issued by the Home Office, I was coming to stay in the UK at least for a few years. At 3 a.m. I drove off the ferry from Oostende only to be stopped by another immigration officer. I had a fax from my employer that the Home Office had confirmed my work permit and that I was to come over immediately. That was not enough, of course. The immigration officer decided that I would stay in the car till 9, that is to say till the Home Office opens.
Six hours in a layby did not have much appeal, so I calmly asked to see the officer’s supervisor. Oh, I could see the internal struggle on the officer’s face. Waking up the supervisor or believing a fax from a university and letting me in. Yes, of course, waking up the supervisor at 3 a.m. was way too risky. I got a sermon about him phoning everybody in the morning and sending the SAS to get me, if I had told lies, but on this occasion he would let me in.
That’s the second time I understood who I was. I was someone who can be directed to sit in a car for 6 hours, because an immigration officer can do it. It quickly turned out that he didn’t really have to do it and the threat of waking up his supervisor is enough to let you off. Priorities for you.
And then it’s the visits at police stations, being insulted by police officers (one resulted in a special apology from the local police), questioning every time you want to go back to the place you live. And, finally, being told that a gas bill is a form of identification preferred to your Polish passport when it comes to getting a mortgage. Seriously.
You think it passes with time? Not really, institutions keep reminding me I am different and different rules apply. On the one hand, the local council corrects my name from ‘Dariusz’ to ‘Darius Z.”, on the other hand, every other institution asks me when I started living in the UK. Last time yesterday – I was insuring my car. I’ve had my British driving licence for 20+ years and still it’s important when I came to the UK. It never goes away. Never. I will always be an immigrant. Always different, always someone with a precarious claim to be here.
Though what struck me most some time ago, was a discussion in which I heard that we, immigrants, constantly get hand-outs from the government/council. Flats, benefits, the person stopped before mentioning cars. I said “You forgot my expensive perfume”. It might have been taken at face value, though.
No, I don’t see the funny side. I will never be the ‘face of immigration’. Always in job, always paying taxes, on balance contributing (I hope). No, that’s either not believed, or just discarded as exceptional. I don’t count. What counts is the myth.
Now, don’t take this post as my sob story, poor me, life’s hard. Not at all. I’m OK, my life in the UK has been good. Also, I am well-educated, I speak English fluently. And this is precisely why I have been apologised to more times than I care to remember. Instead of me, think about what happens to all those people who are not like me, with barely any English, with no education, scared of power and authority. I often think of it: if these are my experiences, what about the others?
I’ve written this post because I wanted to show (my) experience of immigration. It’s never easy. But mine is an experience that is very likely to be different from many others – those who cannot shout with an apparently posh accent. And yet, they also contribute.