As if we hadn’t had enough of the travelling bug recently, this week we popped up to Yorkshire for a couple of nights to catch up with the family and make the most of the last few days of our long and wonderful summer before Kitty has to go to school and I have to go to work and everything takes a lot more planning. We had a lot of fun and the girls adored trailing around after Grandad, colouring in with their Auntie and spending an afternoon with Grandma and Auntie baking the most decorated Frozen cupcakes that have ever ever existed. We drove home, stopping off at our usual services, watching the Friday night traffic build on the opposite carriageway and listening to Elma chatter for two and a half hours without one single millisecond of a pause, and arrived to the tail end of a gorgeous afternoon, autumnally warm and beautifully sunny.
We turfed the children out into the garden to stretch their wiggles out and as H unloaded the car I sat and chatted to them and watched them unwind.
Pip found a stick and started digging in the herb garden, before moving on to a little dedicated soil tasting, while the girls sat on the monkey swing, or played teachers (Kitty’s current favourite game) with Elma playing the game of obedient-ish pupil, or they all tried to pile on the slide. They played happily with the occasional squall and it was lovely, peaceful and restful and the antidote to a long drive.
An ordinary and perfect moment; my three strong, healthy, safe, warm, housed, fed, protected children. I have never had to choose whether to risk their lives to try to save their lives. I have never had to flea from my home, from the country that I love, because it was changing beyond all recognition into a frightening and dangerous place. I have never known, and can only imagine, the feeling of despair and failure that must sweep over every parent who has realised that despite striving with every fibre of their being they cannot keep their child safe from harm. And my heart breaks for those in that position.
It could never have been my children loaded on an overcrowded boat trying to reach Greece. It could never have been my children attempting to cross the mediterranean from North Africa and it could never have been my children walking and being carried hundreds of miles through Eastern Europe, simply because they, and we, are lucky. They were born in a country that will keep them safe, that is not rocked by civil unrest and intolerance masquerading as a militant faith.
But it could have been their great-great-something-grandfather. My mother’s family legend would have you believe that my Great-Great-Uncle Otto (and presumably some level of Great-Grandfather) rowed the North Sea to join the merchant navy. How much of that is embellishment I don’t know, but I do know that several generations back the family were immigrants to the UK. Mum’s maiden name was German in origin and I remember her telling me that my uncle and aunt had traced the family tree and found that at a time when Germany was plunging itself into disarray my great something grandfather had sat his family down and said, “we need to go, and we need to go now”. The family split, Great Uncle Otto and my great-something-grandfather came to the UK, and more family was traced to North America and I think to South Africa. They built new lives, married and had families, and they kept those families safe, and several generations down the line that’s the only bit of my lineage that isn’t most decidedly and wholeheartedly British.
There are people today who will do anything to get themselves and their loved ones to somewhere where they can be safe, just as there were yesterday and just as there will be tomorrow and for many days to come. They aren’t a swarm or a flood or any one of a number of derogatory collective nouns, they are people, they are families, and the one thing that they and their children have in common with me and mine right now is that they love those children with the same protective fierceness that I love Kitty, Elma and Pip.
I would love nothing better than to wave a magic wand and give them back their homeland, safe and secure. I wish with all my heart that there was no need for anyone to run in fear, but people have sought peace in the middle east for years, decades and, let’s be honest, millennia, without much success. As a nation we can and should be doing everything we can to work towards that peace, to support the countries that border Syria, to give them the strength to continue to stand firm, to resist the evil that pushes at their gates, and to help the thousands of ordinary people seeking safety.
That help starts right here at home in the UK. We are being called to help people in their hour of need and as a nation we need to step up and our government needs to step up. Now is our time to be tested and it is not the England that I know and love if our humanity is found to be wanting.
In short and simple terms: Do as you would be done by.
This cartoon has been shared widely over social media this week and it hits the nail on the head. What is so tragic is that it wasn’t drawn this week, it’s from Australian cartoonist Simon Kneebone and was drawn in 2014 as commentary on the boatloads of people arriving in Australia from Indonesia. The more things change…
And for every argument that suggests that the UK doesn’t have enough space, or opening our gates would see us overwhelmed I just want to shout out this interview with Professor Alexander Betts, Director of the Refugee Studies Centre at Oxford. The impact on the UK for helping: negligible; the impact on the people we help: life changing.