Making a new home

<strong>From There to Here: 16 True Tales of Immigration to Britain</strong>

Edited by Arts Counc

Almost in passing, Vesna Maric mentions "our dusty old towns, where things lately had not been so good". It's a huge understatement - the "towns" in question are deep in the turmoil of the 1992 Bosnian War, and Maric is one of the countless refugees displaced from her homeland during the crisis. As the coach takes her away from everything she knows, she buys a chintzy cigarette lighter (emblazoned with the words "Viens avec moi"), idly pretending she's on "a tourist trip". But her journey to the safety of UK soil is long and disorientating. Moving west from petrol station to petrol station, she quickly loses her bearings: "I never knew who I was or where I was."

The dozen or so immigration stories that make up From There to Here are full of such human details we rarely see in the mainstream media. Encompassing varied true-to-life experiences of immigrants to the UK (from Ugandan exiles to Turkish-Cypriot Muslims), the anthology paints a vivid picture of an ethnically diverse Britain at odds with itself. At times inviting, at others prejudiced and hostile, the reactions of the natives are as fascinating as those of the newcomers.

Take Maric's almost Pythonesque account of her evacuation to Penrith. As they prepare to set off, a charity worker instructs the refugees "to dress down" and "to look as bad as possible". It soon transpires that an earlier group had disappointed their British hosts, who "complained that they didn't really look like refugees".

But the book quite rightly focuses on the migrants themselves. In her endearing tale, Menaka Raman finds herself "looking like an Indian lumberjack" at the heart of "London's most fashionable quarter". Although she is keen to "blend in" with her new neighbours, her sartorial blunders leave her resembling "a cross between William Wallace and Phoolan Devi", or "a bag lady on acid".

Nimer Rashed's chapter, meanwhile, tells the story of his Israeli father's relocation to the swinging London of the 1960s. Awestruck by Albert Finney's performance in Saturday Night and Sunday Morning, he immediately sets about becoming an actor. He is often typecast in "terrorist" roles (he recently played "al-Qaeda kingpin Ayman al-Zawahiri"), yet he clings to a distinctly Middle English "vision of Albion". "Englishness is disappearing," he laments, hankering after the parochial ideals of country cottages and wooden bookshelves.

Entertaining as many of these stories are, it is the painful realities at the heart of each account that make up the most striking elements of the book. Anita Sethi's Guyanese mother "does not like to be referred to as an 'immigrant'", because "the word sounds so negative in the current climate". Menaka Raman, too, is hurt by its "abusive" connotations. Though they are often presented as comedies of errors, none of the vignettes is free from the darker undercurrents of frustration, miscommunication and prejudice.

At one point, Kirti Joshi remembers the headlines that faced Ugandan Asians who had been expelled from their own homes by Idi Amin: "NEW FLOOD OF ASIANS TO BRITAIN", "ANOTHER 20,000 ASIANS ARE ON THE WAY", "ENOUGH OF ASIAN INFLUX". The first thing Joshi's father sees as he steps off the plane are "people waving placards in the air with the words: 'Go back to where you come from'".

However, going back is often not an option. In her homeland of northern Uganda, Jade Amoli-Jackson is raped, beaten and tortured; her husband is murdered; her children are abducted. Her father and sister are "killed by a gunman for ten head of cattle", and when she escapes her captors, she is "a walking skeleton with wounds all over [her] body". Her ordeal is such that, though black herself, she briefly develops an irrational fear of other black people. Equally tragic is her conviction that, somehow, she was to blame for her horrific fate. "I thought I was the one who had made all those people die or be captured and taken to the bush," she writes. "If I were a good person, my children would not have been taken."

From There to Here serves as a powerful corrective against the dehumanising slogans of the right-wing press. It gives voice to people rarely noticed outside the charged contexts of political debate, and, to quote Nimer Rashed, reminds us of how "everyone comes from somewhere". Credit goes to its editors, who have compiled a good read from a subject matter that could so easily have been dry or pious. It's never less than eye-opening, inspiring stuff.

Yo Zushi is a contributing writer for the New Statesman. His latest album, It Never Entered My Mind, is out now on Eidola Records and is on Spotify here.

This article first appeared in the 10 December 2007 issue of the New Statesman, How New Labour turned toxic