Let me start by telling it straight: There are two types of migrants according to society: “good migrants” and “bad migrants.”
“Good migrants” are educated, have an expertise and with ease and possibly distinction, fit into the economy. They are probably even charming and funny as well.
Then there are so-called “bad migrants” – people like myself and my mother. She arrived, as a headscarf-wearing, illiterate, Muslim woman, with a little three-year-old boy, from Somalia in 1993, in an attempt to make a new life for herself in the post-industrial northern city of Sheffield.
Growing up was a daily challenge. Every road sign, instruction manual and bureaucratic letter was another mystery for us to solve as a team. We did homework together as we both needed to know what it was that the British called a tufaax (apple); or how to share amazement at the occasional Hilaac iyo onkod (thunder and lightning). We even put up with the casual racism that came our way together. I guess we thought it was to be expected, though I slowly began to realise that racism, no matter how casual, was like a grenade thrown at the foundations of your carefully constructed confidence.
On the staircase up to our fourth floor flat, sometimes there would be drug dealers and sometimes there would be drug users. But there would always be urine in the corner. This was too normal to be a problem or much of a distraction. This inner city area was home and because it was home I could hardly imagine a more beautiful place.
My mother and my stepfather, when he began to become part of my life, spent a good chunk of the little they had on buying me books. “Bad” migrants tend to particularly emphasise the importance of education to their children.
My mother was what society would have called a “burden on the state”, as she was on benefits for most of these years. But she had to be careful with money. We didn’t waste it on coffees, restaurants and enticements from TV advertisments. We were living on the lowest amount society thought people could survive on, yet somehow my mother found a way to save up and send medical fees for distant relatives who otherwise might die, due to the poor medical infrastructure of where we had come from.
What my mother really invested in all these years, however, didn’t have an obvious monetary value. It was us – her children – as she put all her energy into creating the best people that she could.
No, she couldn’t personally contribute like the “good migrants” and everyday citizens, but through her life experience and struggles she raised empathetic characters, filled with intellectual curiosity and a refined desire to contribute. A simple sense that it matters a lot to make sure we create systems and structures that make what was difficult for us easier for others. She did what she could to make good people. Ultimately, speaking of “good” and “bad” migrants – as with most labels – fails to distinguish between those who can love and those who can’t, those who build and those who destroy.
I am what I am today because of my mother, my stepfather, the people I met along the way who helped me and because we were supported by a multifaceted state that was the collective expression of humanity.
The same urge that created this infrastructure of humanity and gratitude – what we call the welfare state – is similar to the philanthropic urge that makes someone of humble beginnings use their success to create foundations, educational trusts, charities and scholarships. Acts like this are the physical expression of their gratitude for the good fortune that allowed them to succeed in ways that others less fortunate may not have.
Most of us are empathetic towards people like my mother, who can tell stories about a civil war with dead relatives, hunger and bullets raining down around them. We should not however allow our empathy to stop there. Brute luck affects even those outside of warzones. Who of us can be sure that we would not act like the economic migrants seeking to escape the slow burning frustration brought on by misery and despair in parts of the world impoverished by mere coincidence and often historic crimes?
As for me, I’m proud to be a “bad” migrant. It’s taught me everything I know, and made me proud of those who attempted to ingrain compassion into the infrastructure of society’s bureaucracies. It’s filled me with a desire to make the world better. Finally, it taught me that history produces our present, privileges some and deprives others.
With the continuing Syrian refugee crisis, the purgatory in Calais, and the destitution of refugees and asylum seekers in the UK, we would do well to remember this: fortune accounts for far too much of all our lives to close our hearts, our doors, and our countries to desperate victims of misfortune. And if you suspect we just don’t have enough space, then perhaps we need to create a world with less misfortune.
Abdi Aziz Sulieman, a graduate from the University of Sheffield and former Sheffield Students’ Union President, who was also a refugee from Somalia.