An EU immigrant twice over


It’s been a bad few days for Europe.

From the moment the referendum was announced, I had a feeling that Britain would leave the EU. Every time the issue came up on the Greek evening news, I’d tell my husband “They’ll do it. They’ll leave.” Of course, my language was a little more colourful than that.

Almost no one else I know thought the same thing, though. Especially other journalists living and working in Greece, some of them from London. So what was different? For a start, none of them come from the West Midlands. I was born in Kidderminster, and even though I grew up in Pakistan, at age 14 we returned to my city of birth.

Secondly, none of the other journalists I know in Athens are ethnic minorities. You could argue that this plays no role in perception when you are all receiving the same information. I’d argue that it does. As an ethnic minority, you hear the same narrative in a different way. It’s one thing to hear Brexiters demand their country back from foreigners. It’s another thing to have experienced that. I am one of the immigrants that they want their country back from. You can argue all day that it doesn’t apply to ‘people like me’ but you know full well they’re not talking about French bankers or Russian millionaires in London.

So let’s go into how I ended up being British. My father is from Pakistan. He studied medicine in the UK and worked there for 8 years, meeting my Indian mother in the process. Back then, his work and time spent in the UK was enough for him to gain British citizenship.

I, like my sisters, acquired this citizenship at birth. Even though I have joint Pakistani citizenship, I’m afraid I don’t have a dramatic immigration story to tell you about when I moved to the UK. We got on a plane and got off it. We went through passport control with our British passports. That’s it. Much to my schoolmates’ disappointment, there were no shanty towns from where I originated, no donkey cart which I rode to school and no rickety boat which I came to the UK on.

I went to school in England and university in Wales. I worked consistently since I was 17 years old. My father went back to working as a surgeon on the NHS and my mother as a theater nurse. I claimed job seeker’s allowance once for a total of two weeks before becoming employed again.

Fast forward a few years and I got on another plane and left to live in Greece to join the man who was and remains the love of my life. I now work and live in Greece, paying my taxes fair and square. I was unemployed for a while last year, but claimed no benefits from the system.

I have two children who were born in Greece. They are half Greek, part Pakistani and part Indian. They are entitled to British nationality and travel on Greek passports.

So my story is one of an immigrant twice over, and one of a European citizen. I have always believed in the EU, even if, lately, living in Greece has put me at the sharp end of much of the EU’s flawed policies.

But having lived in Britain, and having spent my formative years out in the sticks of the West Midlands, I had some inkling of how the average Briton thinks. And I knew that, far from the glittering lights of London, they were more likely to accept a narrative that immigration and the EU were to blame for everything from zero hour contracts to lack of housing to the collapsing NHS.

That’s not because I believe they are stupid. It’s because I believe they were misinformed and given easy answers to questions that are much too complicated to be condensed into a Yes or No referendum.

And, let’s face it. There is also the issue of racism, which I myself have been at the receiving end of, like every other ethnic minority I know who lives in the UK. Whether you like it or not, your ethnicity influences the prism through which you view the world. Unfortunately in the case of the referendum, for me it amplified the voices that wanted nothing more to do with foreigners coming into their countries and taking their jobs. They were by no means the majority, but they were loud and obnoxious enough to mean that the very next day, my youngest sister experienced this in my hometown:

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In answer to that argument, I put forward only the Greek case. Some 200,000 qualified Greek professionals have left Greece since the start of the economic crisis. Taking advantage of the EU’s free movement policy, many of them settled in the UK. The majority of them are doctors, lawyers and engineers. If they attended Greece’s free state university system, this means that the Greek state shelled out for them to become qualified, but now reaps none of the benefits. Those benefits go to the UK. Which is why scaremongering flyers about English potholes and the Greeks laughing at the Brits from atop fancy bridges were ridiculous.

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But this was a referendum in which the non ridiculous and cool-minded decision making didn’t manage to find a place. It was a referendum of utter nonsense, one with Boris Johnson preparing to sell the entire country down the river by sailing down the Thames in a Brexit convoy that would have been Monty Python-esque funny if it wasn’t so completely appalling at the same time.

So far, I have lived and worked in Greece without any problems. Employers asked what nationality I was, I said British, they said OK. Unlike American friends, I needed no residence permit to live in Greece. I went to the local police department once, registered the district I lived in, got a little card to prove that I had done this, and that was it. I needed to do nothing else as a citizen of the EU. I know that this won’t change immediately, and it might not change at all, but it’s an extra consideration that I didn’t have last Thursday morning.

And when it comes to what a Brexit means for medical research and the kind of innovative medicine that involves a cohesive EU, it’s a subject that has hit so close to the bone that I can’t even bring myself to look at it. A gamble was taken on the futures of my child and every person with a rare or complicated condition who is hoping for a medical breakthrough. One mother whose son also has Duchenne posted a picture of his sleeping face on Friday morning on Facebook, describing how she was stood by his bed in tears, about to wake him for school, and heartbroken that our fight for a cure just got harder.

My husband, who advocates for our son and the Duchenne community in Greece full-time (and no, apart from the occasional flight expense for a medical conference within Europe, before you start talking about free loaders and NGOs, he doesn’t make a single penny from what he does as an often 60 hour a week occupation) spent all of Friday on the phone to British patient advocate and medical research groups. They were utterly devastated and didn’t know what to do next.

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The morning after the night before, with my left hand wrapped in a pressure bandage after having typed and Tweeted myself into the land of sprained tendons, you would never realise that Briton’s economy is crashing and taking down the world’s stock markets if you looked at the pages of the Daily Mail or the Sun. I don’t want to believe that Brexiters live so much in their own world that they actually believe this jolly line. But since they bought the moronic colonialism, racism, small minded and isolationist mindset and the talk of an independence day from Boris Johnson, Nigel Farage and co, I’m not sure what to believe any more.

Now that it’s all over, I am disappointed in so many ways. Every morning brings new considerations for me as British citizen living in Europe. I reached Friday night after the referendum feeling completely exhausted and, I won’t lie, a little traumatised. For one thing, living in Greece means my brain has reached saturation point when it comes to political drama and collapsing economies. The Greek economy is as fragile as a house of cards right now. It cannot afford any knocks, but the waves from the fallout are heading our way and were immediately felt on the Athens Stock Market when it opened on Friday.

The EU gave me a home. It gave me an education and several jobs. It offered me the chance to follow the man I loved without the heartbreak and indignity of the authorities keeping us apart or poking their noses into our relationship to validate its authenticity.

When the other shoe finally drops for the Brexit voters, it will be too late for them, and too late for Europe’s economy. In nearly every other political process, I have made predictions that were off the mark. This was the one time I hoped my losing streak would hold. It didn’t. I was right, and I really wish I hadn’t been.


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