When I was 8 or thereabouts, my mother and I went on an extended trip to Spain to stay with my grandmother and to see my aunts and uncles and cousins. In those days, flying was rather more expensive than it is now. I know people were already going on package holidays to Benidorm and so on, but if you wanted to go on a scheduled flight to a non-touristic region of Spain, the flights were not readily available or they were very expensive. Spain was not, at that point, an EU member. So, we took a passage on a big Spanish cruise liner called the Monte Granada from Liverpool to Vigo in Galicia. I don’t remember the ship being very crowded. I think it must have been heading on to do a cruise in the Mediterranean and that is why we were able to book the short 2-day passage. It was winter, around December.
Despite it being a very large ship, we had a terrible crossing. The Bay of Biscay did its notorious Bay of Biscay nauseous-making thing and there were no anti sickness tablets available. We had a tiny cabin with no window. The winter seas and cold stormy weather did not really endear me to ships or sailing much, I guess 2 days just is not long enough to get your sea legs.
With considerable relief and empty stomachs, we got to Vigo and went through all the customs palaver at the other end. I remember everyone had to go in a big room, more like a bit of warehouse, with long dark wooden tables and we had to open our suitcases ready for the dour customs inspectors barking orders to come along with their chalk. We only had our clothes so there was no fuss with us, but it seemed to take a long time for customs man to get to us.
With that done, we were free to go happily into the arms of my mother’s twin sister, my Tía Ester, who had come to meet us at Vigo, and we travelled together to Santiago de Compostela by train. Ester’s husband worked for the railways, so they didn’t even have a car, they always used trains.
I cannot remember how long we stayed in Spain– it seems to me we were there about 6 weeks, and I have vague memories of meeting a dizzying array of barely recognisable relatives of one kind or another who I had only ever seen in fuzzy black and white pictures. Certain people stuck with me but my grandmother was the eldest of 13 children so there seemed to be an awful lot of tías and tíos and primos, many of whom I have never met since so I couldn’t tell you their names. My Tía Herminda with her purple coloured poodle probably deserves a mention though. Keeping all the relationships between them straight was not a vital task for an 8-year-old but there was a lot of boring grown up conversation about people I didn’t know in places I had never been to that I probably tuned out of. However, I loved playing with my younger cousins and second cousins and visiting the feria with its colourful lights and noisy vendors in the beautiful Alameda in Santiago, eating hot churros con chocolate on the cold winter nights.
The time went by and we had Christmas there which was lovely but before I knew it, it was time to leave. So, we got back on the ship at Vigo for the two-day journey. My mind turned to seeing my dad and brothers again and I was very happy to be homeward bound.
On the morning we arrived at Liverpool, we were not allowed to get off the ship until we were given permission. I was used to translating for my mother sometimes. I had absorbed English like a native speaker so when my parents came up against something bureaucratic or difficult, my teenage brothers and I were able to help. That day it was only me, my brothers and dad were waiting on the quayside for us to disembark.
Two customs officials took us into a room on the ship. I could sense my mother’s fear and confusion, but I don’t think I cried. They were asking questions, I cannot remember what, probably about where we were from, when we came to the UK and that kind of thing. They had taken our documents off us and I remember being gripped with fear, longing to get off that boat and see my dad again. I helped my mother answer the questions. We were there a long time and then one of the men made a phone call from the office we were in and we had to wait for a while longer.
It turns out my mum had renewed her Spanish passport but the indefinite leave to remain stamp had not been put in the new passport and she had forgotten her expired one so the immigration officers had to establish our status, whether we were allowed to return to our home. For an eight-year-old, having two giant men in grey suits and solemn long pale faces question my mother through me was a terrifying experience. I understand that they couldn’t have done it any other way, but it was my first experience of a wall of officialdom. Even at eight I had the complete instant understanding that our fate was totally in the hands of these two strange men. If they had not been able to check their records or if there was a mistake in those records we would have been sent somewhere – I don’t know where, some kind of holding centre, and sent away from our nuclear family. Thankfully, this did not happen, and we were finally allowed off the ship to find Dad as relieved and worried as we were on the quayside. I think the whole family were very upset.
I didn’t realise how much this experience had affected me for a long time. I never talked about it until it came out unexpectedly as an adult in the course of a conversation and I recalled the fear and stress. But in truth I have always had a deep underlying fear and dislike of figures of officialdom especially immigration officers. Strangers with powers over your life still worry me. When going through Miami airport once I was stopped and made to wait in a big room full of people whilst immigration made some checks. My name had come up as a partial match to someone they were looking for and they had to verify my identity before I could continue my journey. I found the whole thing very distressing and as soon as it was over, and we could leave I burst into tears. I hadn’t done anything wrong, it was just the tension of having people with power over your life that got me again and perhaps transported me back to that office on a ship when I was 8 and I wondered if I would ever see my dad again.
So, when I see the pictures of refugees, particularly children, I really do feel pain for them. Can you imagine being them? They probably do not speak much English; they have been pushed around and made to pay every penny they had to try and escape to a place where they can find healing. They must be terrified as they have gone from person to person in their lives who has tried to seize control of their futures. Whether politics or war or poverty, their lives have been made insufferable enough to seek something better. They have been taken advantage of by criminals, had their or their families meagre savings swiped. They end up on a windy British beach with nothing except their lives which they are lucky to have kept and the clothes they stand in being filmed by privileged idiots like Nigel Farage.
They will then have to go through the long stressful procedures to establish whether they can stay or whether they must go back to their hell. I was lucky, if our paperwork had not been in order, I had family to return to. These refugee children may not have anybody, or anything left to go back to.
Having negotiated all that, if their claims are successful they may well have a lifetime of being stopped and questioned by immigration officers when they go on their holidays and each time, despite the fact they are legal and have done nothing wrong, that knot in their stomach will be there somewhere. When the children learn enough English – which won’t be long believe me, they will see and understand the likes of drunken Tory MPs on Newsnight ranting about how the government should send the navy out (to do what bully them, shoot them?) to deal with these poor desperate souls in boats and they will wonder why their parents spent everything to had to come here to a place where people hate them without even knowing them, without knowing their story.
Remember those pictures of the children removed from parents in the USA and put in cells in big warehouses? That distressed me beyond words, and I fear for the lifelong damage that this policy may have caused these children.
Those immigration officers who I met with all those years ago were, I am sure, very professional and kind, I can’t really remember that because all that stayed with me is the fear, the instant understanding that those people were more powerful than I was and could decide on something that could hurt me. For those children who have already gone through dangerous sea crossings or long and thirsty and hungry walks through the desert, the distress of understanding that must be horrific and, well, those children and adults, deserve our help not our hate. The far right is trying to dehumanise them again as they did in 2015, whipping up a panic that somehow British people are threatened by refugees. Do not let them. These people are humans with hearts and emotions and personal stories. Do not try and eradicate them from your reality by pretending it’s not your problem or that you should not care. We should all care. “There but for the grace of God go I”, or put it another way, there but for our privilege and good luck go any one of us.