Waiting to board a plane to England, hoping this would be our new home, my family and I clutched a bundle of papers and dark brown passport-sized travel documents, forcing smiles as the Cypriot passport control asked my parents questions about what our intentions were in London. I was 8 years old, and my sister just 5, so we distracted ourselves with coloring pencils and a pad, but I was struggling to hold back tears because I dreaded what was to come. We had nothing but the clothes on our back and a few suitcases. Haggard from stress, my father looked 10 years older than he does today, even though this was 20 years ago.
We were refugees, with no formal identity. We belonged nowhere, had no passport, no citizenship and very few rights, particularly in the developed world. This is because I am a third-generation Palestinian refugee. My grandparents fled to Beirut from the port city of Haifa, now a part of Israel, with thousands of people after the 1948 Arab-Israeli war, known to the Arabs as the Nakba, or the Catastrophe, and to the Jews as the War of Liberation. That politically-charged event has determined the rest of my life.
As millions of Syrians flee their own Nakba, it is all the more important to think about refugees as more than just helpless people who will drain the resources of new countries but as hard-working and skilled people with unique cultures who want to thrive in new lands until they can return home. While my experience was nothing like the tumultuous and terrifying journey many Syrians are taking in boats to Europe, the challenges they face remind me of the plight of Palestinians for the past nearly seven decades.
My parents, Aziz and Ayda, were born into violence and civil war in 1960s Beirut in the bombed-out, over-populated, under-serviced refugee camp, Shatila. Originally built for 3,000, it now houses up to 22,000 refugees, in addition to thousands of Syrians who have escaped their own war. My mother, barely a teenager, would hide in cupboards as shots fired over her family home, while my father, who served for the Palestinian Liberation Organization, would run from house to house, fighting an impossible battle against the Lebanese militia and Israeli army. They stayed in Shatila as countless military operations and insurgencies swept through the camp, and they stayed even as the Sabra-Shatila massacre wiped out hundreds of Palestinians and Lebanese civilians in 1982. My grandparents and a few of my father’s brothers and sisters still live in the same makeshift house, so speedily constructed by the United Nations to house the influx of refugees in the 40s.
But my father found a way out. A British woman called Joan Beazleigh, who would later become my surrogate grandmother and teach me everything I know about journalism, was a probation officer and a pro-Palestine advocate—the kind you see on the street waving flags and yelling “Peace.” But she wasn’t a hippy. In her Thatcher-esque temperament, she demanded the world for my parents. Talking for hours about the political situation, with a broadsheet in one hand, and a cup of tea in the other, my Auntie Joan (she wouldn’t accept the stately term of ‘grandmother’) lived and breathed for Palestinian refugees like my father whom she was introduced to through British and Palestinian activists who had been living in Beirut up until the massacre of ‘82 , and she personally pulled strings within the U.K. government, writing letter after letter to politicians and refugee groups to make it work for my parents.
Always perfectly presented, with a grey-haired perm and conservative clothes, Auntie Joan one day decided that Cyprus, a 30-minute plane ride from Lebanon, was a good haven for my parents and open to refugees. My parents, newly married and hopeful for the future, agreed. They moved to the capital Nicosia in the late 1980s, where my sister and I were born into a somewhat sheltered life. I attended the Falcon school, a coveted private education that I received for free because of my father’s job as the manager of a printing press. My mother was a secretary for a Palestinian politician. But Cyprus denied us the right to remain and become citizens, despite my parents’ decade of hard work.
Another move was orchestrated by my Auntie Joan; we would emigrate to England, where people like us were accepted. In 1994, we landed in Heathrow airport in London. We lived in a basement for almost a year, a favor from a friend, until we found a small house to rent in the small university town of Oxford. To most, we were just another family in a suburban house, but to the U.K. government we had a lot to prove. Would we contribute to society? Did we deserve, as refugees, to get access to the nation’s free schools and vaunted public health system? With the ease of life in England came the fear of deportation. I remember many stressful mornings when my parents flinched at the sound of the mail landing through the front door, fearing it was a rejection of our citizenship.
It took more than a decade of lobbying the government, thousands of dollars spent in lawyers fees and anguished prayer, but one day, in 2004, we received the letter we had been waiting for. We were now British citizens. We are the only members of our entire family that has an official passport from a country. In other words, it took my family close to 60 years to gain a right in a country. Until then, we had been severely restricted with international travel, were unable to get a mortgage and could not sign up for various benefits due to a tenuous position known as “Exceptional leave to remain,” a type of refugee status granted in England that could mean deportation at any point.
Yet, when I did finally get my passport and was able travel freely, I was still subject to the same questions I was forced to answer to when I had nothing but travel documents. In Egypt, where I worked for several years and used as a base to travel the region, I was constantly interrogated at every airport: “Where were you born?” “Who is your father?” “Why are you here?” Citizenship is a privilege that is earned by a precious few refugees, but it doesn’t mean you are accepted, and I am still an anomaly in many countries.
Now I am a journalist based in New York City, while my parents remain in the U.K., hard-working, quiet people who have gained respect within their communities. My father works partly for the government, the same one that at one point delayed and denied his visas and applications for citizenship, to rehabilitate drug addicts and alcoholics within the probation service, while my mother, who barely spoke a word of English on arrival in London, manages the I.T. for a large college, directing teams of people at a time. My sister was a qualified nurse with the National Health Service in England, another government-owned entity, before moving to Lebanon in 2013.
I remember this and my upbringing vividly when I hear about the crackdown on immigrants into the U.K. today. The surge in immigration has become a central political issue because it is considered unsustainable by some, but migrants are simultaneously crucial to furthering the U.K’s economy. The situation is complex for many refugees, but in most cases, phrases like “scrounger,” “welfare-abuser” and “job stealer” are simply incompatible with reality, where a refugee’s financial and academic success, and even their life, is dependent on a signature.
If the stringent rules of immigration law were to have applied back in 2004, when I was awarded my passport, my family may be living a very different life, one that my grandmother, Zaineb, still lives today in Beirut, in the Shatila camp where she has languished for decades.
Farah Halime is a British-Palestinian journalist based in Brooklyn. She was previously in Cairo and Beirut covering the financial and economic aftermath of the Arab Spring, where she founded the blog Rebel Economy.