Colette Hulot tells how Wales has given her space to reflect on identity, mobility and migration
My grandfather Rabah, or Jeddo as we call him, was from Syria. This heritage on my mother’s side made it impossible to turn a blind eye to the fate of migrants, and in September 2016, we both volunteered at the Calais camp. Although we were only there for a week, those few days were enough to meet the humans behind the crisis, and to witness the lack of humanity behind its management.
A couple of months later, I took the Eurostar and came to live in Wales permanently. I had just finished university and focused on my life here – finding a job, adapting to the culture and making new friends. The migrant crisis felt more distant; it became easier to ignore. It wasn’t covered in the media so much, and it’s not as visible in the streets of Cardiff as it is in Paris.
And yet every time I cross the Channel I think about how easily I get to travel for pleasure, while those who need refuge the most risk everything on their journey. I remember that freedom of movement should never be taken for granted; I think about how unaware I was, as a child, of the invisible borders I was crossing from my car seat, while Manu Chao sang Clandestino through the CD player. This seamlessness is something, I’ve noticed, that many Brits, as islanders, don’t fully comprehend.
Mobility, like most privileges, is invisible to those who have it. As we scan our faces to apply to the EU Settlement Scheme and cancel our trips abroad, we – privileged migrants – appreciate our prerogatives when they’re taken away. Worse, we come to realise that our very own lifestyle is causing those identity, sanitary and climate crises. We blame ourselves and each other, across and within our borders. Spreading conspiracy theories and condemning urban exodus while preaching the green gospel.
Mobility, like most privileges, is invisible to those who have it
Meanwhile, we forget about other migrants, the most vulnerable ones. Those who really are locked down, asylum seekers quarantined in refugee camps in Greece and the Balkans, or sleeping rough in our streets. Those who only get around £37.75 a week from the UK Government to survive, when we know the cost of high demand foods has already risen by 4.4% as a result of the pandemic. Those often accused of being a burden on our healthcare systems, when many are in fact key workers currently fighting a virus spread by tourists, businessmen and holiday homes owners.
These last few weeks, I was supposed to have travelled to Paris, Dakar and Palma de Majorca, to visit friends and family. My brothers cancelled their trip to Tokyo, my partner his to Rome. What seemed like exciting projects at the start of the year now feel embarrassing, in view of the circumstances.
Instead, I stayed in Wales. Like everyone else, I miss and worry about my family, and like everyone else I talk to them virtually. My plans to regularly practice Welsh and harmonica failed, unsurprisingly. But I learned that, during this crisis, there is nowhere else I’d rather be.
I remember how beautiful Cardiff is in the Spring, and how good Welsh people have been to me over the last four years. I realise I’m here at home, and that despite my obvious lack of pop culture references on Zoom quizzes, I belong.
I’ve stopped worrying about my own integration, and feel the urge to help others feel safe and welcome in Wales. Especially those who were forced to leave their home, then had to fight for the right to find a new hope. That’s how I came to feel my Welshness, during this difficult time.
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