Tuesday, 23 March 2010

Perceptions of Refugees

I've realised that we are leaving really quite soon (still not sure when, thank you BA for informing us of you rescheduled flights in a manner that is neither timely nor helpful). Anyway, I've also realised that I still have quite a lot to say. So, expect quite a few posts over the next week or so. My notebook is brimming with ideas and I want to write them whilst I can look out of the window and see the country, not whilst I'm remembering how it was.
First up is an excerpt from an excellent and surprisingly funny book that I recently finished. Vesna Maric was 16 when she fled the war in Mostar, exchanging it for a life in Northern England. I highly recommend her book, Bluebird, for an insight of what it is like to leave your country and to become a refugee.

One passage really stood out to me, it highlighted much about the Bosnians, but also, more revealingly perhaps, about the British. It takes place as Vesna is about to board the bus that will take them to England, cementing their status as refugees.

"None of us knew exactly where we were going. All that Dragan had told us was to dress down and look as bedraggled as possible, because the previous group, he said, was too dressed up. The British had complained they didn't really look like refugees. Dragan had described it to my mother the week before, over the telephone: 'They looked as if they were dressed for a wedding!' I imagined my vain compatriots in their Italian fashion suits rescued from their homes, lipstick and eye shadow intact, like armour.

The British had, understandably, expected something a little more like 'proper' refugees: people suffering, hardship visible on their faces, clothes torn and wrinkled, children's eyes crusted with tears. Dragan wove through the crowd, closely inspecting everyone's outfits by pinching a shirt, a skirt or a trouser between two fingers, rubbing it to feel its quality, a look of disgust on his face. It seemed we were well below standard. But the unspoken motto of these Bosnian mothers was: 'If we are going to be refugees, let's not advertise our misery, let us at least look good,' and I could understand how they felt. It's not easy suddenly becoming a refugee." (pg. 28)

It sums the Bosnians up perfectly. It doesn't matter how terrible their situation, how difficult their life is, whatever happens they are going to look good. You can see it everywhere today. Whatever their situation, the Bosnians will manage to sew, mend, share, create, borrow, whatever the right clothes and they will look good. Night after night you will see the kids walking down the roads dressed up to the nines. Their hair is immaculate, their make-up flawless. The look is a little over the top for my tastes, but there is no doubt about it, you notice the Bosnians. The men too like to be well groomed, they spend hours tweaking and gelling their hair to its imagined perfection, choosing the right t-shirt, teaming it with the perfect leather jacket.

The only time you don’t see a well turned out Bosnian is if they are working in their gardens, in which case the dress code is tracksuits and wellies. Very sensible if you ask me.

I can understand that there was no way, absolutely no way, in which the Bosnians were going to go to England underdressed. They were going to look good and that was that. To not do so would be to let down their country and their culture.

But it is the British point of view that I find fascinating. The British wanted to help. They organised a bus to spirit people away from the awful conflict. But, they wanted to know that they had helped. They wanted to see traumatised people climbing off that bus, people who had suffered. Their idea of a refugee, someone who had suffered during the war did not include a few well-dressed women with dignity and pride.

Somehow, it seems that once people have had the status of refugee tagged onto them that over-rides any other identity. It matters not that the person had skills, was a Doctor, Engineer, Vet. Nor that they have opinions of their own. Nor that they are an individual with their own thoughts and experiences.

I’m only just restraining myself from starting a rant about the Daily Mail, but it does seem to me that if we can’t see the people who are forced to come to our country for reasons out of their control as people and individuals, but force them to inhabit a role of our perceived notions about refugees, we are guilty of an enormous disservice to those who most need our help.


Muddling Along Mummy said...

I have to agree with those women - even in the face of it keeping your standards and wearing your make up
and clothes as armour during such turmoil

IT's a shame that charity seems to require the suplicatipm of a suitably downtrodden and grateful recipient rather than being unconditional

WeDoAdventure said...

Great post. Sums up really well some of the struggles we face. I work with some 'poor' young people who routinely make me feel shabby in the way I dress. As self-supporting volunteers with a charity our income depends on people wanting to to help us help needy people. We know that despite people's ability to turn themselves out very nicely there are still big needs here. But sometimes I wonder if the pictures and videos they see of us at work reinforce this view or not!

Paradise Lost In Translation said...

It's EXACTLY the same attitude, sense of style & pride in appearance her e in Albania too. (it's also true for me that the women's style is a little too 1980s OTT!)
Have you read Rose Tremain's "the Road Home" fictional but captures an East European's situ as an immignrnt in Britain really well too. I must read Bluebird. Sounds right up my street.

Brit in Bosnia / Fraught Mummy said...

Muddling - there is something about looking good and having your dignity intact!

WDA - It is tough. They often look like they have a lot more money than they do - and they are GENIUS at making,adapting, borrowing, sharing, altering to ensure that they are always right on trend!

Paradise - I've been trying to remember that book all day. I LOVED it, really enjoyed it. Read a lot of her other books and never liked them as much. Do read Bluebird, it is a wonderful book, well written and very perceptive!

Catharine Withenay said...

It used to amuse us, in Zambia, how the locals would polish their shoes. Every day they would have shiny black footwear, sparkling despite the heat and the dust. We Brits accepted the dirt and rolled up as scruffs ... that was, until our maid was so embarrassed by us that she insisted on regularly polishing our shoes.

We have never looked so smart before or since! Yet the Zambians took pride in their appearance at all times.

nappy valley girl said...

Very good post - and yes, it does say a lot about the British. I was going to recommend the Road Home too! Also Two Caravans by Marina Lewycka is an excellent novel about immigrants in the UK.

goonerjamie said...

Sorry to do this to you (I'm not really), but I've tagged you over at mine.

Gappy said...

Yes, it's all deeply unpleasant if you ask me. There is always so much voyeurism on the part of the more fortunate when it comes to war and disaster.

We want to help the 'victims'. And then we feel hard done by if they don't or won't act the part.

cartside said...

very true, not just of the British I would add. I think wherever there is "charity" you'll get people expecting the victim, who has to be eternally grateful and looking up to their "saviour". Plus people make such vast generalisations - it's human nature I know, for instance I've often had to explain that not all refugees from Africa will get on with one another because actually, their countries may be at war (which is why they left!). Refugees are so often seen as one homogenic group, makes life easier for us, but very difficult for refugees who are above all individuals.

planb said...

I do agree (especially about anti-daily mail rants), but I also wonder if there is an element in the "British" reaction of having had to make tough choices about where their hard-earned money was going to go, and deciding that the people who really needed it were the "poor" refugees, then feeling (when given the outward impression that the refugees were fine) that their money would have been better spent somewhere else (perhaps on Cartside's Africans).

Sitting here and now, we know that wasn't the truth and those Bosnians needed our/their help more than words can say, but I can understand the need to feel that the money is really doing something. If you're desperate to help, you want to really feel that you are helping.

Might it not be a lack of understanding, rather than a "charitable" need to look down on others?

I probably haven't expressed that very well, but hopefully you'll get what I mean.

ps what about Rose Tremain's Music and Silence? I loved it... (although the Road Home was still better)

Alice said...

Great post, which I found very interesting and I'm looking forward to searching out a few of these book recommendations.

Brit in Bosnia / Fraught Mummy said...

CW - we are total scruffs in comparison to most of the rest of the world aren't we!

NVG - Haven't read that, will have to go and have a look. Thanks.

GJ - I'll get my revenge. Don't you worry.

Gappy - It is a tough one to deal with the voyeurism issue.

Cartside - good point. Refugees do tend to all be seen as one and the same.

Plan B - I see your point, but refugees have left everything behind, whether they are dressed up or not. I hate that they need to leave behind their identity and dignity too in order to 'qualify' as what we expect refugees to be.

PS - I just couldn't get into Music and Silence. Much preferred the Road Home which I thought was brilliant.

Alice - there are a lot of book recommendations.When will we ever get the time to read them?

elvedina2006 said...

Thank you for this great post!!!!! It brought tears to my eyes.

Nishant said...

grateful recipient rather than being unconditional
home based data entry