Somewhere on my ever increasing list of things to do is a job I just can’t be bothered to tackle. I need to get my daughter a new passport. This is a hassle that, I’d imagine no one wants. It’s expensive, time consuming and after years of imploring her to do the opposite, getting the girl not to smile for a photo is something of a challenge. Throw in the idiosyncrasies of the Home Office’s website plus the fact I’m basically a luddite and you’ll understand my despair. Ever the master procrastinator I eschewed this task earlier today in favour of sitting down with a cup of tea to read the newspaper online. One of the lead articles was about the separation and detention of illegal immigrants and their children at the southern US border. Adults who are found to be illegally crossing the border are forcibly separated from their children who cannot be held in prison with them. The children, some of whom are babies are held in separate institutions away from their families.
Whilst I have no doubt that the people in whose care they find themselves are kind and well intentioned, the images of children caged and lying on mats under foil blankets in what, a short time ago was considered the most advanced country in the world imprinted on my brain. The audio was even worse. In a tinny recording you could hear children crying out for their mums and dads, one little boy begging repeatedly in Spanish that someone phone his Auntie for him, calling out her phone number that he’d memorised.
In moments like these I think many parents are suddenly held hostage by their own thoughts. The earth shattering love you feel for your children, so powerful and primitive that no language can adequately describe it, comes with a heavy price. You become haunted. Every natural disaster, every war, every terrorist attack forces you to relentlessly ask yourself ‘what if…?’. Images of children in distress or worse, parents grieving their missing children wrap themselves like a cold hand around your heart. Tragedy and danger are seemingly everywhere. Distracting yourself, you push the thoughts away but they force their way back in through the cracks and a silent horror movie begins to play in your head. What if…?
What if our home country was so dangerous we had to leave?
What if it was my daughter in that detention centre?
What if she was separated from her brother?
What if there was no one who cared enough to hold her hand? To dry her tears? To answer her questions?
What if she hadn’t had the good luck to be born British?
I use this word luck quite deliberately. She did not deserve or earn the right to be born British. None of us did. It was a winning combination of ancestry and geography that meant she dropped on to planet Earth in Cheltenham and not in Aleppo or Baghdad. This fact is so often overlooked by those who hold the keys to the offices of power. Like them, her worth and influence are measured by her nationality, her language, her white skin.
As I sat at the computer with tears rolling down my face my eyes happened upon the passport I’d been steadfastly ignoring. This little red book means that my daughter can live a life of freedom. No one will imprison her for speaking out against her government, no one will mutilate her genitals and no one will throw her off a building should she decide she’s gay. She will be educated (even if it’s against her will) until she is 18 and she has a National Health Service that will look after her from the cradle to the grave. This little red book means that she can explore the world, make a home on foreign shores and need never quake in her boots as she approaches border security. In that moment I decided that £49 was not a rip off and moreover that this little red book, that people risk life and limb to acquire needed a little more respect.
National pride and identity sit awkwardly with us English. Yes we’ll bust out the Union Jacks for a royal wedding and the world marvels at our pomp and pageantry but when the bunting has been taken down and the facepaint cleaned off,our sense of what it means to be English is a difficult one to navigate. Our flag, long before we were born was plunged into foreign soils as a sign of ownership, authority and superiority, the consequences of which still reverberate around the world. In living memory it became synonymous with the politics of the far right and even now the St George’s flag conjures up ugly imagery of angry football fans, Nigel Farage and aggressive nationalism. If my confused and conflicted feelings mean that If I cannot teach my girl to be a proud Brit, I will strive to teach her every day to be a grateful one, for her life on this strange little island is full and she has so much when so many have nothing.
And she does have so much. A wardrobe full of clothes, a room full of toys and shelves full of books. She has a family who adore her, she goes on foreign holidays and has the luxury of knowing that when she announces she’s gone off cheese/strawberries/ rice that the fridge is full and that she’ll never go to bed hungry. My husband and I joke that to look inside her brain would reveal an endless carousel of puppies, fairies, marshmallows and princesses. She’s 6 and that is how it should be. No 6 year old should be worrying about crossing borders, when their next meal is going to be, or if their family will survive the next bombing.
Wrapping someone up in cotton wool is seen to be a bad thing, a sign of overproctectiveness, of being unwilling to let your child engage with the world, but I’ll happily cover her head to toe in the stuff for the time being. Like all children her age she’s endearingly and incessantly curious about the world, as a result we can’t have the news on in the background anymore- too many questions that necessitate horrible answers. Guns, bombs and war are not part of her vocabulary, I’m not honestly sure if she knows what any of those words mean. I withhold this from her sad in the knowledge that soon enough she’ll come to realise quite how ugly and unequal and unjust this world can be, there’s no need to hurry her. And when she does, I’ll hold her close, choose my words carefully and explain the issues as best I can. I’ll make it clear that she’s lucky, that she’s loved, that she’s safe and that she’s free. I’ll also make it clear that with her freedom comes responsibility. Responsibility to educate herself, to be tolerant, to always be kind and to never take for granted that little red book of hers.
Now if you’ll excuse me, I’ve a passport to renew.
A Guest Blog from Clare Watson
Clare is a wife and mother of two living in Cheltenham, currently working for an educational publisher. When not tidying up she likes to cook, read and travel. She is an avid traveller, aspiring travel writer and aims to have visited 40 countries by the age of 40. She’s very nearly there...