Shrinking Britain: A Migrant’s View on the EU Referendum

A migrant from Mostar, Yugoslavia on the meaning of Brexit. By Sara Gvero.

When I first moved to London it felt like my life had suddenly shrank. All the things that had been important to me until then receded into the background as I navigated my way through the challenges of adjusting to a new life. First came the awkwardness of not being able to communicate properly in English: the despair of trying to rent a room with a letting agent who would not speak slower irrespectively of how many times I asked her to, please. Then the frustration of booking an appointment for a National Insurance Number, mitigated only by the patience of the call handler who repeated her words over and over for me, a newcomer startled by her inscrutable inflection which I would later learn was a thick northern accent. Insecurity followed suit; I felt under the scrutiny of the bank employee who let me open an account only after I had assured him beyond doubt that I would start a full-time job the following week, finally allowing space for the overwhelming disorientation that pervaded the next few months, as I tried to figure out how everything worked – from public transport to the subtleties of social interaction.

I was not new to this kind of experience: my family moved to Italy in 1992 to escape war in Yugoslavia, and I remember clearly how my parents struggled to find work and a landlord who would trust them enough to rent to them. I remember how their lives, too, seemed to shrink for years, as they battled the unbearable slowness of Italian bureaucracy and adjusted to the constant feeling of disenfranchisement and isolation guaranteed by life as a migrant in a small Italian town known for its right-wing political views. I still remember vividly being observed and evaluated by the town’s inhabitants when my parents and their friends tried to recreate some sense of home by drinking coffee after coffee (as it is custom in the Balkans) at the cafe in the town centre, talking and laughing loudly in their mother tongue. I also remember being excluded from the local children’s games because I didn’t know their rules and no one had the patience to teach me. To this day, I am painfully aware of how much of Italy is still unknown to my family and I, despite having lived there for most of our lives, an incompleteness that testifies to the process through which we became Italian, not through the privilege of inherited customs but through the bumpiness of daily trial and error.

So if you ask me, the initial experience of migration is best described as the feeling of your life narrowing, as your daily experience is reduced to a limited set of practical issues and uncomfortable feelings. But just as it happened to my parents in Italy, the process gradually reversed, and I eventually got to a stage where the full range of life’s experiences and feelings was available to me again. Today my life is richer thanks to my time in this country, and I can see that the initial shrinking I experienced was part of a process that eventually enabled me to look at the world through a wider, more complete perspective. I completed a Master’s degree in London, and worked jobs in hospitality, academia and the charity sector. I got to know people from all over the world and had experiences that pushed me to reconsider my views and values. I came to appreciate the vastness of this city and the diversity of its inhabitants and became proud to be part of a society that values plurality and tolerance. Heck, I even learned to understand northern accents.

If I was able to enjoy the challenges and rewards of life in this country, it was thanks to the privilege of European citizenship. If, as a child, I could participate in exchange programs that took me to England and Finland, it was thanks to projects sponsored by the EU to foster the movement of young people across its member states. I too see project Europe as limited and in need of change, but I hoped that over time we would see Europe improve and loosen its existing borders, rather than implode as new ones emerged internally. For all these reasons, when the result of the EU referendum was announced on the morning of June 24th, I felt truly devastated and could not shake the feeling that the tide had turned in a direction ridden with danger. Regardless of the long-term consequences that the decision to leave the EU will have on the UK, I can’t help but feel that through this vote the British people have chosen to willingly narrow their lives. Within the country, there are many reasons to worry: job security may be jeopardized even more; Brits could loose their right to travel, work and live in Europe without visas; EU funding to charities and research may be lost and there are concerns as to what will happen to human rights and worker’s rights once the protections afforded by the EU are taken away.

Nobody knows for sure what will happen once article 50 has been invoked and the negotiations have taken place; it may even be the case that the common market and the free movement of people will, after all, be maintained. But the problem is more fundamental: everyone who lives in this country knows that immigration has been the real issue at stake, and that the UK’s attitude towards diversity has been completely redefined throughout the referendum campaigns. The shock on my British friends’ and colleagues’ faces as they struggle to make sense of how this could happen testifies to the reluctance to accept that the values their country have long stood for have been so blatantly sidestepped, if not deliberately trashed, in the run up to the vote by both sides of the political debate. I listen and empathize as they contemplate, in what is probably a first for Britain, the possibility of their lives shrinking, through no fault of their own.

If we don’t learn the lessons of history, we are doomed to repeat them, as the saying goes. My friend’s shock reminds me inevitably of that of my parent’s generation when Yugoslavia started to fall apart: that the principles of cohabitation and diversity could be so readily abandoned in favor of nationalistic interests was for many Yugoslavs simply beyond comprehension, just as it seems to be for many Brits today. Europe is not perfect, just as Yugoslavia was not, but it seems to me that membership in a larger, supranational entity must entail a willingness to show patience for each other as we negotiate the rules of the game, accepting the bumpiness of the process that leads to the creation of a sense of belonging and community, imperfect but shared. As reports of racial abuse in the UK increase and the far-right across the continent is emboldened by the referendum result, I fear that Britain and Europe may be shrinking into smaller, more limited versions of themselves. Watching the UK migrate away from Europe, I hold onto the hope that this process may reverse sometime soon.


The original version of this piece was published on Pequod

Sara was born in Mostar in 1989 and is part of the first generation Yugoslav diaspora. She graduated in Literature, Languages and Cultural Communication from La Sapienza University of Rome, and later obtained a Masters degree in Gender Studies from Goldsmiths University of London. She currently works in London to combat violence against women and writes for the online magazine Pequod. Her passions are the history of Yugoslavia, feminism and social justice. 

Cover photo credit: Roberto Trombetta/flickr/some rights reserved

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