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Africa/Europe: Can’t cross, won’t return

Wednesday 19 June 2013, by siawi3

Abdul Ghelleh

Pambazuka, 2013-06-06, Issue 633
Source: http://pambazuka.org/en/category/comment/87732

I arrived in London on a drab and rainy Friday afternoon in the spring of 1985. Margaret Thatcher was in her second term as prime minister and Samantha Fox was Britain’s favourite page-three girl for The Sun. Michael Jackson had won seven Grammy awards the previous year including one for Thriller, which was released in late 1982 and was still one of the top 10 singles for club dance in Britain. Negotiations over the Hong Kong sovereignty handover to the Chinese were continuing. And back in Africa, Desmond Tutu was elected the Archbishop of Johannesburg, and the following year, he would famously say: “On my part, I think the West can to go to hell!”, in response to Ronald Reagan’s refusal to impose sanctions on the white minority regime in South Africa. Both Britain and the world I left behind seemed to be fine, for now. And I had just turned twenty. 

I have experienced few racism incidents in England since the mid eighties but I hardly noticed the threat of terrorism and how that would affect me personally prior to September 11 2001. Although I read about terrorism in paperbacks, including one written about Carlos the Jackal, and watched acts of terrorism – mainly IRA - on television, these events were actually far removed from my immediate surroundings.

After brief assignment at Slough Borough Council, I started work for Peterborough City Council on September 10, 2001. And on my second day at work, I heard a shouting coming from the next-door office. While walking towards the office, I took a mobile phone call from a contact, an estate agent who I was about to meet in that afternoon to negotiate about accommodation arrangements for clients. I can’t recall his name, but this particular estate agent was near hysterical: “Abdul, look at what Yasir Arafat is doing,” clearly making up his mind about the unfolding event. It was obvious to me that he was watching a television in his office, and at that moment, as he’d later confirm, the first plane hit the North Tower of the World Trade Centre in New York. I went into the office and I watched the events that would change the world forever with the rest of my team.

My role involved close collaborations with Cambridgeshire Constabulary as Peterborough participated in the Home Office’s Asylum Dispersal Scheme, a programme designed to ease the burden from the South East of England. And although Peterborough is one of the oldest cities in England, it had very small city centre. It’d seem to someone who had lived in London for a long time as a large rural England parish village. At that time, Peterborough residents had no recent past experience of large scale new immigrants so hostilities towards asylum seekers were identified as highly likely.

Over the next couple of years, Britain - and indeed the whole world - would change dramatically as a result of the terrorist atrocities in Washington and New York. And when Tony Blair rushed changes in legislations through parliament, reckless directives – indirectly affecting our service provisions - were issued by the Home Office to the entire asylum scheme and participating local authorities from Peterborough to Glasgow. And few months after a bad decision called ‘Hard Case’ was made by Beverley Hughes, the then Home Office minister, and the city council declined to heed my advice, a police officer was fatally stabbed in Manchester by a former North African asylum seeker who was released by our team. Hard Case: an asylum application is refused, subsistence cancelled, accommodation terminated and no record of the individual retained, either by the local council or by the other relevant authorities. At that point, I lost what little interest I had in working for PCC, a city which at the time had one hundred per cent elected Conservative council members. 

As the attacks on the US poisoned the atmosphere on both sides of the Atlantic, I flew to Toronto, Canada in November 2001. A Northwest Airlines ticket which I bought via the internet and in which I had not checked properly to see whether it was a direct flight or not landed me in trouble. Little over seven hours after the flight landed, I found myself in Cleveland, Ohio with the wrong name! I was interrogated and searched from tip to toe, and I was asked intrusive and aggressive irrelevant questions. But I fully cooperated as I could sense the paranoia throughout the arrival hall and later at the departure lounge where I was led to board on my onward flight to Ontario. 

When I left Peterborough in late 2004, I wanted to live somewhere near the M25 (a highway that circles the British capital), basically to be closer to London, so I chose Luton. I did not know anyone in the town and there was no particular reason for my move to Luton, but whenever I drove through the M1, I wondered what this little town had to offer, as it’s so close to London. The weather was pleasant in late June 2005 when I took up residence at Milton Road, Furley Hill. And on July 7, a few days after I moved to Luton, I left the M25 to join the southbound carriageway of the M40. The sky was clear and the weather was warm in that late morning, and I was heading to Acton Town, West London. About a mile after I joined the M40, I noticed that all the overhead motorway signs were flashing. They read: “CENTRAL LONDON CLOSED”. No other details were displayed, but I knew that something serious had just happened.

Few months earlier, I returned from Nairobi where I observed from the sidelines one of the numerous Somali reconciliation conferences. In fact, during my stay in Kenya, I made the decision that my skills and experience would be put to better use if I lived in Africa and tried to help Somalia get back on her feet. But things were not as straightforward as I thought. When the new Somali MPs and the government ministers started bickering and throwing chairs at each other in the first temporary parliamentary sessions in Nairobi, I though they were hopeless and I returned to Britain. 

A couple of unsuccessful moves to emigrate from the UK followed in 2009 and 2010. Recession was at its height in the UK and you could feel the tension in the town. Luton was hardly out of the headlines since 9/11 but it got worse after the London Underground bombers took that deadly trip from Luton Town Station. The English Defence League (EDL), a far right organisation of mainly poor whites, was also founded in the town. Luton’s mainly Pakistani ethnic minority residents and the angry white youths seemed to be a destructive cocktail and a ticking time bomb. The town’s residents were further polarised, clearly for everybody to see.

On a Wednesday in early 2010, the Daily Mail ran a story about former criminals who couldn’t be deported from the country for legal reason. The headline read: “200 Somali criminals we can’t kick out”. I was assaulted the following day at the White House pub by four white males who were wearing boxer shorts, simply for looking like a Somali. When my black friends confronted the men outside the pub while I was still trying to report the incident to the landlord, a full-scale fight had already broken out. With blood dripping from their faces, Brian and Early were escorted to the waiting ambulances. Two ambulances and four police units showed up for the incident, lighting up the area as they flashed their blue neon lights in front of the pub. 

Is this the peaceful Britain I lived through most of the past three decades? It’s time to relocate again. I was in the tiny Red Sea country of Djibouti in February 2012 when Britain hosted an International Conference on Somalia. After the conference indeed, an encouraging communiqué was released demanding that the troubled country be put back together. However, I knew that Somalia needed more than press conferences as the Shabaab continued to commit atrocities. But I decided to give the benefit of the doubt and after a brief visit to London and Luton, I flew back to Africa, this time to Nairobi, Kenya on October 6 last year. Friends back in the UK cautioned and advised against a trip to Mogadishu as I made preparations to enter Mogadishu for the first time since 1984. At the same time, they continued to telephone, email and tweet me with bad news after bad news about the state of race relations and the recession back home in Britain. It has been thirty years since I was last in Somalia, so I stayed put in Nairobi until further improvements were made in the situation in Somalia. 

Last week and nearly seven months after arriving in Kenya, I heard the worst possible news from Britain: a young unarmed soldier who was walking in a street in South East London was brutally murdered by two terrorists who claimed to be defending Muslim people. And in the same week, fighter jets were scrambled to escort a Pakistan commercial airliner over Britain’s skies towards Stansted airport. Immediately following the killing of the soldier, EDL members attacked mosques and publicly removed headscarves from Muslim women in the streets. In Britain, intolerance has been taken to a new level. I am numb. My two countries are both in crisis: one is a failed state which has become almost permanently a terrorist-invested country; and the other is a recession-hit country with increasingly fragmenting society.

As I sift through the news reports this week, things aren’t looking that good for either Britain or Somalia. The internationally-supported Somali government in Mogadishu is not up to the job as the inexperienced president picks a fight with the Kenyan army this week over the formation of a regional administration in Kismayo, the southern port city. And back in Britain, attacks on Muslim people have increased to record levels. Angry far-right tweets such as, “f**k PC, f**k human rights, f**k peace”, are just adding to the feelings of depression and anxiety. I feel sad not being able to continue my original trip to Mogadishu. But I am also equally disturbed to continue to read about the ugly events back in Britain.

Now that the future ever looks gloomy for many including myself, I am off to Kenya immigration next week to ask for a further three month’s extension on my visa, the fourth such request since October last year. After that, perhaps, I shall look for a third.