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Dark sheep

It’s the early hours of the morning; we’re in Heathrow Airport. My eyes wide open, trying to take everything in. My partner, M, hands me a M&S sandwich. I am so hungry; I unpack the sandwich, thinking how on earth can anyone eat this? Trying to figure out how to get my teeth around it, I say “This is huge!”. M laughs and shows me that it is actually two halves of a sandwich. I’ve never seen a packed sandwich before. It’s a little thing, but the first of many in my new life.

It was 13th of September 2007 when I first migrated to UK; M and I had been living in Istanbul. He was an immigrant, but there he was called an “expat”. Our life was a big never-ending party, we were young and so in love.

I was sitting at a back of a taxi when M said, “What about getting married?” and I immediately answered “Yes!” - because I knew life would be never boring with him, and that he’d not only be a great partner to share a life with, and a great dad too. Three months later, we got married. I didn’t care about a big fat wedding! I just wanted to be with him, and to celebrate with our small group of loved ones. And it was exactly that!

When we decided to move to London, so M could continue his academic life, things got a bit more serious - marriage alone wasn’t enough to keep us both legally together in the UK. I needed a visa to live in my partner’s country. The application process was long and stressful. It was dense and costly layers of bureaucracy: pages and pages of forms, having to share our private pictures to prove we lived together, that we really were married. We paid nearly two thousand pounds just to get started. Then we waited.

Months later, my visa in hand, we moved to London. The process of adapting, for me, was fun but hard. The culture was not new to me: I’d grown up reading Jane Austen, Charles Dickens. My favourite director was Alfred Hitchcock, and Trainspotting was one of my favourite movies. Queen, Pink Floyd, Depeche Mode had always been by my side. What I experienced was not a culture shock, but an emotional trauma. The hard bit, for me, was getting used to being seen as a foreigner, the other. It felt like I’d only become Turkish after I left Turkey. At the same time, I was stripped of all the privileges and opportunities I’d had at home and became “the immigrant”.

The prejudices, and the bias and lack of knowledge which people had towards me and my background, were all new for me. Only later did I come to terms with the fact that I just can’t change how people think. I learned to be comfortable in my own skin: this was hard at the beginning, but now, later in life, I find it liberating.

Making friendly small talk with strangers, I got used to hearing “Oh! So you’re Turkish”, followed by an awkward silence, and the end of the conversation. Not Italian, not Spanish but Turkish. A Muslim country! People didn’t know, of course, that unlike the UK, Turkey is a secular country with no official religion since 1928. And where more than half of people are on record as not fulfilling any religious obligations.

“But you don’t look Turkish!” sometimes they would add, thinking a Turkish woman would be, by default, a Muslim.

“But you don’t look Turkish!” sometimes they would add, thinking a Turkish woman would be, by default, a Muslim. Not knowing that wearing a headscarf isn’t just about ethnicity or national identity: It’s about socioeconomic status; it’s about religion.; it’s about having a rural or urban background. Then I would think about my great granddad who sent his three daughters to Istanbul for their further educations, back in the 1930s.

I heard people telling me to go eat kebab, not knowing anything about those beautiful big dinner tables I used to sit at, facing towards the sea, meals stretching out from late in the afternoon to the middle of the night. Music, people louder than the music, artichokes in spring, zucchini blossoms in summer, figs during fall, wild greens, fish and seafood, all washed down with strong raki, Turkey’s national alcoholic drink. How could I explain the culture at that table to someone who thinks the only thing I can eat is a kebab?

When my spousal visa come to an end, I needed to update my visa to ‘leave to remain’. More thousands of pounds and more waiting. Then an English test, and the Life in the UK Test, and more thousands of pounds and more waiting. I finally got my citizenship. The amount of stress this all caused me and my family was hard to describe. After every application, my passport was taken away from me, sometimes for up to 6 months. Not having the freedom of travel during those times, I missed out on so many milestones, important events in the lives of my family and friends. And I lived with the fear of not being able to be there in times of need.

After living, working, and paying my taxes here for years, my citizenship was well-earned. Finally, we could be a family unit that couldn’t be separated by bureaucracy. I could finally pass the borders together with my child and husband, and I could easily travel with them, anytime and anywhere I wanted to, without having to worry about visa problems.

My Turkish passport in one hand, my British certificate of naturalisation in the other, M on the phone to the embassy, daughter silent but with fearful eyes; we watched our plane take off without us. I wasn’t allowed back in the UK.

We went for a three-year adventure in Australia. On the way back, we’re in Qatar airport, far from any of our homes, listening to the staff one more time explain why they can’t let me onto the plane. My Turkish passport in one hand, my British certificate of naturalisation in the other, M on the phone to the embassy, daughter silent but with fearful eyes; we watched our plane take off without us. I wasn’t allowed back in the UK. What we hadn’t known was that being away from the country for more than 2 years meant my old leave to remain visa had been cancelled. I hadn’t been able to apply for my British passport over those 3 years, as I couldn’t risk losing my freedom to travel again. Despite being a citizen, I didn’t have a valid travel document. Rules were rules so we flew to Turkey instead, and stayed there till I received my British passport. That’s when it became clear to me that, even though I’d lived in the UK for most of my adult life, even though I had a British child and a husband, I would always be the immigrant, the other, the dark sheep of the family.

“Immigrant” is not a one size fits all label. People have wide-ranging views on the subject, mostly formed by their life experiences, the opinions of their surroundings, and the news they read. But despite dragging along a lot of negative stereotypical assumptions, every immigrant has a unique story to tell. My immigration story wasn’t easy, but certainly wasn’t anywhere as difficult or sad as the experiences of many others. I didn’t have to leave my country with my life at risk, or to escape from a war. I wasn’t a refugee or an asylum seeker. But these stories are all around us, and we all benefit from hearing them.

We are not our governments, we’re not our national identities, we are just humans. As a person we might not have the power to change our governments decisions, but as people we do have the power to make people feel welcomed.

Özge Çallı Spike


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