Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door!
– New Colossus –
I’m sitting at the UK Border Agency’s head office in Croydon, just outside London. The place is jam-packed with men, women, children, prams, business men, lawyers… a cacophony of faces, races, languages, smells and sounds from all over the world. On this particular day, at this office (which is one of seven in the country) there are about 300 people waiting to be processed, stamped and approved… or rejected, for immigration into the UK.
I’m one of them — a ‘detested foreigner’ that came to the shores of England to build a new life for myself. The operative word here is ‘build’… from scratch, I might add. Yes, I know, relocating to a new country is a choice most people make when they move to a different country, but it still is no f*cking barrel of laughs! Especially, if you arrive at your destination with no plan of action to ease your displacement. Or, it pans out that your ‘brilliant’ plan, was not going to work from the moment you set foot on dry land.
See, actually London was only a stop-over on my way to the Republic of Ireland, where I had work lined-up in a small seaside village called Dingle, in County Kerry… My ‘Master Plan’ was to visit my younger sister for a few days in London, then get on a train to the closest ferry port, cross the Irish Sea and enter Ireland (through the back door so to speak). I had £900 and a rucksack with a week’s worth of clothes to my name. I didn’t pack much, since I was going to work for only a few seasons, save money, send it back home and return to my home country within 4 years… That was Plan A… my only plan.
A week before I boarded the plane to London, numerous terrorist attacks caused havoc in Madrid. These bomb explosions killed 191 people and wounded 1,800… “Terrifying, but what’s that got to do with anything?”, I hear you say… Well, those were my exact thoughts… When you come from Africa where car hijacking, murders and robberies are all a part of daily life, terrorist attacks are the least of your worries.
This was obviously not the case in Europe… As soon as I walked out of Heathrow airport, my sister got a text message from my friend in Dingle. At that point in time, I didn’t have a UK mobile phone yet, there was no Facebook and email had just started to become an acceptable way of communicating, so my sister acted as the messenger girl: “Don’t come to Dingle straight away. Irish Immigration and Customs may send you back if you don’t have the right paperwork. Stick around in London for a month or so. I’ll let you know when it’s safe to come over.”
“Ah, the Irish. They all get a bit frantic whenever there’s a bomb blast, no matter where it happens in Europe… The IRA… history… and a lot of issues going back many years.”, was all my sister said.
My pride instantly kicked in… There was no chance in hell that I was sticking around for a month or going back to South Africa with my tail between my legs. After all, I had my farewell party, said my goodbyes, sold my car, gave up my job and apartment… I traveled 10,538.8 miles and I didn’t do it for nothing.
I looked at my little sister with puppy eyes, hoping that she would take me in for an extended visit…
Nope! She was nesting with her boyfriend and the two of them just couldn’t find the space to accommodate me in their three bedroom house somewhere in a well-to-do neighbourhood near Wimbledon.
UK Lesson number one: History matters for as long as we live…
I got dropped off in Upminster, Essex, which technically is still part of London, but for all other intents and purposes, it’s not. Acquaintances of mine lived there and they were kind enough to give me a roof over my head for about two weeks. And so began my life in the UK: No friends, no resources, no support system, no bank account, no job and no Plan B… In the world of commerce and profits, I basically did not exist.
In addition to this, when you bargain on going to a picturesque little village on the coast of Southern Ireland and you end up in Essex where life is rough and slightly less refined than what you are accustomed too, you sort of hit a speed wobble… No, actually you quietly freak out!!! I soon realised that the England I read about in the Frommer’s travel guides is a far cry from the streets of a small town on the outskirts of East London… at the end of the train line… literally the last stop!
To start with, it took me nearly two months to get my head around the Cocky accent. I quickly learned that ‘innit’ means ‘is it not’… and that this nondescript blabber can be dropped at the end of almost every sentence. For instance: “Give’sa half-pint of lager and lime, innit.” The world ‘posh’ is actually a derogatory term and according to some — mostly members of the National Front or BNP, having the Queen still sitting on her throne, is a royal waste of everybody’s tax money… innit.
Apart from that, the British food was probably my biggest challenge. After my first pub lunch, I threw up as soon as the Beef and Ale Pie hit my green-salad-and-cured-tuna-steak-conditioned stomach… and if you had any doubt, drinking till you drop dead in your own puke, is not frowned upon. Instead, it’s something your friends will respect you for… innit… Sunday lunch at the local pub is a national institution for which people will queue outside in the rain, just to get their roast dinner… and if you don’t participate, you are weird! By the way, ‘dinner’ is actually lunch and ‘tea’, in fact is dinner. So, if someone asks you, “What are you having for tea?’” don’t say “cupcakes”.
Within a month of my arrival, I got a job at a local pub, called The Thatched House… I had to, as my £900 was running out fast… and I had nowhere to live… Nonetheless, despite the massive culture shock, The Thatched House became my second home, and the staff my family for the next four years. With money finally coming in, I enrolled for a Graphic and Web Design course, which qualified me for a three-year student visa. This visa made me ‘legal’ and allowed me to work a maximum of 10 hours a week and forced me to study a minimum of 21 hours a week. Breaking these rules would see my visa being revoked… However, working 10 hours a week in a pub barely brought the bacon home… at least not the kinda bacon I left behind in Cape Town: My seafront apartment, beach-glam lifestyle and a BMW in the garage.
UK Lesson number two: At some stage in our lives, we all will learn what it feels like to be a dog on a very short leash.
Once legally in the UK, I figured out that as long as I paid my taxes and studied the required amount of hours, UK Immigration and Customs won’t give a damn about how much I worked. Unfortunately, most employers in the UK are all too familiar with immigration rules, so no one was going to employ me for longer than what I was permitted to work… But ‘work’ in the rule books refer to office hours… not night shifts and not weekends.
So, I started to devise Plan B: I got a second job working as a receptionist at a publishing house. They employed me 9 hours a week — Monday, Wednesday and Friday, half day 9am – 12pm. I studied from 1pm to 6pm every day. This covered the required 25 hours at the college each week. At night, I started my pub shift at 7pm and finished around 1am… over weekends I added hours by doing double shifts… Perfect. I finally began to earn a decent salary. However, to maintain a steady cash flow, I had to carry on, full speed, every day (bar public holidays), nonstop for three years.
UK lesson number three: Sometimes, achieving one’s goals mean that you have to sacrifice a few standards.
It’s amazing how being forced to do work and other things you really don’t want to do, can make you figure out what it actually is you want from life… Working and studying 18 hours a day, 7 days a week, made me realise that I wanted to pursue my long-forgotten dream of becoming writer.
In due time I progressed from receptionist to Customer Service Manager at the publishing house and became Floor Manager at the pub. Once I completed my studies, I started full-time work at the publishers, leaving my days of carrying plates of Toad In The Hole (yes it’s a traditional British dish) and pulling pints, behind me forever. When an Editorial vacancy became available, I saw the gap, took the chance and got the job. This led to getting a work permit… The leash around the dog’s neck was loosening up… With a work permit, I was allowed to work permanently in the UK as long as I stayed with the company that sponsored me… for five years… after which I could apply for permanent residency in the UK with no restrictions…
Five years later and I’m sitting at the UK Border Agency, jam-packed with a cacophony of faces, races, languages, smells and sounds from all over the world. While I wait for my number to be called, I remember walking the streets of London in those first three months after my arrival, looking at my phone and thinking: “This thing has not rung for weeks! No one knows where I am and I have not spoken to a single familiar soul in god-knows-how-long.” It was scary and very liberating!
Some days, I was so tired from working those long hours that my poor feet could barely carry my body… moments of utter despair in which I just wanted to give up and run back to the sun and sea, and familiar, friendly faces of Cape Town… back to where I can speak my mother tongue: Afrikaans. Of course, I missed all of this. Of course, I doubted my decision to stay in the UK. But with the prospect of a 24.9% percent unemployment rate back home, a ridiculous crime rate and the fact that I literally bent every rule in the book to get where I was going, the decision almost made itself: Stay put. Don’t give up. Finish what you have started.
I think of the places I lived in and the wonderful people I met in the past eight years… Upminster — where I met Jacqui who still is like a mother to me; a sister and very dear friend. She took me on my first trip to Spain and I still pay her regular visits in Lincoln, where she lives now. Greenwich — which, as a little boy, I thought was a place full of watches and clocks. I stayed there with Jamie, a veterinarian. Turkey the cat, Joe the dog, Jasmine the Macaw (who was seriously in love with me) and Splinter the snake inhabited the house with us…
Shadwell followed. A neighbourhood on the seams of the city centre, which is mainly populated by Muslims and where finding an English newspaper in a corner shop is as impossible as finding a dropped penny on a busy highway. Honestly, I was one of the very few English-speaking white faces in the council estate where I lived. This is where I met Nic the Greek. We once smoked so much pot that I literally erased half of my childhood memories. Ronan, the Brazilian artist and painter-and-decorator would visit us with some exotic dish that he prepared and the three of us would watch pirated movies from dusk till dawn… Ronan still calls me his sugar lump because of my white skin and along with Nic, was my only close friend, for nearly three years. When I got ill, when I felt sad and lonely, when I needed to see a friendly face and just talk to someone, Ronan and Nic was there for me.
I briefly lived in a pub called The Britannia that was built in 1789. Oscar Wilde referred to it in his letters. He called it the Opium Master’s Den… a house of ill-repute and is one of the few buildings that survived The Blitz. It is still standing on Cable Street where the famous Battle of Cable Street took place on Sunday 4 October 1936. Today there is a beautiful fresco right outside The Britannia, commemorating the clash between the Metropolitan Police, the British Union of Fascists, led by Oswald Mosley, and anti-fascists, including local Jewish, socialist, anarchist, Irish and communist groups… This fresco was the view from my bedroom window for four months.
“Your application was straight forward, Sir. Welcome to the UK. You now have Indefinite Leave to Remain.” I want to cry… The leash drops from my neck as I take the single piece of paper that officially declares me a resident of the United Kingdom… A piece of paper that took me more than 8 years to hold in my hands and which cost me £18,500 in student fees, visa and work permit fees, and lawyers’ fees… A price I will pay anytime again, because it gave me the opportunity to really get to know what I am capable of.
As I head back home to the leafy suburbs of Southwest London, I think of Jacqui, Andy, Laura, Hannah, Jamie, Matthew, Nic, Ronan, Geoff, Jacqui Vincent, Miriam, Philip, Mark (aka ThunderCat!), Jaco, Nicolette, Monalee, Heidi, Donnie, Mauritz and Sinead. I met all of them as a stranger in the UK, yet all of them gave me strength, hope, love, friendship and support when I had very little to give in return. They are all the reasons for my success because they believed in me.
UK lesson number four: The people you think you can rely on are often the ones that will let you down first… BUT there are angels among us who hear our cries for help and speed to assist. With them on our side, anything is possible…
Images Francois Lubbe
Text: FR Lubbe