Saturday, 7 January 2017

How being adopted by a Muslim family and a chance encounter with "white van man" gave me hope for 2017

Chrsitmas got off to a bad start. One of the bikes got stolen from the back of our campervan on the first day of the holiday. Since my parents died, Christmas has been the hardest hurdle. Their absence at the table is agonising. All the fairy lights in Piccadilly can’t ignite the light that grief extinguishes at Christmas. For the past 2 years, we’ve gone away. Left cold by the icy, xenophobic winds of Brexit, and being Spanish speakers, we headed for Spain.

Late on Christmas Eve we parked up on a square in Arco de la Frontera, said to be one of the prettiest Spanish villages. Morale (robbery) and provisions (shops shut) were low.  The next morning, Christmas day, three brothers came out with a football shouting, “Feliz Navidad” (happy Christmas) and invited our 8 year old to play with them. Having spent several hours playing together, the children’s parents appeared with a tray of biscuits, cake and refreshments. Mum was wearing a hijab and spoke Arab to the children. Unable to reciprocate their hospitality, we were reluctant to accept but it was clear that rejecting this gesture of kindness would be rude.

We were invited in for a meal. Mortified, I said, “You don’t even know us”, to which they replied, “We’re all brothers and sisters of the world”.  Overcome by this simple act of humanity, on Christmas day, I hugged the stranger whilst surreptitiously wiping away a tear. After all, 2016 wasn’t exactly the year of compassion.

We were treated to traditional Msmen flatbread and Moroccan mint tea. The sweet amber liquid was poured from a lavish silver tea pot into ornate glasses with golden rims. My son, who had only got a few stocking fillers from Santa (who deposited the main pressies at home), shared what he got (a 4 pack of funky pencil sharpeners and a selection box) amongst his new friends. He wanted to hand my stocking filler over too but when he realised it was a pocket guide to Trumpisms, he relented. “I don’t want them to know that Trump hates Muslims” he reasoned, though I suspect they already have an inkling.

Afterwards, while the children overcame the language barriers by playing the card game “UNO” on the floor, we learned that, although the children were born in Spain, their parents were Moroccan. They met in Northern Spain and had established a thriving business on a market stall. When their oldest child developed life threatening respiratory problems they moved south, hoping to increase his life expectancy. Although he has made a full recovery, the family are struggling to make ends meet. Dad sells clothes out of his boot and both worry for the future of their children in a country that has a youth unemployment rate of almost 50%.

That night, curled up in our van, adorned only by tiny fairy lights (lovingly & thoughfully gifted to us by friends), my son drew parallels between the Christmas story and us being far from home, in a strange place, being shown the kindness of strangers. It’s ironic that my child learned the real meaning of Christmas from a Muslim family whose code of ethics is clearly a way of life, not just for Christmas.

The next day we drove down to the Costa del Sol and parked up in a town where British expats almost outnumbered locals, 60% of whom don’t speak a word of Spanish (though I understand  no language/citizen tests declaring allegiance to the King are imminent). My son struck up a friendship with a British boy on the beach. His father, a self described, “white van man” (WVM) from Rochdale, sat down beside me. He asked if I’d heard about the “nutters” who’d driven a lorry into Christmas shoppers in Germany. I had deliberately avoided all news so I hadn’t. I braced myself for an Islamophobic tirade, after all, he was a white van man and from Rochdale, so he must be racist right? Wrong.

He was horrified by the attack but he was also angry about how Muslims were routinely portrayed as terrorists by the media.  He was particularly angry about the BBC’s reporting on the plight of Palestinians. Turns out, he knew a Palestinian refugee whose family had been killed by an Israeli mortar attack in Gaza. When the Palestinian was walking in the park to keep warm, he came across a gang who had cornered a younger boy and were threatening violence. Rather than walk by, the man risked being deported by stepping in and saving the boy, with whom my son was playing. Since then, WVM has been an active campaigner for Palestinian human rights (unlike Theresa May).

WVM confided that he voted to leave the EU because he wanted to teach the Tories a lesson. He was angry at his Tory led council giving themselves wage increases while bins are left unemptied and deprivation soars throughout Rochdale. He was angry that his local A&E was shut and that the Tories allow fat cats to legally avoid paying taxes while he is vigorously pursued for every penny.

He admitted that he had to work 6 days a week just to get by and that Saturday had to be cash in hand. “I’m not proud to admit that” he said, “but I have to put food on the table for my family”.

He was more ashamed about voting to leave the EU than he was about taxdodging. “It was a protest vote”, he said, "I didn't expect it to count". All the polls said we’d remain. So I figured, what the hell, I’ll give the Tories a bloody nose. My vote won’t matter". Living in an area that also voted to leave, this has been a recurring theme, but it seems the Tories would rather take this country into economic Armageddon  than admit the truth. That the electorate may loate them even more than immigrants.

The moral of the story is not rocket science. Most Muslims are not terrorists and most white van men are not racist. If the only interaction with people who are different to us is limited to prejudice infused stereotypes, fed to us daily on a shovel by the media, the likelihood is that you will believe the opposite to be true. It’s no coincidence that those parts of the UK with the highest number of immigrants voted to stay within the UK. Contact with people who are “other” removes the sense of fear and perceived threat because we’re interacting with three dimensional human beings, as opposed to a two dimensional stereotypes.

To counteract the rising xenophobia and hate crimes unleashed by Brexit, we should all get out more, or rather, put ourselves out there more. Make 2017 the year you speak to people you would never normally engage with. Strike up conversations in the room/bus stop/at the school gates with the person least like yourself.  Open your heart and mind and reach out to your brothers and sisters of the world. You never know, they might surprise you. 

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