When I was just three-years-old, I would lie on the grass in the front garden of my family home, look at the great blue sky and pray to God. I would say 'God please guide me to discover something new, spectacular and never before seen.'
Little was I know that my life would come to mirror that prayer. No-one knows exactly the path they will take in the future or how circumstances will change, taking them somewhere new, unexpected. Yet what is surely important is how people react to the unbidden forces that carry them and which try to shape their lives.
I was born in Addis Ababa, the capital city of Ethiopia. Raised by highly conservative parents. Both of my parents believed in the value of education, culture and discipline in building a successful life. My father was a high ranking elected political official and a member of the former Ethiopian government. Our family home was never short of people who seized every opportunity to speak with my father about their life concerns. I still remember the laughter of children playing, the scent of grounded coffee and frankincense, while women exchanged recipes and men talked politics.
Life, however, is not stable.
Unaccompanied Child Migrants
According to the Convention on the Rights of the Child, unaccompanied children are those who are under 18 and “have been separated from both parents and other relatives and are not being cared for by an adult who, by law or custom, is responsible for doing so.'
From 2000-2009, the numbers of separated children claiming asylum in the UK remained stable at around 3,000 a year. More recently the numbers have decreased, with 1,277 applications in 2011.
An estimated 120,000 irregular migrant
children live in the UK
One sunny Saturday afternoon, as my father and I were making our way home, plain-clothes government officers approached us and said that my father was wanted for questioning. My dad held my shoulders firmly and said he would soon return. But he never did. I was five years old when he was arrested on political grounds. I was never again to live with my family.
Shortly after my father's imprisonment, I migrated to London with my mother. But my mother had to return to Ethiopia to support my father, leaving me with a relative. I sought asylum in London as an unaccompanied child migrant. My childhood quest to discover the meaning of life was greatly intensified by this experience. Migration as an unaccompanied child was, to say the least, a challenge. At worst, it is a deep existential shock. Being denied access to the love and support of my parents, family and the country of my birth made me question who I was and what I wanted to do with the gift and burden of life.
The displacement from all that was familiar encouraged my mind to reside in two different places, spiritually fragmented, often disturbed by confusion, hurt and anxiety. While my memories, values and beliefs were firmly rooted in Addis Ababa, my body was in London. Living in London was in many ways an obstacle course, for the most part dominated by fear. To overcome this fear, I threw myself into my education. I went to university naively hoping to ‘discover myself’.
I now have two degrees: a Bachelor of Arts and a Master of Science. Both my undergraduate and postgraduate dissertations were about the relationships between child migration and subjectivity. During my research I interviewed other adults who had been unaccompanied child migrants from Ethiopia. I found that separation from their families could trigger existential threat but also resilience. For those I interviewed there were ambivalent feelings towards their families and Ethiopia. No matter how much we can understand the reasons for the separation from our families, and no matter how brave we try to be, there is always a sense of abandonment. 'I remember my mum when she said she had to go back to Ethiopia' Kidist recalled about being left in the UK by her mother at the age of seven. 'I remember replying, “You can go, but can you buy me a Barbie doll first”'.
The more that I heard the stories of other unaccompanied child migrants, the more I became aware of how defensiveness and denial of the painful emotional costs of migration could affect what and how we remember. Kidist asking her mother to buy her a Barbie doll when her mother was leaving could be seen in different ways. It could be a characteristic response for a child of Kidist’s age at the time, someone who was not conscious of the seriousness of what was happening. The reverse could also be true: Kidist was acutely - painfully - aware of what was unfolding and asking for the Barbie doll was the emergence of a first act of emotional protection, expressing that Kidist did not (in the past) and does not (in the present) attach any great emotional significance to her abandonment.
In order to survive and adapt, unaccompanied child migrants have to learn to live with difficult feelings. Sometimes this can mean suppressing or denying our hurt and anger. Migration and adaptation to a new country is laden with many losses. Bruke had a middle-class upbringing in Ethiopia and had attended private schools. He talked about the importance of remembering and not forgetting his past, particularly his childhood, but it was not easy or straightforward. He told me
Adapt? How to adapt to a culture? That has been a running theme since I’ve been here. I still find it difficult till this day to fully adapt to the culture here because it’s, you know, it’s difficult. Adaptation means you somehow let go of your past. And I don’t think that that is what I personally want to do. So the reason I think about my childhood, and I say to myself it’s impossible to forget sometimes, is because that is my common denominator as it were. I don’t want to go below that. To completely forget where I’ve come from and, you know, my childhood and the rest of it, because that’s what gives me my identity in a sense….. So, in a sense, there’s that pressure always lingering in your mind. If you want to succeed, you have to adapt. But how do you adapt, how far do you say I’m not Ethiopian? How far do you say, you know what I don’t remember my childhood? How far do you lie to yourself?
Talking about Ethiopia, Helen told me ‘That part of me is dead. Because it’s been a very long time, since I came here, I was very young when I was here, so, you know, that part is just like dying in me’. For many unaccompanied child migrants, rifts with their families and home countries remain a painful, sometimes traumatic part of our lives that can never fully be put into words. As Shoshana Felman and Lori Daub have written ‘...there are never enough words or the right words, there is never enough time or the right time, and never enough listening or the right listening to articulate the story that cannot be fully captured in thought, memory or speech.’
It took the sudden and unexpected death of my father for me to gain a new perspective on my life. I have always wanted to understand what life was about but never paid much attention to the reality of death and loss as an integral part of living.
At my father’s funeral, I began to reconnect with a different, more spiritual knowledge and sensibility. Although unaware of it at the time, my childhood prayer had been responded to, for in being exposed to the unfamiliar and unexpected I am now able to recognise that I also gained strength to overcome obstacles, adapt to new environments and in the process return to a deeper appreciation of life.
Even though my life so far has been a difficult journey, I now know that there can still exist, even in times of chaos and fear, a glimmer of beauty, a streak of light which can provide a spark of hope and resilience.