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Hey, we beat you guys

06/04/2016

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We laughed again as Chisty recounted the story of her phone call home in March last year that began with her sister proudly proclaiming “hey, we beat you guys”. Bangladesh had just beaten England in the cricket World Cup, knocking them out of the competition, and the “Land of Bengal” was celebrating a famous victory. Chisty had rolled her eyes in exasperation the first time she told me this but aside from the gentle ribbing about a cricket match those five words perhaps inadvertently but neatly encapsulate the oddly schizophrenic existence of anyone who ups sticks and moves to another country; the emigrant who leaves behind family, friends and their “home” and the immigrant who tries to build a new life and set up a new “home” in a foreign country. Where is home anymore? Who is “you”? Who is “we”? How does it feel to be caught adrift between two worlds separated by several thousand miles and different languages, cultures and social norms?

Chisty has lived pretty much her entire adult life in London having arrived from Bangladesh on her own, with a suitcase and enough cash for a couple of weeks, as a nineteen year old in 2008. After nearly eight years living in the capital, a city she loves, she thinks of herself as a Londoner. I first met Chisty nearly two years ago when she joined the finance department of the central London hospital where I worked until recently. She’s one of many interesting people in a work place that, like many in London, is wonderfully diverse; people from different countries, cultures and religions, rubbing along together, sharing experiences and learning from each other. This bean counters’ United Nations produced a slightly lopsided cultural exchange that meant that I got to learn about Bengali music and food and the more spiritual strand of Islam known as Sufism, whilst Chisty listened to me banging on about FC United of Manchester and The Smiths.

I’ll admit before meeting Chisty my knowledge of Bangladesh was scant and often cricket related. It’s one of those places that only ever seems to be in the news when something bad has happened; flooding perhaps or an earthquake or the collapse of a badly constructed factory building killing and injuring hundreds of workers. But the chances are if you have a root around in your wardrobe or through your drawers at home that you’ll probably find several items that were “made in Bangladesh”. The huge Bangladeshi garment industry makes cheap clothes for a number of high street retailers like H&M and while it offers one of the few employment opportunities for women the “cheap” clothes come at a high price in the form of punishingly long hours, low pay and appalling working conditions.

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Chisty’s own “made in Bangladesh” story intrigued me, as it’s not only a mixture of the determination and courage that characterise so many immigrant stories but is also remarkable in that it is the story of a young single woman breaking all social norms and leaving behind family and friends to build a life of her own in a foreign country. She’s undoubtedly one of the most determined and resourceful people that I’ve ever met. Her story intrigued me so much that I suggested writing something about it and after a brief exchange of text messages we found ourselves, amidst the post-work hubbub, in a pub round the corner from Victoria railway station chatting over drinks.

Like most Bengali kids she grew up in a large extended family and although she only has one younger sister she has many cousins; her dad has a brother and two sisters and her mum has five brothers and five sisters. It “feels like a big family” she says and she refers to her cousins as brothers and sisters; “we are so close to each other”. The busy house that she grew up in comprises five flats with four other families sharing the same space. The adjustment to living a more solitary existence in England is something that she has found tricky at times.

She was raised as a Muslim in a predominantly Muslim country that remains deeply conservative and patriarchal with few opportunities for women to live independently. She went to girls’ schools and although lessons were taught in Bengali, the national language, from an early age she began to learn English in addition to other subjects including Islamic studies and home economics. Her future, had she not left when she did, would likely have been another tale of unfulfilled female potential; getting married as soon as possible and settling down to a life of domesticity, raising children and cooking and cleaning for her family.

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Despite improvements in living conditions in recent years, Bangladesh is still a poor country where women’s employment rates remain very low and where the mobility of women and girls is seriously curtailed by concerns about safety on the streets. Even now Chisty’s mum will not go out at night alone. It’s something that we take for granted but just being able to walk the streets, particularly at night, without fear for her safety is one of the things that Chisty most enjoys about living in London. She says that she has rarely encountered any abuse during her time in England. The worst case was someone shouting at her in the street to “fuck off back to your own country” but incidents like this have been very rare. Chisty herself is wonderfully open when it comes to matters of race or ethnicity – she jokes that, as far she is concerned, a future boyfriend could be as green as the witch in the Wicked show that plays in the theatre next door to the pub we are in.

Chisty’s attitude to her religion is more relaxed than many Muslim women; she doesn’t wear a hijab or any other form of Muslim dress for instance. Instead she prefers to adopt a more philosophical stance as a humanist, living as good a life as she can but always being kind to and respectful of others. The decision not to wear a hijab is something she feels strongly about; she dislikes the hypocrisy of some Muslim women who criticise her for not wearing one but will openly flirt with men whilst claiming to be devout Muslims.

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Back home her parents wouldn’t even let her wear jeans outside the house. But in contrast she now lives a life not unlike that of many twenty-something Londoners working in a busy office during the day and heading out in the evening to enjoy the capital’s night life with friends. She loves make-up, clothes and girlie nights out and she’s part of that generation that has embraced social media, with her penchant for selfies and hashtags, and has used dating websites to try to find a partner although with her admiration for the likes of Chris and Liam Hemsworth she’s arguably set a very high bar. She’s a talented singer and musician too and sang and read poetry on national radio and television as a child in Bangladesh and has auditioned for Britain’s Got Talent over here. But most of all she enjoys the freedom of living in England and living her own life, being who she wants to be rather than who others expect her to be; girl power in action. “I always liked Western culture and wanted to come here (England) and study and change my life and do something for my family and set a good example”.

Her life in London hasn’t always been such a frantic social whirl though. From arriving in England in 2008 to completing her degree in accounting and finance at university in the summer of 2014 she studied hard and worked part-time doing shifts for the likes of Asda, Burger King and Sports Direct, often trekking across town on long bus journeys as it was cheaper than taking the tube. During those six years she admits that she barely went out at all, her life consisting simply of lectures, working, bus journeys, studying at home and sleeping.

“Home” was one of the many (more than a dozen) shared rooms in rented houses that Chisty has lived in during the last eight years most of them in the low-rent fringes of east London such as Ilford, Dagenham and Leytonstone where new arrivals to London often settle down. Life was often difficult for a young, single Bangladeshi woman sharing a house with others. There was an Indian vegetarian family who wouldn’t let her cook meat in the house and a Nigerian couple where the woman worked night shifts and the man would invite his mates round to listen to music and drink late into the night; some of the men would follow Chisty to her room as she went to bed. And a woman who even threatened to kill Chisty and her friend as she mistakenly thought that they had reported her to the local council and that she was about to lose her home as a result.

In her first few days in England Chisty found it tough adjusting to the early autumn after the sweltering heat of Bangladesh. With only one thin sheet that she had brought with her and no heating to keep her warm at night (she was too shy to ask for any bedding) she fell ill during her first few weeks in the country and was admitted to hospital with pneumonia. She spent two weeks in hospital (“the nurses were lovely” she adds) and early on, as she was made to wear an oxygen mask, she thought she might even die. The nurses wheeled her out of the ward so that she could ring her parents to tell them that she was fine.

Only days before her stay in hospital Chisty had left behind her large extended family at the airport. “Everyone was crying” she says but having said an emotional goodbye she refused to look back as she made her way to the departure lounge. Going to England was something that she’d dreamed about for a long time and she wasn’t about to change her mind now. From a very young age Chisty had dreamed of coming to England; as a child she drove her parents mad singing a song that was popular in Bangladesh about buying a plane ticket and flying to England. She watched lots of British and Hollywood films and television programmes (including Fawlty Towers) and became fascinated by life in the seemingly more glamorous west where it looked like there was a life for a young woman beyond one of cooking and cleaning and getting married. She longed to be able to support her family so that they didn’t have to depend on anyone else financially.

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As she tucks into a chicken burger and another glass of cider Chisty describes how she was born and grew up in the city of Khulna, Bangladesh’s third largest city. It’s an old river port city in the south-west of the country, about six hours drive from the capital city Dhaka, and lies close to the world’s largest mangrove forest, home to the famous Bengal tiger. Until getting on that plane to come to England Chisty had not travelled outside Bangladesh before. In fact she hadn’t travelled very far at all with her family as they simply couldn’t afford to go far.

By the age of sixteen Chisty had completed her secondary school certificate (equivalent to O Level or GCSE) and then went on to do a further two years at college before applying for a place at university. But having failed to get a place on a Business Administration course at her local university a newspaper advert for a national competition offering the prize of a part-funded scholarship to study in England caught her eye. She passed an exam and was one of only 300 selected for a scholarship from more than fifty thousand who sat the exam.

At first her whole family were very resistant to the idea of leaving home at such a young age and flying to England; “what is she going to do to earn money, be a prostitute?” one of her aunts asked. But eventually her persistence paid off and she was able to persuade them that this was what she really wanted to do and that no one was going to stop her. Unfortunately though her dad had a stroke shortly before Chisty was due to leave and she spent most of her last days in Bangladesh at his bedside in hospital. She describes herself as a “daddy’s girl” and even now she speaks to her father by phone on a daily basis and he rings her each morning to make sure that she is up for work.

After arriving in England and after having paid half of the scholarship fee (two thousand pounds) she discovered that the whole thing had been a scam. The promised “school of business” had done a runner with everyone’s money, the building where it was meant to be lay empty. Two thousand pounds gone just like that. A big setback but Chisty wasn’t going to let it get in the way of her dreams and she dusted herself down and enrolled on another accounting course. There must have been times like this when she felt tempted to give up and head home? “No, I’ve never regretted coming to England. There have been difficult times but I’ve always tried to stay positive and look forward, I’ve never felt homesick”.

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A couple of years later she was in a position to look for degree courses but with her parents unable to support her education she was forced to take out two substantial loans (which she is still paying off) to get her through two years of study at university. The middle year of a three year degree course was spent on a placement in an NHS finance department in central London and after graduating in the summer of 2014 she looked for her first full-time job and successfully applied for a job in the finance department at the hospital where I used to work. She loves the NHS and would like to continue working in a finance role in the health service. Indeed she is studying to become a qualified accountant and hopes to become a Finance Director in future. You certainly wouldn’t bet against her.

Yet despite having lived in London for nearly eight years, a place which she now refers to as home although she won’t be able to apply for British citizenship (something that she can’t wait to do) for another two years, Chisty has fallen foul of a new Home Office rule, introduced this April, that holders of tier 2 skilled worker visas like her must earn more than a certain amount per year (with some exceptions) to be able to remain in the country even if they’ve lived here for several years. So after years of grafting to build a new life in a foreign country, years of studying and working to be able to afford to study, years of not going out, years of gruelling bus journeys from the arse end of town to work shifts in city centre burger joints, years of sacrifice to try to ensure a better future for herself and her family Chisty is now faced with the very real prospect of having to leave the country if she cannot find another job that pays more. Her life is on hold, uncertain where exactly her future lies. All she knows is that she desperately wants to stay in England, in London, her home.

This arbitrary threshold has been introduced purely as part of the government’s desire to be seen to be tough on immigration. It’s something that “we” the British electorate demand apparently. As the curtain comes down on the often toxic European Union referendum debate where fear of immigrants has once again being stoked up, all too often, the focus of the debate on immigration is on numbers and hardly ever considers the lives and thoughts and feelings of those individuals like Chisty caught up in the process. Why is it felt appropriate, for instance, to measure the contribution that someone makes to our society simply by referring to how much money they earn? Chisty has already demonstrated her industriousness and determination in spades and has so much more to offer this country culturally, socially and economically. She loves living in England; this is no story of someone who struggles to integrate and there’s an effervescence and love of life that no artificial borders or barbed wire or arbitrary immigration rules dreamt up by faceless bureaucrats should be able to restrain.

So, finally, to return to cricket and the so-called “cricket test” posed by Norman Tebbitt back in the eighties, deliberately designed to cast doubt on the Englishness of those migrating to Britain from commonwealth countries; who does she want to win in a cricket match between Bangladesh and England? She laughs again and says that despite everything, despite her love of England and English people and despite London now being her home and the place where she wants to live the rest of her life, she would still want Bangladesh to win of course. And why not? Why not be proud of your roots? Her large extended family and friends back home in Bangladesh and her new friends in England should certainly be very proud of Chisty, our very own Bengal tiger.

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