Imagine There's No Countries
Just before I turned sixteen, I moved to London from Los Angeles, where my parents had given up trying to control me. They sent me a monthly stipend, expecting me to attend the fashion design school I enrolled in. I showed up for school twice, and then went about my business being a wayward teenager in the best of all possible worlds, London in the late 1960's.
I ended up in Crouch End, then a shabby community in North London. It was as far from my white-bread, middle-class surroundings in West L.A. as anything I could imagine. My neighbors were West Indian, Pakistani, Cypriot, Nigerian, Jamaican, and even Canadian. When you walked down the street, you could detect all kinds of cuisines being prepared for dinner.
I never observed any racism, though of course it existed throughout the UK just as it did throughout the world. But the neighborhood was thoroughly integrated, and the residents were all united by low income and the desire to make the best of it.
I got a job in a workman's cafe and then moved up to a Greek restaurant, where the owners never stopped calling me "Jinny" even though it wasn't my name. It was a romantic time for me. It remains a magical era to look back on.
Years after I'd returned to the States, I heard stories about how "the Arabs" had taken over London. People complained about signs in Arabic along Oxford Street. I pictured throngs of women in chadors, marching down the high streets, shouting in exotic languages as they plundered Harrods. I felt bad about this, and felt bad about feeling bad.
I finally returned to London last September, and obviously it had changed since the 60s. I stayed in central London where it was much more crowded and even more a melting pot than my street in Crouch End. There were accents from everywhere, clothing from everywhere, a rainbow of skin colors, everyone striding purposefully toward somewhere , so purposefully that I was smashed into on several occasions. In Los Angeles, no one walks, and if they do, they just amble along in their workout outfits.
But it turned out that London was less a melting pot than a boiling pot: Immigrants were worried about being kicked out of England due to Brexit, and they talked about it openly. An Italian guy in Boots told me that he was afraid of losing his job there after eight years, and having to leave his life in London behind him. Waiters and waitresses told similar stories.
When I watched the news in my hotel room, everyone was screaming about Brexit, and both sides seemed furious. There was a general edginess among Londoners that was palpable, even in Spitalfields, where a street vendor seemed desperate to sell me a t shirt and furious when I declined.Meanwhile, millions of refugees are living in tent cities throughout the Middle East, Africa and Asia. People seeking asylum in the US are treated like vermin carrying the plague. There's an island prison for people attempting to enter Australia by sea, where people are committing
suicide after years of living in limbo. The growth of nationalism and xenophobia around the world has made refugee and migration issues political hot buttons.
As we begin 2019, 68 million people have been forced from their homes by violence, persecution, and violations of human rights. Natural disasters and climate change will cause more migration and more vulnerable populations whose safety have not been ensured by the International community. Australia, Austria, Hungary and Poland have balked at signing the Global Compact on Refugees (GCR) and the Global Compact for Safe, Orderly and Regular Migration (GCM) put forward by Refugees International.
Borders are closing, wealthy nations are turning inwards, and humanitarian crises remain underfunded. Political rhetoric has inflamed irrational fears and blatant racism. What the hell is going on?
We can't all be activists and some of us won't care until we feel personally affected. But we are all affected whether we realize it or not. Intolerance, nationalism and racism will poison all our lives if things keep getting worse. Other countries may sprout their own Donald Trumps. Go to the homepage of the UN Refuge Agency at https://www.unhcr.org/ to learn more and to get involved.