I can tell you exactly when they took my identity. It was on the 24 June 2016 at 4.40am precisely. I will never forget the sharp pain I felt when they wrenched it from my heart in one single rip. Nor can I ever erase from my mind their faces as they cheered and celebrated.
My story began in 1992 when I was 18. It seems like a whole lifetime ago now and in a way, it was; a whole British lifetime. The decision to take a gap year and a chance offer of voluntary work in a nursing home bought me to a beautiful little town in Kent just half an hour from London.
Quite by accident, I had landed in the most amazing place on Earth at just the right time. Those were the years of ‘Cool Britannia’. London was experiencing an extraordinary cultural renaissance, the streets were paved with optimism and opportunity and the wind was carrying the incredible energy of possibility. In contrast to the small provincial town in France I had outgrown, London dazzled me. I had never experienced multiculturalism like in London. Here all the different people came together to create a unique beautiful tapestry. Each new person I met was an opportunity for learning, for exchange, for growth. Here I could be whoever I wanted, here I could be free. I completely and utterly fell in love with the capital. I had found my home. I had found myself.
The years went by and my love for the UK only grew stronger. At first, I continued working at the nursing home, travelling around at the weekends, visiting the beautiful countryside, its many castles and friendly pubs. But London kept calling me. The markets, the museums, the galleries, the concerts, the clubs and especially the people kept their hold on me. I took pride at how kind, tolerant and welcoming the British were. After a while, I found a job in the City and realised my dream of actually living in London.
My life was amazing. I wasn’t wealthy but I had friends from all around the world, all of us living life to the full and grateful to have found our place in this vibrant city. I worked hard and I travelled a lot but in between exotic trips, I grew roots and these roots extended from my heart into the British soil that was becoming my forever home.
My trading-desk colleagues bantered, calling me a Frogney because of the strange blend of French and Cockney in my accent, but always treating me as one of theirs.
And then, I met Steve. He represented everything I loved about this country. He was kind, witty and open-minded. We shared a thirst for adventure and soon embarked on our greatest one yet when I gave birth to our beautiful daughter. My roots grew deeper, now intertwined with theirs.
I was so busy building our life together that I never noticed the world changing around me. Outside my home, rips were appearing in the fabric of the society I loved. The shiny, happy people of the 1990s were now turning their backs on others.
I first realised things were amiss after the announcement that the UK was going to hold a referendum on its EU membership. At a gathering, the mum of one of my daughter’s friends made a crass comment about immigration. Surprised and shocked, I pointed out that I, too, was an EU immigrant.
‘Yes, but you’re the right kind of immigrant,’ she said dismissively. Her answer unsettled me deeply.
What did she mean by the right kind of immigrant? Did she refer to the country I came from, my skin colour, my earning levels, what? Suddenly, I noticed all eyes were set on me. These women were making judgments on me and others, deciding whether we were ‘worthy’ of being here based on some arbitrary rules I didn’t grasp. For the first time in 24 years, I felt like I did not belong and I walked out.
The rest of my friends did their best to reassure me. Yes, there was some unrest and some people were blaming Europe but it was all going to be ok. I wanted to believe them but it terrified me to see that even they failed to understand that without free movement, EU citizens like me would no longer be allowed to live in the UK.
On 24 June, the night of the referendum, I was lying in bed wide awake. My anxious feelings had grown bigger and more oppressive with every news report, with every overheard conversation on the playground, with every St George’s flag hanging in my neighbours’ windows. They were crushing my chest, making it hard to breathe. My mouth was dry and all over my body, I felt that unpleasant clamminess you get from tossing and turning in bed. So I decided to get up and face the outcome. One way or another I had to know.
I put on my dressing-gown and closed the door silently behind me. I didn’t want to wake Steve up. The last few weeks had been strained enough. So many weary conversations after my endless requests for reassurances I just couldn’t accept and the hopeless feeling of suffering alone. I wasn’t yet ready to understand how it would affect him too.
As I walked into the living-room, I was still the old me, for just a minute longer. This was still my home but, deep inside, the fear had been telling me this was about to change.
Alone in the dark, I watched the television screen come to life and the result crush mine. I felt a sickening swirl of distress and disbelief building up in my throat. A flood of tears carrying all the frustrations and uncertainty of the last few months surged out of me, choking me.
Then, an overwhelming wave of fear submerged me. What did it mean? Would I be allowed to stay? Would I be separated from my daughter? She was born here, she was British, she didn’t even speak French so I couldn’t take her to a country she didn’t know, that wasn’t hers. What about Steve?
Three years down the line, I have stopped crying but I still don’t have any of the answers.
What am I? 52% of people have told me I don’t belong here. That I never will. The anti-European immigrant headlines in the papers, the drunken obnoxious xenophobic rants in my local pub, the Polish man beaten to death in the next town for speaking in his mother-tongue on his mobile phone, the ‘settled’ government register I need to be listed on to be allowed to stay, for now; they all tell me I’m not British. Yet, I have spent all my adult life here, many more years than in my birth country.
My roots and allegiance are here but I am left without an identity.
The new me, an unwelcome guest in my own home, trapped in permanent limbo.
They tell me it wasn’t about ‘me’, but for me and my family, it is about me. Me and the other 3 million like me.
© by Bénédicte Hunt, French in the UK