I have an affinity with squirrels. They’re a fond memory from my childhood in the U.S. They don’t exist in Palestine and every time I travelled back to the U.S. the first thing I looked out for were the squirrels. But ever since I’ve arrived in the UK, I’ve been told that the grey squirrel are the evil invasive species that killed off most of the native Red Squirrel.
At first, I too, was swept up in my ‘dislike’, despite my early childhood love for them. I don’t know what made me go along with it, but maybe I just wanted to fit in with the general unpopular opinion of them, find a common enemy, so to speak.
I watch the grey squirrels from my kitchen window in the morning and they’re benign beings that are just looking for food. They co-exist with other species and I’ve never seen them attack the birds happily feeding around them. They quickly descend on the so called ‘squirrel proof’ bird feeder as soon as I fill it up and eat most of the feed. But because they have to scoop the bird feed out, it allows seeds to drop on the ground, making it easier for the larger birds, the wood pigeons and blackbirds, to eat because the feeder is designed for robins and blue tits.
And as I watch them, I think, well, these grey squirrels came here by accident, perhaps as stowaways in a ship from North America. Although they drove the native species almost to the brink of extinction, it isn’t as if they sat huddled in a New York dock one day and sinisterly hatched a plan to invade Britain and replace the entire Red Squirrel population. Those foreign animals that have upset the equilibrium of the British eco-system.
I feel like the grey squirrel some days. I originally came to Britain as a student, but then I met and married my husband. So now I am one of those detested immigrants and I don’t particularly like the label because it assumes that all people who come here have less than good intentions about being in Britain. Nothing but a massive wave of grey squirrels flooding out of the bowels of the ship coming to over run the country and destroy its heritage and sense of community.
But who has labelled me? I have had nothing but positive experiences and interactions with people I’ve met since I’ve arrived. I have never been pointed at and called an ‘immigrant’. And when I’ve used that word to describe my situation, people seem shocked because there I am in person, someone they like, yet who they hear about in the news as someone who is a clear and imminent danger to their way of life.
What I have really found difficult, however, is government and opposition rhetoric on the subject. And what I’ve found even more frustrating is government policies and bureaucracy regarding the immigration process.
I have lain in bed some nights wide awake with anxiety over the fact that I’m still waiting for my visa application to be approved since April. This has restricted a lot of aspects of my life here and prevented my ability to move forward with my life here, i.e. ‘assimilate’. Then I start to think what if after all this time, my application is refused, and there I am at 4am in the morning trying to be practical about which furniture we’ll ship and which we’ll sell. Then I start worrying about whether my husband will be able to get a visa from Israel and adapt to living in a conflict zone where most people never go for walks just for leisure.
I don’t know where the fear of the ‘other’ really started. Whether it was genuinely a public concern or whether the seed for demonising immigrants came from politicians. It makes me angry because I’m not sure how Britain defines community and as such don’t think immigrants’ presence has contributed to the disintegration of traditional family values in British society/community, as is being claimed. I don’t think they can be blamed for people’s disregard for the elderly, mistreatment of the disabled or sexual abuse of children. Yes, immigrants need to adapt to their new country — after all they chose to come here — and accept that certain customs like female genital mutilation and childhood marriage are unacceptable. But the powers that be need to remember that ‘they’ are not all like that and it would be wrong to assume so. Unless the government and opposition are singling out a particular ethnic group?
Although mine will be different from others, I have experienced certain low points, particularly during the past eight months. And while I’ve tried to make myself useful by volunteering, I feel insecure about my future here, I feel isolated and I certainly don’t feel part of a larger community, despite my best efforts to fit in. And, oh, I speak English. But I also know that these things take time and the challenges I face today will be long forgotten as years pass.
As I’m here for the long-haul, I’d like to belong, but in reality I know that I will always be different, but that’s not a bad thing. That is why I don’t like being labelled as anything, because like anyone else in this world, I am the sum of my experiences, of the places I’ve lived, the monuments I’ve climbed, the people I’ve met, the books I’ve read, the work I’ve done, the friends I’ve made. I’m Palestinian by birth but I’m also a ‘global’ citizen, who now lives in the UK. One thing doesn’t and shouldn’t detract from the other. And despite what everyone else in Britain thinks, I love grey squirrels and always will.