A picture of one drowned child had brought home the human tragedy of the migration of Syrians and other people escaping from war and political persecution. For whatever reason of the human psyche, the working of our minds, it has somehow distressed us more than the news of 70 migrants suffocated in a sealed truck or 300 victims of people traffickers drowned in the Mediterranean. One child. But the solutions are not simple.
Driving test examiners have stock questions that they ask the pupil that they are testing to give the impression that they, the examiners, are human beings. During his test the examiner asked my pupil Yohannes “Well, Yohannes, what would you be doing if you weren’t on this test?” “I would be working” replies Yohannes. “So, Yohannes, what do you do for a living?” Continues the examiner. “I am a cleaner.” Yohannes replies. “That’s interesting,” as if it is, says the examiner flinching as Yohannes, distracted by this pointless conversation gambit narrowly misses a parked car.
I’m in the back of the car, a comfort blanket for Yohannes, listening to this exchange between the examiner and my pupil. I smile to myself; Yohannes may be a humble cleaner, here in the UK, but I know that in another life, in his own country of Eritrea, he was a teacher of maths and science. I discovered this during a discussion about tyre pressures and how you should check the pressures when the tyres are cold. I had no idea why, just that you should. But Yohannes knew why and proceeded to explain about molecules and stuff that flew over my head. I asked him why he didn’t take up teaching in Britain. He told me that he felt his command of English wasn’t good enough and that he couldn’t afford to stop work to improve his English or train to teach here. His sole priority is ensuring his children have a future, and to that end he will sacrifice his.
Unlike many commentators, through my work as a driving instructor, I meet many immigrants, get to know them personally. I have enjoyed their hospitality, shared meals with them in their homes, listened to sad, heartbreaking stories. Yonas a farmer, Yohannes a maths teacher, Yohan an aero engineer, Roben university lecturer and author, Bisrat a mechanical engineer. This is a small cross section of the Africans; Ethiopians, Eritreans, Zimbabweans and Nigerians that I teach to drive. They are all intelligent, educated people, but here in the UK they are all employed in warehouses, factories and kitchens. A shocking waste of talent here and a tragic loss for Africa.
Another of my pupils, Luwam, a lovely Ethiopian mother of two children, said to me, “this is not my country, it is painful, too painful. I miss my country, my home.” But, like Yohannes she is resigned to accepting her lot to ensure a future for her children. This longing for their homeland is a common emotion amongst the immigrants I know.
I have listened to well off politicians, celebrities and actors, living isolated in the leafy suburbs of London, their children at nice schools, suggesting we accept thousands of immigrants, distribute them around the country. Ten families to each town has been suggested. A news reporter then interviewed a local resident of Wolverhampton who pointed out that ten families in her neighbourhood will mean less housing opportunities for her son or daughter, additional pressure for school places for her grandchildren and longer queues in her doctors surgery. I totally agree with the noble sentiments expressed by the politicians, luvvies and celebrities as they compete to wave their compassion credentials. But, but, I also share the constituent’s fears. An ordinary person, her life style was closer to mine; my life, my problems. After all, it is not so long ago, during the election campaign, that we were told that the NHS was in the grip of catastrophic crisis, there was a massive housing shortage and millions were queuing at food banks. An exaggeration, I suspect but nevertheless, there are problems here and now. So, while we must do something to help the migrants it must be planned, considered and pragmatic.
One of my father’s pithy pearls of wisdom was that ‘problems only require solutions’. The only real solution is to fix Africa: almost an insurmountable problem. After the Iraq debacle it is obvious that the migration crisis will not be sorted if we persist in trying to foist our political, cultural and social systems on the Africans. The long term solutions, lie in Africa, as for many Africans, like Luwam, home is where the heart is.