Brexit: It's Personal for My Family and Me

Brexit: It's Personal for My Family and Me

David and Samantha Cameron returning to Downing Street after the U.K. prime minister's resignation speech.

SourceChris Ratcliffe / Getty

Why you should care

Because my country may be turning its back on immigrants like me. 

For the first 18 years of my life, I was stateless. A Palestinian refugee, I officially belonged nowhere and had no passport, no citizenship and very few rights, particularly in the developed world. It took years of government lobbying, thousands of dollars in lawyers’ fees and hours of late-night prayer, but in 2004, my family and I at last became citizens — of the United Kingdom.

That’s why a bolt of fear ran through me as I watched the results come in: The U.K. had voted to leave the European Union. The same country that had offered my family its saving grace appeared to be turning its back on us. The “Vote Leave” campaign, driven by concerns about immigrants dragging down the economy, pledged to shut down so-called out-of-control borders and rein in “overstretched” services. Such sentiments discount the complex fabric of the demographics in Britain, where 13.1 percent are foreign-born and 8.5 percent are non-British citizens. In fact, long before immigration was a hot-button issue, the size of the foreign-born population in the U.K. almost doubled, from about 3.8 million in 1993 to more than 8.3 million in 2014, according to Oxford University’s Migration Observatory report.

Rather, the rhetoric fueling the Leave campaign was fearmongering, with a strong undertone of prejudice. Far from squeezing resources, most refugees have had astounding financial and academic success. The work they do may not be glamorous or high-profile, but it is worthy work. Take my parents: My father, Aziz, and my late mother, Ayda, were both born in the United Nations–funded refugee camp of Shatila, one of the largest Palestinian camps in Lebanon during the 1950s and ’60s. They landed at Heathrow Airport in 1994, with two daughters, two suitcases and the clothes on their backs. In the ensuing years, my parents transformed not only their lives but also their children’s. My father became the manager of a printing press and my mother (who didn’t speak a word of English until she was in her 20s) managed the IT system for a large college.

I never expected this country, my adopted home, could breed so much xenophobia and anti-immigrant rhetoric.

Yes, we may now be British citizens on paper, but it is impossible to forget the journey we have taken. We are the only members of our entire extended family with an official passport from a country. In fact, if the stringent rules of immigration law — sure to become even stricter with the passing of a Brexit vote — had applied in 2004, when I was awarded my passport, my family would probably be living a very different life. Today’s Britain does not resemble the tiny island where I made my closest friends and settled with family. I never expected this country, my adopted home, could breed so much xenophobia and anti-immigrant rhetoric.

Britain is not the same place it was 72 hours ago. Emboldened by a fear that immigrants are the easy channels for terror, the British bureaucracy has increasingly tightened its requirements for incoming immigrants. And history is repeating itself with my family. My sister’s husband, Mahmoud, a Palestinian refugee living in Lebanon, has had his visa to the U.K. repeatedly denied. He has to prove his worth to England despite fathering two British-born daughters: my nieces Widad, 2, and Maryam, 1. What happens to the opportunities for young families trying to make a break in England? A vote against the EU is not a vote against terrorism, as UK Independence Party leader Nigel Farage claimed. It is a vote against British families.

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