From Citizen to Subject – and Remaining a Citizen

By Johannes Arens

On 9 December, a few days before the General Election, our Prime Minister considered it appropriate to say that ‘over the last couple of decades or more… we’ve seen quite a large numbers of people coming in from the whole of the EU […] able to treat the UK basically as though it’s part of their own country.’

That’s not what I needed to hear at that stage, the statement left me feeling somewhat dirty. My family and I have been living in England since 2004 and I came here before as a student in 1996 and 1997.

The process of making one’s home here and Britain becoming ‘my own country’ has been incrementally and mostly unnoticeable. It is true that expatriates become more aware of their national identity of origin by living away from home: living in England made me far more aware of being and feeling German than I was ever before. Living as a foreigner somewhere else brings little things into focus: we don’t share the same memories of childhood, I never watched Dr Who or the two Rons, I did not even know that England once beat Germany (sort of) and won the World Cup, and whereas being able to drive across the few miles to Holland and Belgium without controls or change of currency whilst still using the same Rhineland dialect was a repeated and formative source of joy for me, family memories of war, death, hunger and occupation being very much alive in spite of being born in 1969. My home town is full of ‘jerry-built’ houses, not quite fitting between the older pre-war real estate. The war still feels tangible in my part of Germany and the many borders within an hour’s drive towards the Netherlands, Belgium, Luxembourg and France evoke childhood memories of queuing and waiting precisely by their new European absence. Using the Channel Tunnel never had that kind of impact on my friends over here.

It happened around having lived here for about 10 years: my German started to feel a bit old-fashioned whenever I visited ‘home’, my ‘home town’ had changed in my absence whereas Leicester, which is home to so many people who have once lived somewhere else, became more and more my home. The number of people I am regularly in touch with in Germany continues to shrink, whereas my children have been growing up in England and only know Germany from family visits. Germans also don’t form as closely-knit expatriate communities as many others. Leicester as my home town crept up on me, I didn’t expect to ever feel so contend in this place.

All expatriates and immigrants know that ‘home’ is a fragile concept for them. Places of origin fade in familiarity and relevance, but the new home takes getting used to: I am white, 6’4” tall and blond, but I am still instantly recognisable as a foreigner as soon as I open my mouth (although most people who don’t know me seem to think I am South African – my English is good but I do speak with a bit of an accent, even after many years). In all the years I have lived here incidents of hostility due to my German origin have been rare and far in between. I was taken aback when somebody refused to shake my hand because of his childhood memories of the Blitz. I do remember being welcomed on an orientation day at Durham University by an elderly academic with the line that ‘we are more used to Germans hanging from parachutes than wanting to do PhDs in this country’ (and I learned since that this was among the first signs of his beginning dementia). More awkward were attempted compliments I occasionally received: ‘You are ok, same tribe you know – at least you don’t look like the little f***er across the road in the Moroccan restaurant.‘ Or ‘you must feel weird about all the fuss about Prince Harry in the Africa Corps uniform.’ It didn’t help that I gently pointed out that the wearing of any Nazi uniform is a criminal offence in Germany, and has been for a very long time.

I am also still shy about claiming Leicester/England/Britain as my home or making any demands of that kind, after all, am I not just a guest here and need to accept that things can change? However, the EU Referendum did exactly the opposite of leaving Germany many years before: whereas the former made me more aware of my German identity, the referendum focussed my sense of home and belonging in England – and that this blossoming sense was suddenly threatened and challenged in a way I did not expect. It did not help the creeping feeling of alienation that as a foreign permanent resident my vote was not wanted or permissible in the referendum. Suddenly my sense of belonging became something to defend, something precious and hard won over many years. I joined a political party out of wanting to engage more with the society which welcomed me and offered me a home. I wanted to do my bit to show my engagement with British culture, my successful integration into its society and most of all I wanted to overcome my lack of agency in the most important political decision in decades. It felt good to be part of huge crowds marching through London. The one thing I could not bring myself to do was to apply for citizenship, for the sole reason of the prohibitive cost of £1330 per person – as a family of four, even with the slight reduction for minors this amounts close to £5000. About £4000 of this are net-profit for the Home Office as a recent court case demonstrated. Having been subjected to the language of being a ‘bargaining chip’ by at least some British politicians my motivation to financially support the Home Office instead of spending such significant amounts of money on my family was rather low.

I expected Boris Johnson to win, but I hoped he would not, particularly after his corrosive comments about people like me ‘treating Britain like my own country.’ It is my country. It has become my country, almost by stealth. It took most of the post-election Friday to sink in that this was it. I know of people from the continent who have had enough and left, often in mixed families where the British part feels mortified by the deteriorating tone and the narrow concern of what is good for Britain or England, mostly in solely financial terms. I dearly missed the question in the whole miserable Brexit debate what Britain might be able to contribute to Europe and the rest of the world.

Hence, after a thoroughly miserable post-election Friday, I felt kicked into action on Saturday. I was sick to death of being a bargaining chip and a victim – I would claim my elected home by applying for British Citizenship. I happily impersonate most German stereotypes, so after a few hours the application was done and the necessary pile of documents was scanned and uploaded in the correct way – and I felt tangibly poorer after the fee was paid. However, I cannot fault the home office process: if one is computer literate and all documentation is around and complete the process is straightforward. Half a day of my time was all it needed.

The only let-down was the appointment needed to check all the documentation and to take the necessary biometric data before all the application goes off to the Home Office. It required a fee of £60 per person and a trip to Nottingham Central Library – third floor. I was hoping for ‘Land of Hope and Glory’ being played on repeat, but instead somebody had put together some movable walls to create a dingy, windowless space. Following a faceless voice calling ‘Next!’ across the partitions we were facing the silent treatment from somebody looking at my uploaded scans. ‘All ok, you can go’ – without even wanting to see any of the original documents. I rarely felt less welcome – definitely not ‘Land of Hope and Glory’ playing, nor a cup of tea with a cucumber sandwich (with the crust cut off). Couldn’t they at least afford an office for £60 per ten-minute appointment (following £1330 per person per application)? This is the sort of anecdote which will stay with me for a long time and will make me giggle in years to come.

But – the Home Office delivered quickly. Following a very polite phone call to clarify some detail the letter came swiftly: in less than a month after the memorable Nottingham Library Welcome my citizenship application was accepted.

I am really glad about this. I am glad that Germany accepts double citizenship with other EU countries – until January 2021 all Germans becoming British will not be challenged about keeping their German citizenship. I am glad that my feeling at home in my adopted country is backed up by a document saying that I belong here. I am glad I am privileged enough to have the choice to become British: I have lived here long enough and paid my taxes. I got all sorts of documents in order and I know what to do with forms – not everybody finds that easy and straightforward. I can afford this outrageously expensive process even if I find it deeply unfair to have to give such a large amount of money to the Home Office. And I am really glad that next time I will be able to vote. It’s only one vote, but I will never feel so completely voiceless and powerless again. Watch out Mr Johnson (we are not on first names term).

Johannes Arens is a priest at Leicester Cathedral.

How EU citizenship has helped me – Emilie Ancelin

These are experiences and encounters that have been central in building my personality, enriching my cultural awareness, improving my communication and social skills whilst broadening my knowledge and education of the world that surrounds me.

A Pro-EU Message to Waterford, Ireland

I’m not a Waterford native, nor even an Irishman. But I want to share my Waterford story and tell you all why your special town will always hold a dear place in my heart.

I’m a Yorkshire man; Barnsley to be exact. It’s a post-industrial heavily working class area in the North of England. Most of you I’m sure will have heard of the town, or its mediocre football club I still contrive to find myself following. Always been a bit of a masochist I guess.

I’d just turned 19 when I stepped foot in Waterford for the first time in February 2014. I had no idea I’d be there until 5 days prior.

This is how that came to be:

I married my beautiful American wife at 18 in Atlanta, Georgia. We were very young but very much sure it’s what we wanted. Shortly after, we found out she was expecting, and it wasn’t expected. We were young and naïve, and I can’t pretend every decision we’ve ever made has been easy or wise in the eyes of others, but we knew we were keeping this baby.

My wife’s father was killed in an accident at work, and her stepfather didn’t get on with her at the time. The most logical place to raise our child was with my family in Barnsley. So I brought her over, as I’m sure many of you would have done.

Except the government had other ideas. According to the British government, working class people like myself don’t have the right to a family life if the spouse is ‘foreign’. A new law came in just as we moved to the UK, moving the goalposts completely. Now I had to prove I’d been earning an £18,600 salary for 2 years to get her a visa. I hadn’t. I’d been a student, and then lived in the US for the better part of a year.

I tried everything I could to get her leave to remain in the UK with me. As an 18 year old I found myself pouring over hundreds of pages of legal jargon, corresponding with the British Home Secretary (Theresa May at the time) and meeting with my local MP, who was fighting our case on compassionate and human rights grounds.

It seemed certain we’d be able to stay. My wife was pregnant with our British son and not a penny was paid by the taxpayer.

The NHS refused to give her any kind of maternity care, and we couldn’t afford to go private, so her pregnancy went completely unchecked even when she showed dangerous symptoms.

And then we got the bad news. We had a week to leave the country, baby or no baby. Theresa May wrote to me: “If you really love her, you’ll have no problem at all leaving the country with her. She’s not welcome”. She signed it herself. This is what the UK government has become by the way.

So I was kicked out of my own country: the country I was born and raised in. My wife had to uproot her life all over again, at 7 months pregnant and with no idea where we could possibly go. We couldn’t go back to the US; I had no leave to remain there and her family situation was very difficult.

We had a week to ‘suck it up’, figure something out and then execute our plan. Remember we were only 19 at this point. Kids pretending & thinking we were adults. Oh how much we’ve had to learn in the six short years since.

We did some legal digging and started to read about my rights as an EU citizen. It turns out, under EU law I could legally take my wife of any nationality to live with me in any EU country – except my own. Ireland was the only logical choice, mainly for linguistic reasons.

So by now we had about 5 days left in the UK. We had to find somewhere to live in Ireland. It didn’t matter where, but we were facing huge trouble securing a tenancy from outside the country. We tried to get a place in Cork, but they turned us down. We couldn’t afford to stay in a hotel for any extended period of time. We were living on my patchy work as a freelance web developer and help from my family.

Then we found a place. It was in a little estate called Templars Hall in a certain town called Waterford. I’m sure you all know exactly where that is. We agreed the tenancy over the phone, and all of a sudden we were emigrating in less than a week.

I don’t remember much of that last week, it’s all a blur. There was a lot of crying, time spent with every single family member, and scary amounts of planning. My stepfather agreed to take us over, but we had to do it in a very specific way for my EU rights to be guaranteed.

We had to drive up through England, through Scotland, get the ferry over to Northern Ireland and then drive all the way down to Waterford, presenting at the Garda station on arrival. We couldn’t fly or take the ferry to the Republic, we had to have our passports taken specifically at a Garda station for the first time, so we had to avoid international borders. Very complicated and very scary.

We got something straight away in Waterford that we’d never experienced in England. Two things actually. Sympathy and basic human decency. We were allowed to stay with few questions asked. Gardai were shocked at how we’d been treated.

I want to make clear now, that at no point did we ever claim any kind of welfare in Ireland. We did everything we could to pay our own way. The only thing we struggled with at first was healthcare. My wife was in desperate need of it, and she’d been refused it at every turn in the UK. We made an appointment at Waterford Regional Hospital for the very next day after we arrived to see a midwife.

My mother and stepfather had two days to stay with us, before they had to go home or else risk losing their jobs. We had two days before we were left alone, in a foreign country with no friends or family, at 19 years old with a baby due in 2 months and a financial situation that could at best be described as ‘uh oh’.

The night we arrived we had to go shopping for food. We had a very limited budget and found ourselves at the Aldi just off Cork Road. We spent every last penny we had on vital food and supplies we needed to survive the next week. And then we got to the counter. At this point the UK didn’t have a plastic bag tax, and we had no idea one existed in Ireland. We didn’t have enough for our bags, and we couldn’t carry our stuff home.

In the UK at this point I’d normally expect people to look at me awkwardly, pretend they hadn’t seen us in trouble and frankly not give a damn. But what happened in Waterford?

An elderly lady heard what was going on, walked up to us and said: “Don’t worry, I have loads of bags and I’m not using them all today. Take some of mine. God bless you.”

My world was turned upside down. A stranger we’ve never met, in a completely new country, wanted us foreigners to have something she’d paid for because she could see we needed it. It was only the first of many extraordinary things I experienced here.

The next happened the following day.

Our appointment at the hospital was for 4:30pm. We were due to see a midwife; her name was Mary but sadly I can’t recall her last name.

We arrived at the hospital, nervous because we had no money and we didn’t know if we’d be expected to pay for anything. We sat in the waiting room, which I can still picture to this day, with the Irish language TG4 playing on the little TV hanging from the ceiling. We were called in.

We explained everything about my wife’s pregnancy and the absolute lack of any kind of healthcare she’d received so far. Mary was horrified. We were upset, everything became too much and tears were shed. She wanted to know our whole story and we obliged. Mary’s shift was due to end at 5pm.

We were still with Mary at 9pm. She’d booked us in for everything: all of our antenatal care, all the tests she felt were necessary, scans we’d been wanting since forever and an appointment to discuss birth itself, which we were terrified of.

But Mary did a lot more than that. She wanted to help us. Personally. She knew we were going to be left alone, and she wanted to make sure we were going to be okay. Not only did she stay 4 hours after the end of her shift, completely unpaid, but she gave us her personal mobile number and told us to call her if we needed ANYTHING. Advice, a lift, a friend.

Incredible.

Our lives changed a month later. My wife, after 5 years of legal wrangling, obtained a substantial amount of money from a court case in the US regarding her father’s wrongful death. Now at least money would not be an issue. We paid up the (very) slight debts we’d accrued and took out expensive private health insurance so we wouldn’t be a drain on the taxpayer in any way.

As you all know though, money isn’t everything. We were still alone in a country that was completely new to both of us, and we had no idea how to raise a child or create a life for our new family in an unfamiliar place when we knew almost nobody.

This is when the kind and loving nature of the people of Waterford really started to kick in. Everywhere we went, people helped us. We never even had to ask. They just helped us.

We made friends with taxi drivers, delivery drivers and shop workers. People talked to us like we were human beings, and believe me, I wasn’t used to that. When we went to get our PPS numbers, government employees didn’t chastise us for missing things we needed, they took time out of their shift to help us instead.

Our neighbours invited us into their community. If we needed anything, even if it inconvenienced them, they did everything they could to help us.

After a couple of months my wife became due. The due date came and went, and two weeks later we were booked in for an induction. This was the thing we’d looked forward to and dreaded immensely in equal measure. We were scared.

The birth was difficult and traumatic. Baby was positioned awkwardly and had to be suctioned out. When he came he wasn’t breathing. It’s every parent’s worst nightmare. Thankfully the fantastic medical staff brought him around and did what they could to help my wife, who was in tremendous pain and had lost a lot of blood.

That night we had another Waterford angel step in to do something incredible for us. I wish I knew her name.

In the night, after I’d been told to go home, our baby woke my wife wanting a feed. No matter what she did, she couldn’t get him to latch to the breast. He was getting agitated and started screaming.

That’s when this lady stepped in. She was a black lady I’d seen earlier in the day on the maternity ward recovering from her own birth. She spoke fluent Irish. I only mention her race because I think if she ever reads this she’ll know I’m talking about her.

She came to my wife’s bed and sat with her. While her own baby slept and she must surely have needed the rest herself, she sat with my wife and showed her how to breastfeed. She did it kindly and without judgement. It was the difference betweeen my wife feeling completelty overwhelmed and feeling like she could do this.

We made a life for ourselves in the end as a family in Waterford, and the good deeds never ended.

Sadly after a year or so my wife developed postpartum mental health issues and I became her full-time carer. It meant we could no longer care for our child alone and we needed my family. I eventually found a legal route we could use to move back to the UK, and we had to take it to give our young lad an extended family and a safe environment to grow up in. He now comes between us and my parents, depending on my wife’s state.

But I miss Waterford every day. You have a city and a people to be proud of, and I wish you all the very best in life. I wept when we took off from Waterford Airport for the last time in October 2015 and flew over our house in Templars Hall. I knew it was goodbye and I knew what I was losing. There is not a day goes by where I do not miss it.

I miss the big things – the humanity, the care, the wonderful people we were exposed to.

But I also miss the smaller things. I miss our first home. I miss the antiques shop near Reginald’s tower. I miss walking over the bridge to Ferrybank in the clean spring air. I miss sitting by the cannons of the Crimean War in Peoples’ Park. I miss everything.

Treasure your city and your heritage, and take pride in Waterford as an incredible place filled with exceptional people.

Thank you all.

Alex

(Comments on this article can be found here.)