As I write this, a charter flight is touching down in my native Scotland with a passenger list containing names that most of the local people might find difficult to pronounce. For this historic flight carries the first group of Syrians to arrive in Britain under the country’s agreement to accept 1,000 refugees before Christmas.
I can only imagine the excitement and nervousness of the passengers. So many pertinent questions must be swirling through their heads: Will the Scottish people be happy to see us? Will our children fit in at school? Will I get a job and be able to support my family and not be a financial burden? Will I ever see my extended family back in Syria again?
Of course, there will also be questions of a lighter nature niggling them: Will I ever be able to understand what the Scottish people are saying, even when they claim to be speaking English? Will we be obliged to eat Haggis, and deep-fried Mars Bars (Scotland’s favourite dessert)? Will our menfolk have to wear a kilt to fit in? How do we ward off an attack from the Loch Ness Monster?
Nonetheless, as the plane taxis towards the main terminal building, and the passengers look out through the rain-streaked windows on a grey day, they must be thinking: “Will I be made welcome by the Scottish people? Will they treat me with suspicion, as if I’m no better than a terrorist?”
The Scotland I know and love will welcome these refugees with open arms as well as an open mind. The Scotland I know and love will show compassion when homeless families show up on the nation’s doorstep, psychologically battered and bruised, and with only the clothes on their backs. The Scotland I know and love will understand what it feels like to be an outsider, the underdog … it’s embedded in the national psyche.
Like many countries around the world, Scotland is a nation of immigrants. Indeed, the Scottish ethnic make-up is predominantly Scots, Celtic, Viking and Irish, with a sprinkling of a few others.
My father was an Irish immigrant who went to Scotland in search of a better life after his family’s farm could no longer produce enough to feed everyone. Scotland became his home, and he went on to marry a Scottish woman and have six children. It’s fair to say then, that I’m the daughter of an economic refugee.
Due to the sectarian problems that existed back then between the Irish immigrants, who were predominantly Catholic, and their Scottish hosts, who were predominantly Protestant, my father chose to keep his religion to himself when he said goodbye to Ireland. Nonetheless, even the hint of an Irish accent would often be enough to incite a Scot to give him an earful of abuse for no good reason.
During the Irish Potato Famine, more than a century before my father left home, the Irish immigrants in Scotland had earned a reputation for being drunks, lazy, dirty, untrustworthy, uncivilised, and lacking in grey matter – where do you think all those Irish jokes came from? Old stereotypes often linger, and I’m sure my father was mindful of this.
With a Catholic father and a Presbyterian mother, religion was a touchy subject growing up. As a child, I was discouraged from mentioning my father’s religion, or even the fact that he came from Ireland. Consequently, I grew up in total denial of my Irish heritage.
I can still remember the fallout resulting from my friendship with a Catholic girl when I was 14. My parents had heard from a neighbour that I’d been seen with her coming out of a Catholic chapel, where I’d gone to listen to some nuns singing and playing the guitar. You’d think I’d killed someone, for all the fuss they’d made.
Your ethnicity and your religion are a huge part of who you are as a person. I feel sad that my father felt compelled to overtly vilify his own faith and conceal his origins so that he would be accepted.
I know the Scotland of 2015 is a vastly different entity from the one my father knew. Irish immigrants are no longer the scourge they were once considered, and they and their descendants have become indiscernible from the rest of the population. Maybe we’ve even learnt something from that experience.
I was heartened to read what Scotland’s First Minister Nicola Sturgeon had to say about the Syrian refugees arriving in Scotland: “We should feel proud that we are providing refuge for the most vulnerable individuals. And we reaffirm today our unshakeable commitment to a peaceful, secure, multicultural, and tolerant Scotland. The kind of society that the terrorists want to destroy, but we are determined to uphold, to cherish, and protect.”
It’s such a shame she couldn’t have made the awful weather a bit better for them.
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