Over the last month*, while the dismal weather limited activities in the garden and the dog preferred to lie curled up with his nose under his tail rather than venture out for a walk, I distracted myself with family history research. I started building the family tree of my daughters more than twenty years ago, and over that time many names have been added to it: some famous, most not.
I found their names because they lead to me
One of the things I’ve struggled with is to imagine the names as real people with real lives, real feelings, emotions and experiences. They are all from a different time, some also from a different place. Many of these people are my direct grandparents. Without them I would not be me, and I often feel a pang of guilt: I’ve found their names because they lead to me, or my daughters, and that is why they are important, or worse, I noted their names and dates as incidentals on a family tree moving through history to the pinnacle of my own children.
I excuse myself, reasoning those I never knew were all safely dead before I was born and my empathy, or not, with them can have no bearing on the events and emotions of their lives. But at the end of the week when our government succeeded in removing from the EU Withdrawal Bill the protection of family reunion rights for unaccompanied refugee children, and a few days before the UK leaves the EU, I started to think again.
I was horrified by the removal of the rights from these children. How could a compassionate and responsible government with its majority of MPs be so callous as to decide it appropriate to use disadvantaged children as potential bargaining chips in a trade deal? I suspect they want to use emotional blackmail. If playing them as bargaining chips doesn’t work they can blame “the callous EU”. If the EU cared about these children they would have given us what we wanted. They are surely confident that their supporters will not stop to think that if we in the UK cared, we would not play them as a bargaining chip. But are they right?
I asked my MP to imagine one of her own grandchildren was an orphaned refugee
Unlike my disregarded ancestors, the refugee children are living now, experiencing real physical and emotional sensations: pain, joy, hunger, sadness, happiness. Many have shown resilience in the face of trauma and extreme adversity. Even if we can’t empathise we can surely sympathise. And we can do something to effect their lives. It is not acceptable to wait until they are “safely dead” and then say there was nothing we could have done.
I asked my MP to imagine that one of her own grandchildren was an orphaned refugee, across the channel in a camp. Would she be desperate to rescue them, put her arms round them, tell them they were safe now and give them a home? If so how could she vote to potentially deprive another grandmother and grandchild of the same comforts? I don’t expect a reply.
While these children are abstract statistics it is to easy to ignore them as people; abdicate any responsibility, believe they are lesser than members of our own families or, if their humanity starts to nag us, persuade ourselves they are somehow deserving of their fate.
The baby was taken away by richer relatives
As I reviewed my family tree and revisited sections I completed years ago, as I tried to look at them as people and not data points on the path towards myself, I noticed patterns I’d not seen before. One set of my paternal great grandparents had ten children, four boys and six girls born between 1899 and 1918. Three of the daughters died before they were twenty years old, a fourth died aged 22 leaving a baby of just under one year old. The baby was take away by her father’s family and my great grandmother was cut off from her.
It occurred to me that I didn’t know these people, not because they were from some distant time – they weren’t – my grandfather didn’t die until I was nineteen years old and the longest living of his siblings survived until I was over forty years old – but because they died from illnesses related to poverty.
He remembered the unending distress of his grandmother
I called my dad, now in his ninetieth year, and asked him what he could remember. He knew he’d had a cousin he never met, but the thing he remembered most was the unending distress of his grandmother denied contact with and news of her grand daughter after the death of her own daughter, the child’s mother. The father’s family was more well to do and could provide a more comfortable life for the child, but why did that make them think they had the right to exclude her mother’s family? Did they ever stop to think what anguish they caused? Did they care or did they think the feelings of people they viewed as “beneath them” irrelevant?
My great grandmother’s story ended long before I was born but I am shocked at how, when discovering the story for the first time, I missed the significance of it for her. It was a sad story but I didn’t think of the pain it would have caused her.
Now we pass laws which make family reunion between grandparents and their grandchildren a bargaining chip in a political game and others which threaten the family unity of millions of EU families.
We think it sends a signal of our toughness. We pretend it makes us a heavyweight on the world stage.
Well sometimes tough becomes callous and our excuses expose our arrogance and weaknesses not our strengths.
*This blog was first published 27th January 2020 on thesticks.org under the title “I didn’t think of the pain it would have caused”.