2016 may be remembered as the year xenophobia rapidly took centre stage in western politics. In crass, sometimes shockingly offensive ways (political correctness seemingly no longer a concern for those seeking power or voting for the powerful), politicians in Europe and the US have spoken about immigrants in the same way they might speak about criminals. The rhetoric which propelled Brexit to materialize in the UK casually equated immigrants with thieves, asserting that immigrants “come and steal our jobs.” In the US, the president elect explicitly used the words rapists and terrorists to describe, respectively, the millions of immigrants from Mexico who enter the US and the nearly billion individuals who identify with the Muslim faith. Apparently oblivious to the fact that some people are simply born luckier than others, the unsuccessful candidate for president of Austria promised that he would be a “president for Austrians,” as opposed to a president for everyone now legally living on Austrian soil.
We tend to assume that we are in the majority when it comes to our beliefs, until forced to confront that we may be outliers. Perhaps it should not have come as a surprise that these aggressive and accusatory sentiments about immigrants seem ridiculous to me given I am in the immigrant camp myself. Yet what continues to surprise me is how quickly politicians make sweeping generalisations about groups at least as heterogeneous as the populations of their own countries.
When it comes to actively inflicting terror onto others, I find it difficult to believe that one would immigrate with such an objective. From the conversations I have had with people who left their countries, one consistent reason for their initial immigration is to provide a better set of opportunities for their family than those available under their respective old regimes. Immigrants tend to be more, not less, sensitive to the various horrors which human beings can inflict on one another given that they themselves are often running away from scary circumstances. I have been stunned at how many times immigrants specifically reference their daughters, who stand to benefit more than sons from immigration given the unequal, sometimes blatantly misogynist policies still employed by certain countries today.
Thus for all the angry and naively opinionated talk about immigrants invading soil supposedly belonging to others, I wonder why there aren’t more stories from the immigrants themselves. Is the experience of being an immigrant really a rosy picture, one of people swiftly moving to a new country to conquer great jobs and cause havoc for the locals? A recent play at the Young Vic would certainly contradict that view. “A Man of Good Hope,” based on the novel by Jonny Steinberg and brought to life by the South African Isango Ensemble, is the true story of one immigrant – a Somali refugee – who faces enormous challenges when attempting to build a home in new countries.
We meet Asad, played by the fiercely talented Phielo Makitle, when he is an eight year old boy hiding out during Somalia’s civil war. Preconceptions about the play being light-hearted are quickly put to rest as Asad’s mother is killed in the first scene by local militia. At eight years old, Asad is forced to be independent before he is considered a legal adult, having also experienced a trauma graver than what most any legal adult in the developed world can expect to experience in their lifetime.
Rather than feeding whatever anger would understandably take centre stage as a function of seeing your mother shot in front of your eyes, Asad calmly finds a distant member of his clan – an older aunt – to care for him. That is, until she gets shot in the leg and roles are reversed so that he must quickly learn to care for her. When the narrator asks, were you not afraid? How could you care for her so intimately, cleaning her and feeding her? Asad tells us, “I did not think of it. She’s the only thing I had.” This sentence seems to freeze the audience, some of who presumably think back to the favours or sacrifices they made recently, now inconsequential in comparison.
Perhaps influenced by the early relationship with his mother and later his aunt, Asad is respectful and protective of many women throughout the course of the play, a narrative all too rarely attributed to young African men. While it may not be the case that all of Asad’s brothers (of various origins) share his values, it is a good reminder that one cannot assume to have opposing value systems to foreigners simply because they are foreign. At the same time, if a gap in values or customs is anticipated, it can be dealt with positively and proactively. Thinking of the modern mass migration of refugees in Europe and the way different countries have handled this influx of individuals for example, two cases come to mind: The first is Norway’s program to educate refugees from North Africa about local customs (namely, the importance of treating women with respect and equality), and the second is Germany’s app Ankommen which was carefully crafted to welcome newcomers to German life (assuming, I suppose, they have access to a mobile phone).
Making his way through Ethiopia and Kenya, Asad meets and marries a Somali woman who has his first child. His connection to Somalia and Somali people remains strong as he goes through life in different countries. It is as if he unconsciously longs for some romantic vision of the country he was born into, despite expressing no conscious wish to return back within its unsafe and economically disintegrating borders. At the same time, Asad’s travels lend themselves to absorbing parts of different customs and languages along the way. During a more uplifting point in the play, Asad works as a translator for people seeking to solve disputes between countries. Despite the heartache which can come with moving around, there is also upside: the multi-dimensional skillset of being a good mediator (a function of both language, as well as the temperament needed to survive and adapt to different people) would have been difficult for Asad to acquire if he had always stayed in one place.
Despite an increasingly decent life of interesting work and family, Asad dreams of South Africa: the promised land he’s heard will bring him true prosperity. Leaving his wife with his word that he will send for her in three months, Asad makes his longest voyage yet: a trip which is as expensive as it is dangerous. The group of refugees slowly dwindle as some run out of the money needed to occasionally bribe guards, and others have their papers refused at border inspection. Each refugee carries little – one suitcase per person, a life’s belongings – which they eventually slip carefully under South Africa’s border “walls,” a sequence so well orchestrated by the actors that a noise made by Asad slipping underneath in night time causes me to bite my lip in fear that a guard will discover him. When the lucky ones finally arrive in Johannesburg, memories of Asad’s previous destitute homes are swiftly replaced by the promise of riches in the new one. Likewise, small relatable communities of people must be traded in for the overwhelming hodgepodge of urban citizens. Asad must learn the meaning of “my friend” in South Africa the same way I had to learn the meaning of “very interesting” when I moved to England.
Rather than attend university, as a younger Asad expressed a keen interest in earlier in the play, he is now a father burdened with the need to support wife and son back home. Given how much I value education, this was one of the biggest tragedies which Asad suffered. While it cannot compare to visceral shootings, the mere realisation that Asad will no longer have the freedom to uncover his brain’s potential is in some way a proclamation that a cognitive part of him must die (or perhaps, never live). How often I have heard similar sentiments – not resentful, merely practical – from conversations with taxi drivers and dry clean owners in my hometown New York City, many of whom were qualified lawyers and businessmen in their home countries, only to take whatever work was available when they moved to the US.
Thus begins Asad’s search for work, which he finds with another Somali couple who are from Asad’s clan. The importance of finding people you can connect with in new places is a theme repeated throughout the play – a sentiment which explains the prevalence of ex-pat communities around the world who, despite coming from different homes, can always connect on their shared identity as outsiders. The Somali couple runs a shop in a small South African town, and Asad moves from first driving the truck which delivers their groceries to being a second shop keeper. But settling into a job with steady income takes time, and as three months turns into nine, he still doesn’t have enough money to bring his wife over to join him. Asad’s wife, meanwhile, grows impatient and seemingly looks forward to the enforcement of a local stipulation, which states that after a year apart they will be automatically divorced in the eyes of the law.
Despite the pressure put on him, Asad can barely think about normal things like his wife and child. The shop is often looted; he is regularly taken advantage of by local South Africans, and he eventually finds his friend and main shop keeper stabbed to death by several local men. As the men leave the Somali shop keeper bleeding to death, the dying man spends his last seconds of life hearing their bitter words: “South African jobs are for South Africans.” Doesn’t the sentiment sound all too spine-tinglingly familiar?
At a quiet point in the play, Asad reflects on where he truly belongs: “I belong to everyone, so I don’t belong to anyone,” a sentiment which many a self-proclaimed citizen of the world would nod along to. After all, to what extent can one truly belong to a new home if he refuses or is simply unable to remove accents and mannerisms which may give away foreign homes? How does one handle the anger and abuse of locals, so clear in their sense of belonging they could not possibly sympathise with a foreigner’s struggles? How to communicate that some individuals are simply unlucky enough to be born on bad pieces of land, whose rulers allow and encourage sadistic customs and undermine human rights?
Thankfully and true to its title, Asad never loses hope. He remarries and eventually obtains visa rights to enter the US, a country which is portrayed rather idealistically as a safe and wealthy destination where he will finally find peace. As Asad sings about “A-me-ri-ca!” we remember the importance of continuing to dream in the face of a potentially contradictory reality. Perhaps that is a defining characteristic of immigrants: optimistic dreamers who believe that welcoming places exist beyond the harsh realities they know.
Then why, going back to my initial question, don’t these dreamers share more of their stories? Will you read this book when it’s finished? The narrator, who is the reason we know Asad’s story, asks Asad just before he turns away from the stage for the last time. “No. My mother was killed in Somalia, I lost my aunt in Kenya, they separated me from my cousins in South Africa, I lost my first wife and child, and I saw my Somali brother killed. I don’t want to be reminded of these stories.” Condensing a life’s tragedies into such a sentence, the audience is shocked that Asad has any hope left at all. Perhaps this is the other trick of immigrants: it’s possible to remain optimistic if you choose not to relive the atrocities of the past, and instead force yourself to look forward.
Let’s hope the new world order of fear and xenophobia doesn’t extinguish the flames of these life-enriching, optimistic dreamers. We can only conquer unprompted generalisations about immigrants and refugees if they remain hopeful in their actions, and brave in allowing their stories to be shared.