The migrant experience is often one of loss, leaving homes and family for a life somewhere new, unknown and loaded with potential. In this post, Eithne Nightingale discusses the research involved in her Being Human festival event Child migrant stories, which retells the emotional and physical journeys child migrants have undergone in order to reach the UK. Her project has developed into a number of short films relaying the testimonies and oral histories of child migrants she has encountered, which will be screened during the festival on 19 November.
Child migrant stories are based on interviews with people who migrated to east London under the age of 18 from across the world between 1930 and the present day. Some children came on their own and some with parents or siblings. Others came to join family already in east London who they may not have seen for years. They are not only stories of loss and reunion but of resilience too, often in the face of war, poverty and discrimination.
The introductory film, Child Migrant Stories, draws on interviews with 15 children – Manzila from Bangladesh who was so distraught at leaving her grandfather that she has blocked out memories of the journey; Heather from Jamaica who was told she would turn white if she went to England and Tomasz from Poland who just fitted into his new life. The song, ‘There isn’t any place safe to live for the refugees’ is provided by Henry who escaped the civil war in El Salvador.
Passing Tides is the story of Linh Vu who escaped Vietnam by boat with her father. The film features Linh’s powerful drawings of the fishing boat that took them out to the South China Sea and the British boat that rescued them. The film also features a return to Thorney Island where Linh and her father spent several years in a refugee camp before they settled in Hackney.
The third film, Ugwumpiti, is about Maurice Nwokeji who was caught up in the Biafran war along with his younger brother. Ugwumpiti is the name the children gave to the bowl of food a day, provided by the Red Cross that kept them alive. After the war Maurice and his brother were united with their parents, already in the UK, but not before watching their grandmother die of hunger. Maurice hated chocolate when he first arrived in London. ‘I much preferred roasted rat.’ Maurice’s music provides the film sound track.
Argun Imamzade, who runs a stationers’ in Hackney, showed me a tattered photo album. Inside were the photographs of his Ottoman ancestors and early life in Cyprus. At the age of 12 Argun hid the album behind a metal cabinet just before his house was bombed. During the ceasefire Argun and his family returned to the house. The photo album was the only thing that had survived. Argun and his brother left their grandparents to join their parents, now divorced, in the UK. They travelled by ship and Argun carried a carrier bag containing his one possession – his precious photo album. It is this story that has inspired the fourth film, Hayat Kader (Life is a Destiny).
The personal testimonies, collected as part of my collaborative PhD, have been developed into a website and have been used as inspiration for these short films that have drawn on oral histories, film, photographs, visits to sites of memory and the artistic talents of the participants. These films have been shown in local museums, community centres, schools, cinemas and at the South Bank to huge, and unanticipated, acclaim.
Come along to the film screenings, discussions and live music during the Being Human festival at V&A Museum of Childhood on 19 November.
Eithne Nightingale is undertaking a collaborative PhD (Queen Mary University of London and Museum of Childhood, V&A) supported by the AHRC on children, migration and diasporas based on the World in the East End project. This was an initiative based at the Museum of Childhood which collected tangible and intangible heritage from diverse communities of people living in Tower Hamlets, Hackney and Tower Hamlets which was then integrated into the galleries and on the web.
This article was first published on the Being Human festival’s website.