I spoke to my sister, Fatos, who was a migrant child when she moved to London in 1996, about her experiences with moving to the UK’s capital and whether or not she feels that the education system did enough to help with her future.
Fatos moved to England with her mother and step-father (my father) when she was only twelve years old but she considers this to be quite a late age to move to another country as a child. She tells us that she came to the UK ‘not knowing a word of English’ and that it took her nine years to be able to speak English fluently. Although this may be down to the lack of support she received from her North London school when she first started in year seven, she blames herself, claiming that she is a ‘slow learner’.
Didn’t you know any English at all when you moved to the UK?
“No, I only knew how to say ‘yes’ and ‘no’ ” she giggles, “it was really tough and scary for me, I had no idea what was going on half the time.”
Was there a huge culture shock when you moved? London is a lot more dangerous than Cyprus and a lot busier too.
“Yes, definitely.” she laughs “My mum was really worried about me as well. Just when I had gotten used to it, I was doing my modern apprenticeship after college, I got mugged right in front of my home. I was only upset because all my stuff was gone though, by then I considered myself to be a British citizen just like everyone else.”
Was it difficult to get used to the lack of freedom you have in London as opposed to the freedom you have in Cyprus?
“Yes. You wouldn’t think that that would be true, everyone says the UK and America, western countries in general are the places where people have the most freedom but that’s only legally. Socially, it’s completely different. London is so dangerous” Fatos shakes her head “You can’t walk down the street without being scared that you were going to get hurt, and of course if you were like me and you couldn’t speak English very well and couldn’t make friends then it was worse.”
So do you think the language barriers stopped you from maturing as a person because you couldn’t go through the same experiences as your peers?
“Absolutely; I was always waiting for people to come and talk to me.” She sighs regretfully, “It never occurred to me to make the effort to talk to someone. I didn’t think anyone would be interested in me, or if we would have anything in common. Everyone seemed like they came from another world. At least now I can say that I’m a lot more open and independent, I socialize a lot more than I used to, I’m not stuck as the little girl that I was.”
Do you think it would have been easier for you if you had moved to the UK at an earlier age?
“It probably would have been much easier. I would have had more time to learn the language before I started my GCSEs which I’m still unhappy about because my grades were terrible.” She admits, “I always say that the teenage years are the pain of growing up. They’re the worst and with my situation, I hated every day of them.”
Do you think that moving here so late affected your social life and your ability to make friends?
“Yes. It did, I was already shy and bad at making new friends, moving here made it three times worse, especially because teenagers always think they know everything, so like all teenagers I had problems with my parents, too.” She explains, “My mum and I had a huge communication problem for a few years, we would barely speak because we would always end up arguing but at the end of the day she was the only one I had who I could trust and go to for help.”
Did moving here bring you and your mum closer?
“In a certain way, yes, it did. We had problems along the way, during the ‘settling period’ but in the end we found comfort in each other and now we tell each other everything and we’re a lot more open with each other.”
So you’ve become more confident in your relationship.
“Definitely, I used to be a bit scared of her and what her reaction would be to things that I’d done wrong but I can face her now.” She laughs, “And because of that I think I’ve become stronger as an individual and that I can face any problems I have.”
How did your lack of English skills affect you in school?
“Well when I started school, just after October half term of year seven, my teachers had put me in a class with six other girls who came from Turkey, they didn’t like me because I was Cypriot but they were the only ones who knew what I was saying. I was getting bullied by them quite a bit, they were telling me to do things and I didn’t know they were wrong because I didn’t know the rules so they would get me into trouble. They would make me cry every day.”
That must have been horrible, especially with you being at such an awkward age.
“Yes” she nods, “You’re going through so many changes already and to have to deal with getting used to a completely new culture and language on top of being pushed around was really difficult.”
Wasn’t there any way that you could explain what these girls were doing to you?
“Unfortunately there were no teachers in the school who spoke Turkish and my English was very limited. I was also a very shy child and I’ve always found it difficult to make friends. I had to stick with those girls because I didn’t know my way around and I couldn’t read the signs to make sure I wouldn’t get lost.”
While you were in school did you receive any support with your studies?
“Not my studies, no, but they did try to help me learn English. They gave me all these books that would make you translate things like ‘What is chicken in Turkish?’ and ‘what is [Turkish word for cup] in English?’ and so on.”
And did those actually help?
“To a certain extent, yes it helped. It only lasted from year seven to about year nine; I wish they’d continued with it throughout my education because I didn’t know what the questions in my GCSE papers actually said.”
Do you think that children who are currently in your past situation receive any support from their schools?
“I don’t know if they are, but they should be. I think the government needs to offer a course to migrant children because it’s not their fault that they have had to move here and I should know, it is very difficult to try and learn a new language and complete your education in that language. The government seems to leave migrant children to their own devices and expects them to learn the language with almost no help.”
So you think that the government needs to start taking responsibility for these children.
“Not just the government. They obviously can’t fix a problem which they don’t know exists; I think it’s up to the parents to push for improvement too. If you tell someone that your child is struggling then I am sure that they will help.”