To be an immigrant
“I am the son of an immigrant, a grandson of an immigrant and great, great grandson of persons who were forcibly brought here as slaves from Africa.”
Dr Ben Carson, recently installed Secretary of Housing and Urban Development in the Trump administration in the United States of America, referred to slaves as “immigrants” in a most absurd comment as part of his speech to the Department’s employees.
“That’s what America is about, a land of dreams and opportunity,” Carson said. “There were other immigrants who came here in the bottom of slave ships, worked even longer, even harder for less. But they too had a dream that one day their sons, daughters, grandsons, granddaughters, great-grandsons, great-granddaughters, might pursue prosperity and happiness in this land.”
The reaction was swift and the statements condemned in the strongest possible way by right thinking people across the world. Carson is among a growing number of persons in the Trump administration and among his supporters who have come out publicly with ludicrous, outrageous and racist statements. The latest was Representative Steve King, a Republican from Iowa, who tweeted: “We can’t restore our civilization with somebody else’s babies.”
I had the opportunity to participate in a family reunion recently with relatives from my mother’s side of the family. It was a gathering that brought together five generations of the family. I was asked to share about the first person of this family to come to Barbados. My preparation for this sharing led me to find out that my grandfather arrived here in 1937, some 80 years ago, from India. Both India and Barbados at that time were part of the British Empire.
My grandfather, like several other Indians who journeyed with him and those that came before in the late 1920’s and early 1930’s, were emigrating from one place to another in search of better economic opportunities. Barbados didn’t have the indentured servant system like other Caribbean countries so the East Indians that came here travelled on their own volition and without any security of job or income.
My grandfather and the majority of other East Indians who migrated here, made Barbados their home. They worked hard and invested their money in Barbados. Built homes, raised families and ran businesses, contributing directly and indirectly to the development of Barbados. For them, Barbados was not a temporary stop, it was permanent. At Barbados’ Independence in 1966, 99 per cent, if not all East Indians present in Barbados, became Barbadian citizens, my grandfather and father included. They saw Barbados as their home. My grandfather passed away here in 1973.
As I spoke at the family reunion, I recognized the growing disconnect that the younger generation has with the much older generation. The blurred memories of the struggles that immigrants like our grandfather and their great-grandfather would have faced are evident. The sacrifices of leaving their homes and villages, travelling to a strange place to make a better life for themselves and their future generations, are perhaps lost to these generations.
This younger generation are all Barbadian; they know no place else. They live here integrated into Barbadian life and so should it be. Yes, many have retained several of their parents’ cultural traits, religious practices and other nuances associated with their origins but they have also adapted and express themselves like any other Barbadian.
I am proud and grateful that Barbados was and is a welcoming country. I wouldn’t be here if it wasn’t and my grandfather most likely wouldn’t have stayed if it wasn’t. Immigrants in any part of the world and their descendants often face many struggles to fully integrate into any society to which they move and in which they are a minority. Read the accounts of Barbadians and other West Indians who migrated to the United Kingdom and the United States in the 50’s and 60’s to get a glimpse into the world of migrants and their struggles.
It is reasonably argued that all human beings are or were at one time migrants. Moving from one place to another, intentionally or unintentionally, peacefully or violently. If we recognize that fact, then we recognize that nation-states are made up of all types of people. All can work together to contribute to a better society and a better country.
My column a few weeks ago highlighted the mosque in Sobers Lane, Bridgetown. It has been part of that neighborhood for the last 60 years. The article drew several positive comments and much of these comments were reminiscent of the time spent growing up in that street and the interaction between immigrants and the children of immigrants and the wider Barbadian public who resided in Sobers Lane.
In my research on that mosque, I noted one ugly incident in its 60 year history and that was 30 years ago when for a brief period in 1987, there was a public and robust discussion on the role of East Indians in Barbados. Considering the mosque as one of the symbols of the East Indian presence in Barbados, graffiti was painted by some misguided person or persons on the mosque stating “the best Indian is a dead one”. That debate died down and soon all was forgotten. And such is Barbados and Barbadians. We don’t perpetuate hatred of others.
I have often been told that ‘Indians don’t integrate enough into Barbadian society’. Perhaps there is some truth to that. But migrant communities in all parts of the world face the very same criticism. It seems the modus operandi for migrant communities is to cluster together and seek integration in baby steps. I have found that as you move from one generation to a succeeding generation, the integration seems to happen naturally. And often what happens is that several cultural traits of the migrants become blended into the main stream.
Food is one example of those traits that immediately get blended into the potpourri of offerings. The bland fish and chips so commonplace in England, is one famous example of cultural shifts as they were overtaken by demand from the British public for the more exotic and spicy curries of the Indian sub-continent. In Barbados, we are now accustomed to samosas, an Indian pastry, being part and parcel of cocktail parties and functions alongside the fishcakes.
Last Saturday, at the BLP’s march and gathering in Jubilee Gardens, a young 13-year old student spoke. His manner and presentation brought the audience to complete attention and resulted in many positive reviews. A leading radio personality even commented that he reminded him of a young David Thompson. Khalil Kothdiwala is the second generation of a migrant. He sees himself very much part and parcel of this society and confident enough to immerse himself into the politics and the future of this blessed nation.
(Suleiman Bulbulia is a Justice of the Peace. Secretary of the Barbados Muslim Association and Muslim Chaplain at the Cave Hill Campus, UWI. Email: email@example.com)