At a London school, students share their experiences of immigration

The World
Students and their religious education teacher at St. Mary's School in London.

Students and their religious education teacher at St. Mary's School in London.

Shirin Jaafari

Back in the late 1990s, I was a newly arrived student at St. Mary's High School in Hendon, in northwest London. My family had left Iran and moved to the UK.

High school is tough by itself but starting high school in a new culture is challenging to say the least.

This past May, back in London for the first time since those high school days, I wanted to go back to my old school. I wanted to speak with students there, especially the ones adjusting to a new life in that city.

On an exceptionally beautiful sunny day, I arrive at St. Mary's. It's just like I remembered it. I can see the courts where we used to play sports. The classrooms look familiar.

Inside one of the classes, there are six students — two girls and four boys. They’re all either recent immigrants or children of immigrants. They’re excited and full of energy.

Aryan, who is from northern Afghanistan, wants to start telling me his story from the time before he set foot in the UK, when he was just 12 years old and traveling with a smuggler.

"I didn’t know where I’m going," he says. "I remember the night I was in Dunkirk, in France, and then the smuggler took us to the car park and he put us inside a lorry, and when I arrived here I didn’t know [where I was]. The people who were with me, they said to me, ‘Oh, you’re in England.'"

Aryan's uncle came to pick him up then.

"It’s not easy to come in by boats and lorries in this way," he says. "You see your death in front of yourself."

Aryan says he had to leave Afghanistan because his life was in danger. He doesn't feel comfortable going into the details, but says his father was killed by the Taliban when he was 10 years old. Next, they were going after him. So his mother put him on a truck and sent him to the UK, where his uncle lives.

Today, Aryan lives with a foster family whom he absolutely loves. He calls his mother in Afghanistan every week to tell her how he is doing.

"As long as I'm happy, she's happy," he says.

Aryan’s ordeal hasn’t stopped him from dreaming big. He wants to become a politician and go back to Afghanistan.

And as a Muslim immigrant he's been keeping an eye on what's happening in the US. He says some of what he hears makes him angry.

“Trump said that he will not allow Muslims to come to America or he will build a wall … he can do that but he can't build a wall inside the people's heart. Because that's not up to him,” he says, animated.

Maryam sits next to Aryan in the classroom. Her family left Kuwait when she was 3 years old, and says her mother had trouble adjusting at first.

"My mom, she was very paranoid about everyone here, she didn’t really know anyone," Maryam says. "She was used to the same faces every day. But here, her children, we got used to having different-colored friends, different religions and I think she was quite afraid that we might fall back from our culture."

Maryam says her mother got stricter. No going out with friends. Definitely no boyfriends and no unnecessary interactions with people outside the family's circle of friends.

It was tough.

Slowly, Maryam's mother softened her views. But she says she is still working on building a sense of trust and adapting to their new environment.

Ali, another classmate, says trust is also something his mother had to work on.

"She wrapped me in cotton wool," he says, "she didn't want me to go out. She didn't want me to talk to other people."

Ali was born in the UK but his family migrated from Pakistan. Just like Maryam's mother, over time, Ali's mother had a change of heart.

"She wanted me to go and experience life beyond the Pakistani community," he says, "and that was when I really first experienced London and that was the first time I went out, went on the buses. It was really different for me. I didn’t know what Big Ben or London Eye was. I thought it was all made up places."

I can relate to these stories to some extent. My parents didn't stop me from going out with my friends but they worried constantly about keeping me exposed to Persian culture.

So I'd go from talking about the latest Backstreet Boys album with my friends at school, to reciting Persian poetry with my dad at home.

It's a familiar story for many immigrants, as I heard from these students.

At the end of my visit I ask Mohammed, Ali’s seatmate, about his plans for the future.

"My dream in life is to become a self-made billionaire," he says with confidence, as the others giggle.

Mohammed, who has Moroccan roots, won’t say how he plans to become a billionaire. He says someone in America might steal his idea.

But there is one final point he wants to talk about: soccer. I mean football.

"I think probably half of the people in England have a longer relationship with their football club than actually their girlfriend or boyfriends," he says. "You’ll never see me wear a different shirt in my life. Chelsea for the rest of my life.”

And with that, my time with the kids comes to an end.

Listening to them it strikes me that I left London before 9/11 even happened. Before the wars in Afghanistan, Iraq and Syria began.

I was lucky to fly in, safely and with my family.

But for years to come, there will be kids coming to Europe and the US, like Aryan did, taking perilous journeys on boats and trucks just to get to a safer place to live.