The first time I stepped foot on Northern Irish soil was a few days after our wedding almost 25 years ago. We had spent some days in London after getting married in my native Sweden, and having previously lived in London, I thought Belfast couldn’t be that different. Sweden had joined the EU just a couple of weeks prior to our Big Day, which meant that I didn’t have to apply and pay for a visa to stay in the UK.
Settling in took a while. Peter and I met in Nepal, where we were both working in a multi cultural mission setting. Northern Ireland was a big change from that; some good, and some that took a bit of getting used to. People commented on how good my English was, but not so much on what I actually said. I was totally puzzled when security guards wanted to check my bag as I went IN to a shop. Despite some reminders that I was a foreigner, on the whole I felt very welcomed and fitted in to life here.
One morning when I was pregnant with our first child, I was faced with a burnt out car in the middle of the road as I headed to work. That was really scary and I felt I didn’t know this place that I called home at all. I wondered what it would be like bringing up a child in this place. But despite this I didn’t feel threatened or singled out because I was a foreigner.
Later when we lived in the South of Ireland I had had some time to mull over the difference there, of feeling part of the EU. In many ways I felt more connected to the rest of Europe there than I have ever done in Northern Ireland.
When David Cameron called the referendum on leaving the European Union, my first thought was not on how I would be personally affected, but rather on what would be the best for the UK and for Northern Ireland. I tried to find out as much as I could, read articles and listened to debates and talked to friends. Although a few of them decided they would vote to leave, most of my friends decided they would vote to remain. As did I. Only then did I find out that as a foreigner I wasn’t allowed to vote.
And then came the result that I think very few actually expected: “we” had voted to leave, to exit the EU, to “Brexit”.
In the aftermath, as reports of racism and verbal and physical abuse of non-UK residents no longer were news and faded from news reports, I have felt, for the first time since I got here, as a foreigner in this country. And Theresa May’s insistence that she will not secure my right to remain, but will use me, together with many others, as a bargaining chip in the main Brexit negotiations makes me feel very insecure in my position.
Will I have to prove my usefulness to this country that I have called home for the last 25 years, to be allowed to stay? Or will I continue to feel a part of this society? Will I have to leave?
As I write this, we are yet again preparing for an election that I am not allowed to vote in. I would like to ask you to think about the kind of future you want – not just for yourself, but for your neighbours, for your children and for coming generations.
Surely, there is a better way than the one presented by the “us and them” politicians. A better way to live together as neighbours, no matter where we were born, what school we went to or what party we affiliate with. Immigration policy and quotas aren’t about numbers. They are about people like me and many others that I’m sure you meet daily.
Does the fact that I am white and speak good English mean that I fit in? What about if I had brown eyes and dark hair? If I couldn’t open my mouth without you knowing that I wasn’t from here?
I was born in Sweden, but this is my home now. And it is the home of my family, my children. It’s where I see myself growing old. If I’m allowed.
Åsa McDowell is a Swedish textile artist and designer who has lived in Northern Ireland for over 20 years.
Please note that the statements and views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of Contemporary Christianity.
Tomorrow: Colin Neill, a Contemporary Christianity Board Member, wraps up our week’s reflections.