Being Abroad for the EU Referendum

“All it takes is for the good to do nothing for the bad people to win.”

I sat dumbfounded as the news came in that the Leave campaign had actually won. It seemed almost like I wasn’t really a part of it, sitting in an apartment in Berlin watching the events unfurl. I watched as Sunderland proudly waved ‘Fuck off to your own country’ posters in the camera’s face, I watched numbly as Cornwall and parts of Wales did the same. My first thought was “what kind of message are we sending to the world?” I have no idea how it was shown in Britain – perhaps such footage was left out. But there were TV presenters from around the world there, and this is what German had at least chosen to air. To them we must have looked awful.

I know that not every Brexit voter cast their vote because of those ‘damn immigrants’ and I have had plenty of (heated) discussions with people who do not share my view, but theirs were well argued, grounded in facts, and at least I could respect that. The group of people who were being shown to the world were not respectable. To the world they were the people we had just let decide our future for us. I was furious and disgusted. I couldn’t meet the eyes of Germans who I worked with or interacted with – they had all seen the same footage as I had. I felt guilty, branded with the same disgusting brush as those aired on TV. One woman actually gave me a hug and told me not to worry, that we would always be welcome here. As much as I knew she had the best intentions, she just made me feel as though I was about to have a noose wrapped around my neck.

Nobody has an idea of what is actually going to happen – will the new Prime Minister actually trigger Article 50? Will there be a second referendum? Or will we just ignore the whole thing ever happened? Whatever happens, nobody knows the consequences of this referendum and it seems, for the moment, that Cameron was right: our best strategy is to wait for the country to settle down again. But what has really struck me being in Germany, and stayed with me, is a conversation I had with a very elderly man waiting for the Tram one day.

My German’s not great, so to the question he had asked me I had mistranslated, so I  had to apologise (as is the British thing to do) and ask him to speak slower for me to understand it. From there he’d inquired whether I was from England, we exchanged the usual pleasantries. And then he leaned forward and with a very worried look on his face he brought up the referendum. I’d just been getting over my anger and disgust, had settled myself with the idea I was going to fight tooth and nail to keep my links with Europe and to raise merry hell if Theresa May laid one finger on my Human Rights – but the mention of the referendum by a local had the tides of guilt waving over me again.

“It’s awful what is happening in your country right now.”

“I know,” I replied miserably, looking at my feet and wondering how likely it was the ground would actually swallow me up.

“No you don’t. None of you know, but I’ve lived through it before.”

His words really threw me a curve ball. I didn’t get a chance to reply, as bewildered as I was by his comment and with how quickly he leapt in to defend himself. He began to explain how he had been very young when Hitler had come to power, around 6, but his mother had always spoken of it when he was older. Apparently when he was elected there had been a sense of hope for many people – even the Jewish community. He had promised to make Germany great again (a phrase which now makes my skin crawl every time I hear a Brit say it), and many had seen the racial hatred as a minority of the Nazi party. People had hoped it would go away. The weeks and months after, the hate crimes started to rise. There had always been hate crimes though, especially since the end of World War One. Nothing was new, everyone told themselves. Krystalnacht happened and it was still dismissed. Nobody could REALLY want that could they? And then it got worse, as people began to wonder if it really was true, could all their problems simply be solved by removing one group of people. It seemed straight forward – ‘the less of them there were the more jobs for us there were’ mentality.

The old man looked really worried as he was speaking, he was holding my arm very tightly. I felt cold despite the 30+ heat. The way it’s taught in history you think “how could they not have seen it coming” and I wondered bleakly to myself if in 60 – 70 years-time, our younger generations would think the same.

I could see why he was drawing parallels, I couldn’t help doing the same once he had pointed it out. There are a group of people in our country who are terrified to walk down the street on their own, are abused at work and with their families. People whose only crime is to be a different shade of colour.

I am probably going to get a lot of anger from even drawing this parallel – nobody wants to be likened to a Nazi, nobody wants to think our country is going to ever get that bad. It quite probably won’t. I really hope it doesn’t. But I think what really struck me was how Germany had been blind once before, so driven were they and desperate they believed it would simply die down and go away.

Is Britain going to do that too?

People have tried to justify it to me saying we have 150 racial crimes a day. Fine, yes, racism is a thing and will continue to be so. People have tried to justify it to me by saying “what, you want me to get involved and stop it?” – like it isn’t their responsibility. People have tried to justify it by saying it will go away soon and die down, the media are just playing it up. Reassurance and justification was starting – why would we ever justify a racial hate crime?!

And here, was this old man who told me that was how it had started here too.

I couldn’t get it out of my head. I’m travel writing out here and as I visited the memorials to the murdered minorities, as I sat under the shade of the Berlin Wall, the doubt started to fester in my heart and soul. What if it DOES start going that way – what if people are more regularly attacked and people are forced to leave just out of fear or not feeling comfortable anymore in our country? What if we keep twiddling our thumbs and turning the other way – what happens to our country? Will it look as scarred as Berlin does today?

I don’t think I would have really thought about such a connection if I had been in the UK, and I most certainly would have jumped to defend my country if someone had tried telling me this if I was living there. Yes we had voted leave, but god that’s just blowing it out of proportion, right? Being away from it, seeing it how it is being seen by the rest of the world, and living in Berlin especially, has really given me a unique viewpoint for the whole situation. And that viewpoint is chilling. I’m in a weird position of holding my breath too like the rest of Europe especially, wondering, waiting, to see if it is not just a historical vote this referendum triggers off for us.

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