Racism in the UK: Dina Nayeri on her Experiences of Alienation
Racism in the UK is a pressing issue. This series of Our Voices focuses on race and identity. This week we hear the story of Dina. She is an Iranian refugee who has had contrasting experiences of living abroad. She discusses the way in which she has been both brutalised and embraced in her adopted countries and her experience of racism in the UK.
Dina was born in Iran during the mid ‘80s. It was a time of revolution and, as a result, she had “a tumultuous childhood”. There were, however, positive memories of that period too. Dina remembers the nourishing time spent together as a family, her grandfather’s rambling stories and her grandmother’s epic feasts.
A magical experience
Yet, at 6 years old, an opportunity arose for Dina to travel to the UK. Her aunt had emigrated there, along with her maternal grandmother, and her aunt was getting married. The plan was for Dina to spend a few months in London and then return to Iran after the wedding.
Dina reflects on the “storybook houses” she saw in London and she speaks with great excitement about being able to eat fresh bananas for the first time.
The confectionery of the UK was something she also appreciated. She describes Maltesers as “a miracle of culinary perfection.
“Talking about her feelings of being in the UK for the first time, she says “It was magical because it was so Western…so foreign”.
During this time, Dina’s mother would convert to Christianity.
Dina describes herself as being “delighted” when she found out that she would be going to school in the UK in order to learn English. There were a few problems, however, one being that she found it very difficult to make friends. One classmate attempted to converse with her but, due to the language barrier, she gave up fairly quickly.
She recounts that she was “largely left alone” at the school, no doubt a consequence of casual racism. This loneliness for a young child must have been very difficult to deal with, but the situation would get even worse. There was a group of boys which would punch her and kick her during break times.They would also make fun of the way she spoke.
“It was awful and I wasn’t learning any English.”
Unavoidably, these experiences have haunted her since and make up part and parcel of the racism experience.
“Ever since then British school boys scare me… there is something particularly cruel about schoolboys in general”.
Being taught to be fearful due to racism in the UK
Even as a child, Dina understood why she was being discriminated against, she was a victim of casual racism “because I was from the Middle East, from Iran”. With war taking place in Iran at the time, the conflict was often broadcast on the news. Dina describes how British people had a very negative image of those from the Middle East which was responsible for her experience of racism in the UK. In Dina’s words:
“People from Iran are peaceful, intellectual, readers of literature. They’re not very different from English families who were obviously scared of us because they were passing down this fear to their children”.
The ugliness of this prejudice was thrown into stark relief through a particularly distressing and horrific incident.
In great innocence, Dina describes a game of ice-cream parlour. The children were pretending to buy and sell ice-cream in a disused shed in the middle of the playground. She explains how, through the gestures, she got the gist of the game. She noticed that they were using the door handle as a make-believe ice-cream dispenser.
Dina was naturally excited, finally, here was a game she could play as it didn’t require many words. As she was playing, at one point she slipped her finger into the door-jamb and “this kid looks right into my face and slams the door shut.”
Dina’s finger was severed at the first segment as a result. She describes still carrying the physical scar today. She fell to the ground in agony and tears, blood pouring from her finger. She describes the kid who had done this to her as being
“horrified… he didn’t know what would happen”.
Seeing a young child in so much pain due to blind cruelty, did this challenge the offending boy’s prejudice and make him realise that those who look and speak differently are just as human as anyone else?
Dina would return to Iran shortly after where “even worse things would happen”. Once it was discovered that her mother had converted to Christianity, the family needed to leave the country for her mother’s safety.
This time they would emigrate to the US but, as refugees, they were starting life from the bottom. Once again, she would face racism but she tried her best to assimilate. She studied hard at school and tried to adapt her personality and attitude to fit in with those around her. Her studies paid off and she was accepted into Princeton University.
She decided to become an investment banker as it was a position she believed would provide security. In a strange twist of fate, this would lead to her returning to London on a placement during her second year of studies.
An uncomfortable return
The trauma of her previous experiences began to return to her as she came back to the UK. In the US, she had been safe, coming back to the UK brought back the images of that moment of violence she had suffered.
She was worried that she would be exposed once more as being different, as not having value. She made some good friends in London during her second time there but her experiences as an immigrant meant she never completely felt at ease or protected from the effects of the racism experience.
“We were refugees, we hadn’t been accepted yet, we were stateless. When you’ve had those experiences, you’re never going to feel completely safe. I was constantly worried about saying something stupid for fear of having my entire intelligence questioned.”
The mysterious pull
Despite her previous experiences of racism in the UK, the country seems to have a mysterious pull for Dina. She would return a third time in 2015. This time she was pregnant and settling with her partner. She had undergone a career change by this point too. She says that her choice of investment banking had been a way of making herself feel safe but it wasn’t really her. She was now a writer.
A changed city
Fortunately, the London she encountered was very different to the city she remembered as a child. She describes it as being “warm and inclusive”.
She was particularly heartened by the celebrations which took place during Refugee Week. She saw how refugees had been embraced into the London community and how they were not just tolerated but genuinely valued for their contributions, a far cry from the racism experience she had endured previously.
“That, for me, brought this incredible closure to this set of experiences. It was a complete 180 to the London I’d experienced during my adolescence.”
Just as she had grown and developed, so had London. Dina realised she no longer needed to hide her true self in order to fit in