Silvia's story

What Brexit has meant to me

I come from a family of exiles and refugees (from Russia and Spain on my mother’s side, from Spain on my father’s) who found refuge first in Mexico, where I was born, then in Italy, where we arrived when I was six weeks old. Exile is a baggage that carries over into the next generation. I have no roots. I was born in a country where my parents had no roots and grew up in a country that was new to all of us. Like my mother, I was educated by the French. My father worked for a UN organisation and our family friends came from all over the world. Yes, I am one of the 'citizens of nowhere' that Theresa May so dislikes. Except that I think people like me are 'citizens of everywhere'.

At a very young age I decided that I would put down my roots in a country of my choosing – a country that I could trust to have all the checks and balances that would guarantee the democratic process, where I would not have to go through what my parents did. When I was 13 years old, I found this country: the UK. I came to stay with a British family and improve my English during the summer holidays, and I immediately fell in love with this country. In the years that followed, the more I learned about the country’s culture, its literature and its tradition for openness, the stronger my conviction became that this was it, the place where I could set down my roots and be safe. It took longer than I had originally planned, but in 1992 I moved to London, started setting down roots and never looked back. My feelings for this country became deeper as I got to know it even better, with all its quirks and contradictions – in fact, I love it even more for them.

Then, the Referendum: my world crashed. How could this happen here? What had happened to this country, to those I had thought of as my people? How could all the checks and balances fail so dramatically? And I don’t say this because I’m unhappy with the result of the referendum: I say it because it was a vote based on misinformation, it was an advisory referendum, and it was won by a very small margin. And yet here we are, a whole country ready to jump off a cliff as a result of this deeply flawed process, and the checks and balances I had counted on have failed to materialise.

Suddenly, from one day to the next, I went from being part of this society, safe in my home, to being an unwelcome guest whose presence is tolerated for now. Suddenly, after 25 years, I have to earn the right to stay in my home; I have to jump through the hoops of Permanent Residency or Settled Status – and if I want any security about my future in my home, I will have to take it further and apply for British citizenship, jump through more hoops, including the English language and Life in the UK tests (not to mention the costs involved). What about the 25 years – most of my adult life – I invested in this country emotionally, financially and in every other way?

What about the 25 years I contributed to this society? It appears that they count for nothing.

Suddenly, from one day to the next, I lost my safe place – I’m back in that place of fear, where any day the entire life I built could be taken away, maybe because someone at the Home Office made a typing error and I can’t even challenge the decision because of the latest horror visited on the British and their guests by this government, the GDPR exemption. Even my business, built across European borders, is at risk.

I am scared, I am gripped by crippling anxiety, I feel deeply betrayed, I am grieving, and I am angry. But I am a child of exile, and we always have a plan B, we are always ready with an escape plan. So I prepare. And I ride the rollercoaster of anger: one day I decide that I won’t be evicted from my own home; the next I tell myself that if I am not wanted, the Brexiters can have their island and sink with it. But of course this is the anger and hurt talking, because in spite of everything I love this country and its people, I still think of them as my country and my people, and I don’t wish them ill. So I’m back to thinking that no one will take my home away. But I also prepare for a new life in Turin, my second home (yes, I always had a plan B, an escape hatch, because you never know what can happen – and, sadly, Brexit has proven me right). It all feels unreal; I feel like I am living two parallel lives. I carry on with my life here in the UK, sinking my roots even deeper, because I won’t give up unless I really have to, while I set the foundations for a new life in Italy and plan for my future there.

So here I am, one foot in the UK, one in Turin. And every day I ride the rollercoaster: I am excited about my Italian future; I mourn the loss of my life here while I am still living it; I am angry that I may be forced to leave it all behind; I am so scared and anxious that I am ready to pack everything up and leave immediately; I can’t bear to leave behind everything I love here. And on it goes.

Ruth St John