Paul is four years old. His dad is British and his mum is Spanish. They live in Marbella, in a lovely beach area that’s popular among expats; Paul has neighbours from Germany, Ireland and the Netherlands. Paul’s dad works as a manager for a British hotel chain.
Paul is bilingual. He speaks English with his dad and Spanish with his mum. He goes to a local Spanish preschool (escuela infantil) and he has a lot of Spanish speaking friends at school and at the playground. He’s a dedicated Barca fan, he speaks Spanish with a thick Andalucian accent and he loves to chill out on the beach, domingueros style, with his extended family, neighbours and friends. They take a lot of food to the beach and a small fridge with drinks for everyone, his mum and aunts prepare paella and he can play with his cousins for hours.
Paul also has many English speaking friends. They hang out together with their parents in numerous English restaurants in Marbella, they watch Manchester United games together, they go skiing to Sierra Nevada. British children from the neighbourhood meet at a playgroup once a week, where they sing songs in English and munch yummy cream scones.
Sometimes Paul speaks English with his Spanish friends and neighbours, too. His teacher, María Teresa, loves to speak English with him; once she was an au-pair in Ireland and she doesn’t want to lose English fluency. His friends’ parents always encourage them to say “hello” or “bye” to Paul. They say that English is a very important language and that Paul is lucky to be bilingual. Once a week Paul and his classmates have an English class at school; they learn colours and animals, they sing song and they play games. The teacher is glad that she has three British kids in the classroom “so that all the children can hear the right accent”.
Paul’s Dad can speak quite good Spanish, but he has always talked with his wife in English. He doesn’t overthink the whole bilingual thing; it’s normal that his son speaks Spanish and English. It’s normal that his son travels to UK with two passports; British and Spanish. And he’s very fond of living a quality lifestyle in Spain and hanging out with both Spanish and British friends. “It’s the best of both worlds“, he said once to the owner of his favourite English bar on the promenade, enjoying a glass of Ale and looking at a beautiful sunset at the sea. And the bar owner agreed. And so did his close friend, a real estate owner, who sold luxury properties in Marbella. Expat life in Spain really treats them well.
About 50km away from Marbella, in the city of Málaga, another four year old, a little boy called Dorian lives with his parents and his older brother.
Dorian’s mum is Romanian and his dad is Argentinian. He has obtained Spanish nationality, though; Dorian’s mum prefers to tell others he’s Spanish. They live in a low-income district la Palma-Palmilla. There are also several other kids whose parents come from Morocco, Romania or Latin American countries. However, nobody calls them “expats”; neighbours refer to them as “immigrants”. And this word does not have positive connotations in la Palma-Palmilla.
Dorian speaks Spanish at home with his both parents. He only knows a few words in Romanian, like “hello” or “bye”, but he just uses them from time to time on the phone with his grandparents. And his mum doesn’t call them very often.
Dorian speaks Spanish with all his friends from school and the neighbourhood, also with the kids whose both parents are Romanian. He considers himself Spanish. He’s Real Madrid fan, he loves to go to the beach with his dad’s family and play with his cousins. He doesn’t celebrate any Romanian holidays or traditions.
When Dorian started school at the age of three, he didn’t talk a lot and the teacher was concerned that the reason of that may be the use of two languages at home. “It’s always the same with those immigrant kids, the parents come to Spain only to get benefits. No education, no jobs, they don’t speak any Spanish, how are the kids supposed to go to school without any language skills? They live in Spain, they go to school in Spain, so the parents should focus on Spanish”! – she said once to one of the Spanish mums in the hall, right next to Dorian and his mum, convinced that they didn’t understand her.
But Dorian’s mum understood too well.
She was really angry at first. Back in Romania she had a degree. She had Romanian friends in Malaga who held office jobs. Why do people label all of them as poor and uneducated?
She doesn’t want to be perceived as a Romanian “benefits” mum. She doesn’t like when people in the restaurant where she works as a waitress recognize her foreign accent. There’s always someone who will comment on why una extranjera (a foreigner) is working while there’s so much unemployment in Spain.
When she first came to Malaga with a friend from her hometown in Romania, she worked washing the dishes in a beach bar (chiringuito) for 10 hours a day. She spoke very broken Spanish and people laughed at her accent. With time she understood jokes about Romanian criminals behind her back. Fortunately since she met her husband, she was becoming more and more fluent in Spanish. He had lived in Malaga nearly all his life and he considers himself malagueño. Since the beginning the couple only spoke Spanish together.
There’s a Romanian guy on the block who’s having a very hard time to find a job; he’s dark-skinned, he has black hair and thick Romanian accent. People immediately classify him as a “Romanian gypsy – a criminal”. And when the crisis started, things got worse. Much worse.
Once he got badly beaten up by local drunks on the street. Another day someone wrote on the wall of the building “f****** foreigners, go home”. He’s scared to speak Romanian in public.
Dorian’s mum doesn’t want people to look down on her son. She doesn’t want him to be perceived as a foreigner, an immigrant. She reads to him a lot of stories in Spanish and she helps him with homework to make sure he’s not behind his Spanish peers.
The teacher never asks the immigrants’ kids to teach others some words in their native languages.
Dorian only has a Spanish passport. Why would he need a Romanian one? Her husband’s relatives agree that it’s the right way to do it.
Dorian’s aunt works in a nearby nursery. There’s a Ukrainian-Colombian kid whose mum only speaks Ukrainian with him. He struggles a lot, he makes strange sentences made up of words in both languages. Nobody can understand him. “It’s frustrating, his mum is the only one around who speaks Ukrainian, why does she force the kid to learn that useless language? He’s having such a hard time in the nursery”! – she complains and Dorian’s mum agrees with her.
Sometimes her parents are upset that they cannot communicate with their grandson. But Dorian’s mum explains that her son is Spanish; he goes to school in Spain, he will live all his life in Spain. Romania is a poor country and Dorian’s grandparents know that their daughter and grandson are much better off in Spain.
For the Eurocup Paul’s parents buy him a Spanish team t-shirt and an English team t-shirt. They will watch all the games, one day in an English bar, another day in a Spanish bar.
Dorian’s parents just get him a Spanish t-shirt. You can’t get a Romanian football t-shirt in Málaga, anyway.
Dorian sits on the sofa with his cousins, ready to watch the first game of the Spanish team. They are all wearing La Roja t-shirts, their faces are painted red and yellow. “”Yo soy español, español, español!” – they chant.
His mum is a little sad for a moment. But just a little. At least, her son is Spanish. It’s the best what she can do for his future.
Dorian’s “gypsy” neighbour was one of 1285 of victims of hate crime in Spain in 2014.
Those hate crime attacks take place far away from fancy “expat” neighbourhoods with private pools. The victims did not relocate to Spain with generous company benefits. They are working hard to provide for their families.
1285 registered cases of hate crime in Spain, more than half of which were racially motivated. 3059 cases in Germany. 4258 cases in Sweden. 52,583 cases in UK.
Many hate crimes were directly targeted at immigrant children.
And these statistics do not include all those little things. Stares on public transport, rude comments on how immigrants “only came here for benefits/to steal jobs”, exclusion at workplace.
If it’s painful for adults, can you believe how painful discrimination can be for young children who don’t understand such concepts as race, culture and identity yet? They only understand that they haven’t been invited to a birthday party. That their peers at school say they are from “the country of cleaning ladies/illegal aliens/criminals”. That other children mock their accent, their skin colour.
Hate is not something we are born with. Hate is thought. A child whose parents do not respect people from other countries will learn not to respect them, either.
If a parent complains about “dirty Poles who steal our jobs”, a child will call “dirty” a Polish peer at school without even understanding why. If mums call their Moroccan neighbours “Islamic terrorists” at a play date, their children will be scared of those neighbours.
If a language is not considered cool or useful, if you were told by a stranger on the street to go back to their country just because they heard you speaking your language, you may not want your child to go through the same.
Paul and Dorian are fictional names, but I met many children in Costa del Sol and other areas of Spain whose stories were similar. And in UK. And in Poland, right in my hometown.
My aim was not to portrait a particular neighbourhood in Spain or elswhere as racist. Actually, I lived in Spain for six years and I find mosts Spaniards really friendly and respectful towards foreigners. Even though sometimes I heard nasty remarks about immigrants, job stealing or my “useless” language, most of my neighbours, co-workers and customers were friendly, they admired my hard work and Spanish skills. And literally every single day a stranger on the street told me how cute my blond haired, blue-eyed children are.
My aim was to portrait many children around the world who do not learn about their immigrant parents’ languages and cultures because their parents want them to avoid social stigma, discrimination and even hate crime. They want their children to grow up as locals for their own safety.
If you have a neighbour, a co-worker, a pupil at school from an “uncool” country, make them feel welcome. Ask them to teach you a few words in their language. Organize a cooking event where they can make food from their country.
There are many slogans on how diversity must be celebrated. They should not only apply to certain ethnic groups. The world should not divide foreign residents into “cool” expats and “uncool” immigrants.
Recently I read a beautiful story on The Family Without the Borders FB page; Hania, the blogger’s daughter, asked her teacher at school in Berlin if she could recite a poem in Polish at the end of the year ceremony. The teacher did not only agree, but asked other children to sing or say poems in their native languages. “It’s great, Mummy!” – said Hania. “Because Mona and Frida are a little sad that they don’t speak German very well, but they are good singers and now everyone will know it!”
Mona sang a song in Serbian and Frida in Arabic. They could feel proud of their language and culture for a while. And I read the story with tears in my eyes.
I hope that with time more schools and communities will encourage young migrants’ children to feel proud of their cultural heritage.
I hope for the day when schools won’t be labelled as “immigrant schools”.
I hope for the day when children can just be children.