I sit down and talk with my dad, about the past and the present.
A recent report revealed that Britain is one of the most age segregated countries in the world. Of course there are many social, economic and cultural reasons for this apparent division, but it’s not inevitable. It’s also not a revelation that Britain’s age groups are like oil and water. In fact, the issue has been raised and challenged a lot, but it seems to me that it’s tackled in a rather shallow way that reinforces the stereotypes that different generations have about each other.
We’ve seen many occasions where World War veterans have shared their experiences with youths, and where young people have ‘opened the eyes’ of older folk to the wonders of technology and social media — but it’s lazy. Whilst the experience of veterans is vital knowledge for future generations, in this fast-paced world, it’s important that we bring older generations along with us. There is arguably so much more generations can offer each other. The social enterprise that created the recent report, United For All Ages, supports intergenerational projects to bring young, old, and everything in between, together in a community.
Reflecting on this, I thought about how I could reach across these age divides, so I decided to start closer to home. In fact, my home precisely — with my dad. I think he is a potentially interesting person, if I actually knew anything about him. He’s also easy to get a hold of. I don’t know if this is common amongst parents who are focused on the lives of their children, yet don’t share much about themselves beyond their domestic existence. We know what habits annoy them at home, which topics not to bring up at the dinner table, but what about the events that defined their childhood, the nuances of their world view? Without being intrusive, I wanted to know more about my dad’s life beyond my brother and I — whom he would argue are his life.
Name: A Abbas
Occupation: Trauma and Orthopaedic Surgeon
Place of birth: Khartoum, Sudan
My dad is a complicated person. His love for his children is boundless, and whilst we truly have put him through the wringer there’s nothing he wouldn’t do for us. Equally, he has impossibly high standards. He believes, and wants, his children to be the best; a feature he shares with many parents, but with the touch of acute anxiety felt by ethnic minority parents who know their children can’t just be good, but must be exceptional to get ahead. I used to wish dad was more like my friends’ parents — outwardly encouraging, full of praise, open, speaking with an English accent. After our conversation, however, I realised that he is all of those things, really (apart from the accent), but his own experiences mean he expresses his love and pride in different ways.
The whole experience was rather awkward to begin with, but once the ice had been broken it was quite enlightening, and amusing. I started with his childhood. He moved between the capital, Khartoum, and the countryside, changing schools many times because of his father’s job as a civil servant.
‘He used to say he was the youngest candidate to pass the civil service exam in Sudan during the British occupation’, my dad adds. Following his retirement from the civil service my grandfather worked as a finance officer to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR). So far, so factual. I knew getting beyond surface details was going to be a challenge, and admittedly I had left the question very open, but then my dad surprised me.
‘You know, he was the youngest of his brothers, and his mother died when he was three years old, so he had no choice but to start working at fifteen to support everyone’. He goes on. ‘I couldn’t make friends because I was changing schools all the time. My dad was hardworking and he always wanted to see us happy. He wasn’t bothered how we did at school because he always had faith in us’.
This is the most I’d ever known about my grandfather (he passed away before I was born), beyond the one photo of him that sits on the mantelpiece. I was, however, slightly puzzled as to where my dad’s strict approach to education came from, considering his own upbringing was somewhat more lax in that respect. Does he not think his father’s hands-off approach empowered him and his siblings to take control of their own future, rather than the micromanaging I would argue I have had to deal with? Nonetheless, the respect he had for his father was palpable, and, without wishing to read too much into things, I sense my dad has always strived for that same respect from his own children.
There was one particular experience that dad has alluded to before, so I ask him about his time working on the frontlines of the 1983-85 Ethiopian famine. As a freshly qualified doctor he felt compelled to go and help. He is very matter-of-fact about it.
‘600 children on their own. No parents. Eating fortified biscuits which tasted horrible’. His face contorts. ‘In that part of the world they ate their biscuits with powdered milk, which has a different taste. There was an outbreak of measles too, with daily fatalities. Luckily, we managed to control it by setting up an isolation area’.
Migrants will always be looked at as people who came here to work, not to live
Dad goes on to explains many more practicalities of dealing with a famine. He is sad, but restrained, as he describes the brutal conditions. I wonder why he hasn’t done anymore overseas volunteering since, as it’s something he has always expressed an interest in. He hints that after my brother and I came about he felt he couldn’t go traipsing about as he wanted.
I’m about to move on, when he adds ‘Amongst all this [famine], one evening I got called to visit the camp, only to find the relief agency leader supervising an arms delivery, [unloading] it all out of trucks and military vehicles’. I clarify that by ‘arms’ he means ‘weapons’, and that he really was working for a charity. He confirms that it was indeed a local relief agency, partly funded by UNICEF. Following this revelation we take a minor detour to discuss the sorry state of the charity sector and its moral failings. I momentarily get carried away imagining my dad as an unlikely hero after unwittingly getting entangled in the Oromo conflict. He gives me a knowing look telling me to stop being so fanciful and get back to the questions.
Having covered his time back at ‘home’, and realising how fondly he remembers the details — he loved shooting pigeons with his father to then stuff and eat — I turn to his relocation to the UK, at this point newly married. ‘We thought it would be a smooth transition moving to the UK, but it was a challenge and a rocky journey, and we never found it easy at any door we knocked at’. I know my grandfather, his father-in-law, gave my dad funds to settle down comfortably, but I also know that my dad has an immense amount of pride and a strong sense of duty.
He said it was ‘a funny thing when I got stuck and applied to work in a care home but was rejected because I didn’t have previous experience. The same thing happened during the Christmas period when a farm in Broxbourne wanted people to pluck turkeys but I got rejected again because I didn’t have experience plucking turkeys’. His exasperation is clear, but I can’t help laughing at the bizarre jobs he applied for. On as serious note, it did change my view of my dad as being at times somewhat arrogant. In heated moments I have criticised him for not ‘assimilating’ enough, talking too much about ‘home’. Feeling attacked and belittled he would respond by reaffirming his hard work and status, and that he wouldn’t deny his roots for anyone. I mistook his pride in his background for arrogance, and my own insecurities about who I was and where I belong would come out. Now I realise my dad has done the hard graft, not thinking anything was below him but rather doing what had to be done, and he thanks himself, and God, more than anything or anyone else.
Eventually, my dad was accepted as a security guard. He worked shifts around his training at the hospital. Of his stint as a warehouse guard he says, sarcastically, ‘of course this is the kind of job which a black African man should do’.
This brings me to the hot topic of race, and sure enough it’s been a huge factor in my dad’s life. Every time the topic has come up at home (which is a lot because, being black, you can’t really escape it) my dad is the one that feels the most emotive, impassioned and hard done by. I would usually roll my eyes, thinking why does he have to make everything about race? Why do you see discrimination in everything? As his one anecdote merged into another one I would be angry at his, what I believed to be, hyper vigilance around racial injustice. It’s not that I haven’t experienced it myself, but I think I underestimated the difference between mine and my dad’s encounters. I can now assuredly say that his struggles and perseverance laid down the foundations for a more ‘comfortable’ life for his children. He can’t protect us from racism, but in the form of financial stability and education he has cushioned the blow. I ask him if he fears for my brother and I.
‘My fear for you and Mo is that you get sucked into the complex British way of living. The social cohesion that society talks about doesn’t exist. It’s all one-sided. Migrants will always be looked at as people who came here to work, not to live, and when your mother and I landed here in the UK in 1995, everywhere we went we were asked how long we were staying for, which I found rather rude. These questions have disappeared now, but not because the opinion has changed, rather, these questions aren’t regarded as socially acceptable or politically correct and could be labelled as racially motivated. Thus, racism is masked by the British claim to being a tolerant, democratic country which has strict laws against racism, which in my opinion are very fluid and loose laws’.
The articulacy of his response signals to me that he has had a lot of time and many occasions to consider this particular matter. I always wondered why he was more ‘racially aware’ than my mum, and more reluctant to call himself anything but Sudanese (he still very much considers himself British, however). I think perhaps it has to do with the fact that my mum was born in Britain and had lived here for some time, whereas my dad perhaps felt like more of a companion. Whatever the reason, I understand now his sharp response when I was asked by someone if I felt more English or Sudanese. I would identify as British, but that wasn’t offered. He said, unflinchingly, ‘You are not English. You are Sudanese’. I would mock his fixation with labels, but now I realise it is a privilege not to have to bother about how you identify, and that words and terminology really do matter.
No more apparent was racial discrimination for my dad than in the work place. When he was singled out as the ‘only applicant with one other [Egyptian] colleague not to be promoted and with no reason given’ he says it was ‘extremely harsh’. That is an understatement. The legal battle that ensued following this and years of bullying and racist remarks working for the NHS caused mental and physical damage (the stress exacerbated my dad’s preexisting thyroid problems) to not only him, but our entire family as we all lived through this psychodrama.
Eventually my dad gave up. He says he’s glad he did. ‘My friend may lose his house fighting this. I have a family to look after. You have to choose your battles’, he says as he thanks God. Finally my dad and I find some common ground. Maybe it’s because I lived through the whole ordeal with him, but hearing about everything before me creates an entirely new dimension. As an afterthought he adds, ’employers can manipulate any grievances. There is no transparency. There’s a gang culture within the NHS, and even with rules and rights there are loopholes to weaken any case’. He suddenly sounds very weary, but I push and ask if he was disappointed when I said I didn’t want to pursue medicine.
‘I was initially upset but then when I thought deeply about it I came to the conclusion that you’re probably better off doing something you like. My life experience in the medical profession was full of stress, and there’s a great deal a racism from colleagues, patients and employers’. Despite this, he says he can’t imagine having any other career. Dinner in our house is always dominated by my dad’s work talk. I used to think it was selfish of him to not ask anyone else anything, but his unwavering love for his job despite everything is admirable. Talking of hospitals, I asked him what possessed him to make him propose inside of one. Apparently, it’s because he spent most of his time there so it was ‘convenient’. Hoping for something romantic I wondered why he chose mum. ‘I was against marrying from the extended family and as I was leaving the country I wouldn’t have the chance to meet other women’. To be fair to him, he has never claimed to be a romantic. Purely out of curiosity, I ask what his favourite book is. He says the adventure novel, Prisoner of Zenda by Anthony Hope. Even a realist like him needs some form of escapism.
As I pack up to go and catch my train I feel like a small naive child as I ask, ‘how do you cope with so much injustice in the world and knowing it won’t ever go away?’ Immediately my dad replies ‘You deal with people on an individual and practical basis’. Indeed, pragmatism is what seems to be lacking these days, with everyone swept up in a storm of outrage but not much else. Why do divisive people thrive off controversy? Perhaps because to be permanently outraged wears you down and makes you blind to anything else. That’s just one of the pearls of wisdom I picked up from my talk with dad, but as I said at the start, intergenerational contact is about more than a transfer of knowledge. It should be about empathy and understanding, challenging views when necessary, but above all else avoiding outright dismissal, which seems to be the problem today.
The generations have written each other off. The young are idle and spoilt, the old(er) are dismissed with two words — ‘ok, boomer‘. Our existences belong to one single continuum, so to disregard those that came before or those who will come after us, is to deny our reality at one point or another.