Child migrants recount their journeys to Hackney in documentaries
- Credit: Archant
Eithne Nightingale, a writer, photographer and researcher has been studying child migration to the East End for more than 10 years. Now, she and producer Mitch Harris have made films documenting the incredible journeys made by three children to Hackney.
PASSING TIDES: THE STORY OF LINH VU
Passing Tides is the story of Linh Vu’s journey from Vietnam with her father, who was at risk of imprisonment by the communist regime in the late 1970s. “My father told me ‘you’re going on an adventure’,” she said. “My whole family had tried to escape a few times but after a couple of goes you run out of money. There was only enough to get two tickets for my dad and one other and I think he chose me because I wasn’t as streetwise as my sister. And health-wise I was probably a little bit weaker and they thought I would not survive in Vietnam. I don’t know why they thought I would on the boat!
“I was very frightened because I remember having to wait in the water surrounded by reeds, literally just my head above water, waiting to get the signal. We had to keep very still because we were wary of other patrol boats and I just remember there were about 50 of us crammed into this tiny boat. You could touch the water with your hand.”
Days after running out of food they came across a British army ship, whose crew fed them, and eventually let them on board. They were taken to a camp in Singapore, where they stayed for a few months before going to Thorney Island in Chichester – a very different type of migrant camp to those you see on the news today, Linh said.
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She had more freedom than the other Vietnamese children because her dad, a university professor, could speak English and ended up as a translator. Linh was one of three children chosen to go to school outside the camp and says she wasn’t treated any differently by the other pupils.
“It was quite a big contrast when I got to Hackney,” she explained. “It was gritty, urban, and you were just one of a number of immigrants in the school. The children weren’t nice.” After a week she moved to a Catholic school where she was happier. “In Vietnam we had status in the community,” she said. “When you resettled you had to fend for yourself – you were a nobody.
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“That led my dad to set up the community centre [An Viet in Englefield Road, Dalston]. We were one of the first families and there was no support, nothing. If we wanted to buy some shrimp paste or some herbs we would go to Paris.”
Linh and her dad spoke monthly to their family – her mum, brother and sister – until they joined them five years later. Today water represents fear for Linh, who owns restaurant Vu Viet in Victoria Park. “I just feel so lucky because there were lots of other Vietnamese who met their fate – who had drowned, been captured by pirates, that could have been us,” added Linh. “It was sheer luck we survived.”
UGWUMPITI: MAURICE NWOKEJI’S STORY
Maurice’s dad was in the British Army and his mum a teacher. They left for England when Maurice was two, planning to come back after a year. But the Biafran War started, leaving Maurice and his brother with their grandmother.
“We lived in mud huts,” he said. “We all had foxholes. When the bombs started, being in your house was almost certain death so you’d run into the little hole, cover it and stay there until it goes quiet. The army used to come round and kidnap young men and make them go to war.
“I can put a Kalashnikov together because my 14-year-old cousin was in the army from 12. He’d killed many men, no one could tell him off anymore. He drank whisky all day.
“My day was trying to catch lizards with a catapult, which was hit and miss. I caught rats, killed quite a few snakes – managed to get a taste for them.”
Then a teacher told the Red Cross the boys were orphans and they got one meal a day. “Without them we would have died, definitely,” said Maurice. “You had to queue up all day for it. Kids died in the line – you just pushed that kid and moved up one. It was cornmeal mixed with powdered milk and water. That is the most amazing food that has ever been.”
Then someone was sent by their father to bring Maurice, nine, and his seven-year-old brother to Rectory Road, Stoke Newington, and they attended Benthal Primary School.
“I’d never seen my dad before,” he said. “My mum, it took me a little while to recognise her. We didn’t even know we had a little brother.
Maurice couldn’t speak English and got into fights at school, but got several O-levels. He had troubled years but has now turned his life around.
LIFE IS A DESTINY: ARGUN’S STORY
Argun Ismet Imamzade came to east London with his brother after the war in Cyprus in the 1960s. But before he left he salvaged his childhood photo album, which he still has to this day.
“Due to the fighting we were forced to leave our homes,” he said. “We were running for our lives, but I did not want to lose my photos – they were very important to me. I put it behind a metal cupboard incase the house got burgled and burnt.
“We lived in tents. One day both parties agreed a truce to let people go back to their homes and pick up whatever they can. Other people, they ransacked the house, but they didn’t see this. When I went back it was the first thing I picked up.”
He continued: “I really didn’t want to leave but my grandfather said: ‘There is no future here for you. Go to London. Your parents are there – you have a better chance in life there.’ And he was right.
“We got on the boat, and went through Italy, France and Victoria station. When we got on we were shown our quarters and there was a man sleeping in my bed. I showed him my card and he showed me his, both 141.”
The mix-up led to Argun being bumped up to first class. On his arrival he got a job at Wimpy, and he got married in 1973 to Hermis.
He has also worked in the clothing industry and then in printing and he and Hermis now run Argun Printers and Stationers in Mare Street.
Hermis said: “Normally people if they go through so much they become harsh and unhappy but for him to go through that and be so positive and love people, I think that’s amazing.”
Eithne is also interested in the stories of children who have recently arrived in the East End. To get in touch, click here, where you can also watch the documentaries.