• Sarah Zawacki

Lessons in Resistance



The train emerges from the tunnel just beyond Halsey Street in Bushwick, and for a moment I feel that I’m transported back to a train in East London, somewhere where the District Line runs above ground in the wastelands around East Ham. It was something in the grey morning sky that triggered this sudden past life regression, something in the resigned dutifulness of going to work. I used to have these flashbacks every day or so. It was like having a photo of some vague, inconsequential, memory thrust in front of my eyes with the demand of ‘here, look at this, remember how this mattered to you.’ Yet as I get temporally further and further from London, these flashbacks have been letting up.


January 31st, 2020 would be the exception. After the morning’s flashback, another struck me in the evening. I was on the 3 train, headed to my old Brooklyn apartment for the last time, ready to leave the keys on top of my former roommate’s stack of unpaid rent notices and shut the door behind me forever. I was staring at a subway ad about free NYC tax prep, registering that, even as a full-time nonprofit ‘development’ professional, my income was still low enough to qualify for this statutory assistance. Then, out of nowhere, clear as day, my mind took me to the intersection of Mile End Road and Cambridge Heath Road in East London. It had no bearing on my present circumstances, yet there it was. I’d lived moments from that intersection for four months in 2016, in the second-worst apartment I’ve ever inhabited. I don’t know what it was, but the image nearly made me cry, right there on the 3 train, deep in Brooklyn.


But then again, the 31st of January was always going to be an emotional day. Not only was it the one-year anniversary of my unwanted departure from the UK, but it was also Brexit day. The forces that precipitated my exile and the forces that led to the UK’s exit from the EU were one and the same, and their coalescence was hitting me hard. I’d fallen victim to a handful of self-serving politicians who had decided that pleasing xenophobes provided the straightest shot to power, and now they were primed to extend the same pain they had inflicted on me to millions more people. These architects of the hostile environment, income thresholds for work visas and policies resulting in family separation had convinced the British public that their best position in the world was one of splendid isolation.


At the time of the Brexit vote in 2016, I was two years in to a four-and-a-half year student visa, and I had no idea at the time what devastating impacts the immigration debates would have. I had recently started a job I loved, coordinating a mental health advocacy project. I was conducting interviews for my PhD. London felt like home, and this attachment was made all the stronger by the fact that I had chosen London and navigated the bureaucratic nightmare of the visa application to get there. Yet my whole life would be stripped away at the beginning of 2019, all because my job in the charity sector didn’t meet the £30,000 per year threshold for securing a work visa (we must all remember, after all, that a person’s value is determined solely by yearly income). What was I to do but leave it all behind, pack up my room, call it a loss? I went to Gatwick Airport and got on a plane back to the United States, a country where I had never lived as a fully functioning adult. I was left with no job, no prospects, no money and a PhD that seemed more and more useless by the day (after all, most Americans have no idea who the Roma people are, let alone why I would write 343 pages on their health experiences). I’ve now spent a year in the harsh waters of American capitalism, and scarcely a day goes by when I don’t think about the whole life I left behind.


It was a sad day, a sad year. Many of my friends are among those EU citizens who have to apply to stay in their homes (though, it must be said, at least they get to stay). Many of my friends are among the UK citizens devastated that their country has set itself on a course of shutting out the rest of the world. For my part, it’s becoming harder and harder to say where I belong. I’m at that point in my life when everyone seems to be getting married, and all their weddings are across the Atlantic. It’s hard to miss out on that grand ritual of bearing witness to other people’s life events, especially when my social life in New York consists of drinking beer in the living room with my sister, half-watching terrible romantic comedies. Now this is a great thing to do—don’t get me wrong—yet I still remember a life where work was punctuated by nights in the pub and dinners with my boyfriend and Sunday lunches in North London with his family. I don’t have this well-rounded, rich, varied life in New York. In New York, I work.


Yet even as my blood boils with the injustice of it all, the reprimands of old sticks-in-the-mud from places like my hometown reverberate through my mind: 'But didn’t you bring this on yourself?'


My only counterargument is an image: I was on my way to a conference at the lower tip of Manhattan, and I caught a glimpse of Ellis Island through the fog. I thought of my great grandparents passing through those gates: young, alone, without qualifications, without any knowledge of English. These people—who would never be granted entry into a modern-day US or UK—went on to meet their spouses, set up businesses and farms, raise their children, live and die in a country different from that of their birth. Now I, their great-granddaughter, am asking for nothing more than that power of choice, that power to explore the world on my own terms, to be able to live where I need to live, for as long as I need to live there. I’m asking that this choice be extended across the board, not just to ‘skilled’ and ‘best and brightest’ immigrants, but to anyone who wants to live in a different country, for whatever reason. I’m asking for solidarity across immigrant groups, for us to stop playing the oppression Olympics from our camps of EU migrants and non-EU migrants and black and brown migrants. I’m asking for immigration policies that allow for diverse and complex human experiences, that stop trying to force our lives onto a straight and narrow track.


Every time I hear politicians call for tighter borders and greater ‘control,’ all I see is a nervous ruling class, grasping at a scapegoat to conceal the true source of the ravages of decades of neoliberal policy. And every time I realise that more and more people are catching on to their tricks, and that it doesn’t have to be this way. I’ve never really thought of myself as an activist, yet I’m seeing too many lives destroyed by reactionary, defensive, oppressive immigration policies. I’m seeing some meaning in all those years I spent floundering in various spheres of identity politics, learning all the language of oppression and resilience, yet feeling like I had no voice, nothing to contribute as a white, semi-privileged, thoroughly un-oppressed American. Now I both know the language and have the lived experience to speak out firmly against the policies that precipitated what has happened to me, and what has happened to others, and what will continue to happen if we don’t change the public narrative of immigration.


In the past year, I’ve learned what it means to be consumed by injustice. I’ve also learned that these circumstances present a choice: you can either stay passive and allow the injustice to fester until it fades; or you can find others with similar experiences, come together and take action to make sure that others do not fall victim to the harms committed against you. I’m choosing the latter option. I’m scared, but I’m ready.

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