Cosmic Lottery

Zainab Magzoub writes about the ‘cosmic lottery’ she won as a refugee child.


When my mum informed me we would be relocated to Scotland at age nine, I wasn’t too happy. I hadn’t heard much about the country apart from it was very cold and that boys there wore ‘skirts’. Back home in Sudan, people refer to anywhere in the UK as London. I still frequently overhear in my mum’s conversation with friends and family in Sudan; ‘How’s life treating you in London?’ She has given up correcting them.

We arrived in the UK and claimed Asylum at the Croydon Home Office. Subsequently we were placed in a B&B in Margate for a month. Each day we would search for our names on the notice board to see if or when we were going to be taken to one of the dispersal cities. Luck of the draw found us on the eleven-hour coach trip to Glasgow. Looking back I feel both sympathy and admiration for my mum for making this journey with three young kids in tow and keeping an unwavering composure throughout. She had, after all, been through a lot worse.

We fled because my parents were communists, who were being persecuted under President Bashir’s oppressive regime. My dad escaped to the Emirates where he found work in insurance. I found the adjustment a strange and eye-opening experience. We’d moved around a fair bit before and I already had a fluent command of the language due to attending an international school, so assimilating wasn’t difficult. I was only nine after all and Garscadden Primary was a breeze compared to my old school. I loved it here.

With age came a greater understanding of the experience and a greater appreciation of my situation. I feel so lucky to be here, to have access to clean water, food, shelter, a warm bed to sleep on, freedoms and rights, electricity, education and healthcare. Moreover I feel incredibly grateful to my parents, for the risks they took in order to make sure I would have all these opportunities to make something of myself and live a comfortable life (though I wish I was better at showing it).

I am none too proud to admit that there have been junctions in my life where I have become jaded, and my own sense of entitlement has sickened me in retrospect. Childish frustrations had me cursing my birthplace and heritage, due to the restrictions of cultural traditions and expectations placed upon migrant children.

Outwardly I appeared fine, confident even, achieved reasonably well in school, had a few friends and my teachers liked me – but there was always a distinct feeling of ambivalence toward my background and sense of self. Even writing this now, I am cringing at the thought of revealing so much about myself to you, the reader and to a greater extent, myself.

I am sure guilt has a part to play in this. Every day, the newspapers, television, and radio reel off stories about refugees. I see parents struggling. Living in squalor. Children drowning. Dying for an iota of hope at a better life. A better life blessed with opportunities. Opportunities I’ve had. Opportunities I’ve wasted. I feel shame that we share this label. I haven’t struggled at all, everything was handed to me on a silver platter by my parents. Why me and not them?

Even feeling guilty about it is a hypocritical attempt at satisfying my own sanctimonious misgivings. I’ll feel bad for a bit, but then I get to get on with my day – move on with my life – safe in the privilege of having won some cosmic lottery.

I could afford to make mistakes, and God knows I took full advantage of that fact. I dropped out of school halfway through my Highers at the beginning of what was to be my ‘teenage rebellion’ years. I pontificated often about how I was going to follow the path less travelled, how I wasn’t going to follow the crowd and didn’t need a formal education to do something great. Everything a mother wouldn’t want for her child, I did. Luckily I stopped short of drug addiction. For a while, I meandered aimlessly from dead-end job to dead-end job, course to course, bad relationship to worse relationship and my communications with my family had become virtually non-existent when I moved out at 17.

Nothing seemed to matter, and the weight of my own expectations for myself seemed to be crushing me more than the expectations of others. A turning point came from something my mother said to me. On one of my more peaceful visits to their house, she told me “If you keep doing what you are doing, you will keep getting what you are getting”. With that one simple piece of advice, she breathed life into me, just as she had done before.

I enrolled in a personal development course through the Prince’s Trust, which gave me my confidence back and a routine. I moved back home and things started to improve with my family. It had seemed as though I found something to hold on to, something to halt my downward spiral and began to look forward to the future again. Meanwhile, my family received their British citizenship and I attended their ceremony.

However, my own journey as a refugee still hasn’t reached its terminus. Once things settled, I began the lengthy process of paper-chasing, form filling, lawyer’s appointments and tests. My case was more complicated than my family’s due to my chaotic past. In addition, any interaction with the Home Office seemed to bring about in me an inferiority complex and volatile frustrations at how total strangers dictated my life and future.

I was also bitter about the financial expenses, roughly two thousand pounds. Although, seeing other people’s desperation to get here – dying for the privilege and protection of a British Passport – put things in perspective for me. I only had to give something as common as money in return for the much coveted status – not my life. It has always made me uneasy how other people’s misfortune had such a relieving effect on my own ‘issues’.

I am hopeful that with the closing of my file as a refugee, and my subsequent naturalisation, a new chapter of my life will begin and that positivity will continue to prevail. I am not blaming my mistakes on being a refugee, but simply drawing a line under the past and moving on. I’ve returned to study my Highers and hope to go on to university to study Arabic and International Relations. I want to make my parents proud. I want to make them feel that it was all worth it. Most of all, I want to repay my debt to the universe by working to better the situations that lead to people becoming refugees, if only to soothe my own conscience.

One Reply to “Cosmic Lottery”

  1. Got emotional reading this! Parts of it directly mirrors my own experiences, as well as an undeniable sense of guilt that is always lingering and quite frankly I don’t think it will ever go away. Thank you for being so incredibly candid. It takes a lot to share so much of yourself publicly. What an inspirational piece! Also, can this please become a memoir one day Zainab because I didn’t want it to end, wanted to keep reading.

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