In recent years, the world has witnessed a refugee crisis that has forced more than a million men, women and children to flee the brutal violence in their own countries. Yet despite the life-threatening situations they face, these refugees (including children) have often been met with a degree of suspicion and fear in the nations they have escaped to.
Author Barbara Fox, whose own mother was evacuated from inner-city Newcastle as a child, wonders what the difference between Britain's long-ago children and today's refugees is?
The wrong kind of refugee?
Posted on: Thu 17-Nov-16 10:42:52
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When I read a headline recently about the outrage of a 'picturesque' village to which 70 'child migrants' were to be sent, I was reminded of another time in our history when places in the countryside were obliged to welcome strangers into their midst.
Back in 1940 when she was six years old, my mother, Gwenda, and her older brother, Doug, were among the hundreds of thousands of children who left their inner-city homes and were evacuated to the countryside to escape the German bombs.
Gwenda's main memory of her journey from Newcastle to the Lake District centres round the banana she was given to eat by her mother – the last she was to see for several years. A teacher ordered the children to sit on their bags, and consequently, when Gwenda came to unpack later, she found squashed banana over all her belongings.
On arrival in the pretty village of Bampton they were lined up in the church hall while the villagers came to choose who they wanted. Yes, it does seem unbelievable that that was how the evacuees were billeted to their families! You might imagine that Gwenda and Doug – clean, nicely dressed children - would have been snapped up first (they would surely be the refugees that no one would protest about today!). But actually, that was not the case. Gwenda was the youngest child there as she was tagging along with Doug and his class of nine-year-olds - their mother had insisted that the pair should not be separated. Consequently, the locals were expecting older children, and someone of Gwenda's size probably didn't look very useful in this farming community.
Were these home-grown children that our rural communities welcomed back then really so different from the oft-maligned refugee children today?
Gwenda and Doug were the only children left when the wife of the village headmaster arrived. As the mother of two sons, she had to be persuaded to take a girl. However, she relented, and so the children went home with her. They would spend three happy years living in the schoolhouse and Gwenda would keep in touch with the couple she called 'Aunty' and 'Uncle' for the rest of their lives.
The following year, in more desperate circumstances, Bampton opened its doors to another influx of children, this time from the shipbuilding town of Barrow-in-Furness.
Undoubtedly thousands of lives were saved by this evacuation of the nation's children, and indeed, Gwenda and Doug's own street in Newcastle was bombed.
Britain also welcomed refugees from Europe, including thousands of Jewish children who might otherwise have perished.
Were these home-grown children that our rural communities welcomed back then really so different from the oft-maligned refugee children today? I would go so far as to say that the inner-city children who turned up in Bampton were often just as alien to their rural hosts as the foreign newcomers seem to be to the 'picturesque' village dwellers. But equally, both could teach something to the other.
Those harking back to 'when Britain was great' perhaps forget that it was also characterised by our opening our doors to those in need.
When the War Is Over by Barbara Fox, the story of Gwenda’s wartime evacuation, is published by Sphere and is available from Amazon.