George Alagiah interviews us on the BBC
Tuesday 1 May 2007
No.s 62 & 63: Honduras and Kyrgyzstan
Alex Horne - 1st May 2007
Because of some unexpected but very welcome interest in our project created by an article in The London Paper, Owen and I decided that splitting up and meeting the newly uncovered nationalities individually would be a sensible and efficient thing to do. As usual we failed to go about this division in a particularly scientific or geographic way, instead agreeing that as I mostly work at night, I’d meet those who suggested a lunch-break encounter while Owen would meet those who preferred a post-work beverage.
Having sent out an email to this effect and received my first few replies, I noticed that two of my correspondents were emailing from buildings on the same street in the City. In fact, not two just buildings, from two banks just 23 numbers apart on Gresham Street (EC2). Not wanting to miss a trick and keen to continue being sensible and efficient I resolved to organise one lunch-break encounter with both nationalities.
And so at a few minutes past one (I was (literally) running late again, both of my new contacts were on time, I was embarrassed and sweaty) on the first of May, I introduced a thirty six year old lady from Kyrgyzstan called Mairam to a thirty one year old lady from Honduras called Kenny (or Claudine, but she prefers Kenny) in a busy Starbucks full of businesspeople doing business things on Cheapside.
As soon as we’d all shaken hands and smiled a lot I realised that I may well have engineered quite an awkward international social situation. Thinking quickly and cowardly I therefore asked them what they’d like to drink and scuttled over to the counter while they got the getting to know each other bit started. Thankfully, from the moment I returned with three cold drinks (current weather: surprisingly warm) till an hour later when our time was up (and I guiltily realized they’d spent their lunchbreaks with me but without any actual lunch) the conversation flowed back and forth as if we’d known each other for, well, certainly longer than we had.
Maybe this is one of the problems with us English people in general. We worry too much about pretty much everything; what people are thinking, what will happen if we don’t say the right thing, will it be embarrassing… Kenny has lived in London (Beckenham to be exact) for three years now and says that despite her best efforts 98% of her friends are from overseas. ‘The English people I’ve met are very friendly’, she explains, ‘but very few are actually willing to become friends. One of my friends think they worry about making that commitment because they think we’ll disappear back home soon. It’s a cultural thing, I think. No offence, obviously, but English people just aren’t that easy. If an expat moves to Honduras everyone will do their best to integrate them into the community but here most of the English people I know are nice but never really make the effort to find out much about me, where I live, what my family do and so on’.
Mairam agrees. ‘When I left Kyrgyzstan I could have gone to America or England but chose here because I’d always loved period dramas and Charles Dickens. But when I arrived I just couldn’t feel at home. I felt like I was staying in some luxury hotel. Yes, I’m lucky to have a much better life, but it doesn’t feel quite right somehow’.
Unfortunately, Mairam’s reasons for leaving her own country are neither straightforward nor happy, although she told us her story simply and dispassionately. ‘I came here because of family circumstances’, she began. ‘Kyrgyzstan is a Muslim country and like most women there I had an arranged marriage. My husband would beat me all the time. I’d call my mother for help but she said I couldn’t come round to her house without my husband. It’s a very traditional country. But then I just thought if she couldn’t help me, who could? Thirty minutes before my plane took off for London I called my family - my husband, my parents and my children - to tell them I was leaving’.
All three of us took a deep breath at this point. Owen and I have said before that while we started this project thinking it’d be a fun and hopefully funny thing to do, we’ve been continually surprised, engaged and moved by the stories we’ve heard. I was initially worried about describing Mairam’s trauma in an apparently light-hearted blog but she insisted she was fine with it. After all, she was one of the lucky ones. A few hours after we’d met she sent me an email going over a few of the facts and explained that her ex husband still can't forgive her: ‘He is saying I wasn’t the only woman to get beaten up by their husband, I shouldn’t have left him. I’m ashamed to admit it is true. I’m not the only one, in fact 80% of women I knew were. It’s the system’s fault. He wasn’t a bad person, just brainwashed. I feel sorry for him sometimes’.
In September 2006, the Human Rights Watch published a report entitled "Reconciled to Violence: State Failure to Stop Domestic Abuse and Abduction of Women in Kyrgyzstan", in which the authors described consensual ‘kidnapping’ as one popular way of escaping a violent arranged marriage and concluded that although Kyrgyzstan does now have progressive laws on violence against women, police and other authorities fail to implement them. As a result, women remain in danger and without access to justice, something Mairam was all too aware of and which eventually forced her to take matters into her own hands.
As we sipped our frappuccinos and listened to Mairam's account I was glad to have Kenny sitting beside me. It was definitely odd to discuss domestic violence with these two strangers from different corners of the world in a coffee shop in the middle of London’s business hub but Mairam was keen to talk and we were eager to listen. It was also useful to release the tension by turning to Kenny at an opportune moment and asking, ‘so why did you come to London?’ This had better be good, was the clear insinuation and all three of us laughed at the incongruity of the situation. Thank God.
‘I used to work in Lloyds Bank back in Honduras’, said Kenny. ‘It’s not quite such an interesting story. One day they announced they were selling the branch but that there was an overseas job in the UK so I just went for it. I didn’t really think it through till I got on the plane!’ But moving to London was a massive change. In Honduras, she told me, people live with their families until they’re married, which usually happens sometime before the age was thirty. They then continue to live in the same area, with family dominating everyday life. Occasionally people move to work in the USA but very rarely would anyone choose to live in Europe. Kenny’s transfer was extraordinary. ‘It takes me one and a half days to get home to my parents. They’re very proud and tell people their daughter was offered a job in London… but it’s not easy’.
‘When I got here I realised I never actually had to make friends at home. You just had friends from school or around town. Here I didn’t know anyone and at first just decided that I didn’t need to make any new ones. I had my old friends, I didn’t need any more. But at home you wouldn’t do anything on your own. You wouldn’t go the cinema or even have a haircut without taking a friend along! It’s very different.’
Kenny soon learnt to be independent and has now made a lot of friends - not many from England, admittedly, but other Latin Americans, Greeks, Iraqis, Iranians, South Africans… ‘It’s an interesting city in which to find yourself. You can be whoever you want to be. But it’s very important to set up your own home with your own things first of all’.
‘Yes’, nods Mairam. ‘Although I don’t actually care all that much about my life here. I’m doing it for my kids’. Bakyt (13) and Azamat (15, and whose name won him a certain amount of unwanted attention after the release of Borat earlier this year – see Kazakhstan) are definitely settled into London life. Both speak English flawlessly alongside their mother tongue Kyrgyz, but only the eldest knows Russian. The day after our meeting Mairam sent me another email with pictures of the two of them looking every bit like English teenagers: ‘They are my stories’, she wrote. ‘Because of them I’m here in London. They are becoming like Englishmen now, well mannered, honest, they will love and respect their wives. I’m so proud of them’.
Mairam brought her children over to London eleven months after she’d fled her home. Two years later she brought her husband over too. ‘I thought; it’s a different country, perhaps he’ll be a different person? On the very first day, after I’d picked him up from Heathrow, he beat me up again.’ Mairam kicked him out for good then and has since brought up her children alone, helped only by a sister who, she says, has been incredibly supportive. ‘I’m free now’.
Last year she returned to Kyrgyzstan for the first time. ‘It was very difficult. My mother told me that my kids are now English and they are different culturally. They look at Kyrgyzstanis and say ‘these people are crazy’. I try to tell them they’re not ‘these people’, they’re your people, but they don’t understand. It’s a shame. Back home they’re treated like foreigners and over here they’re treated like foreigners’.
When she arrived five and a half years ago, Mairam’s life was in tatters. She spoke no English, knew noone and had virtually no money. ‘I got a job as a carer for four years’, she told us. ‘I looked after a South African gentleman called Mr Kantor. He became my best friend, helped me learn English and eventually taught me to love London’. Mr Kantor came to the capital himself at the age of 87 to be with his children. ‘He started a new life at that age, he was very inspiring’. Mairam started looking after him when he was 90 years old and for the next four years they spent many hours in each other’s company, even visiting South Africa together a couple of years ago. His family were the ones who encouraged Mairam to apply for a job at the bank on Gresham Street last year.
‘He died in October. It would have been his birthday yesterday. He’d have been 95. I became very depressed after he passed away. I didn’t realise how much it would hurt me. I went back to Kyrgyzstan but then I found I missed London too.’
Mairam passed her citizenship test last Saturday. ‘I got all 24 questions right’, she announced matter-of-factly. ‘It was a forty five minute test and I finished in six minutes’. ‘What sort of thing did they ask you?’ asked Kenny, helping out with the interview once again. ‘Oh, all sorts – when did women in the UK have the right to work or the right to divorce… It was 1857’. Of course, I knew that. I’m an Englishman after all. ‘And do women in Kyrgyzstan have the right to divorce?’ I asked, trying to be incisive. ‘Of course’, she replied. ‘But the unwritten laws there are much more powerful’.
We all pondered this for a bit before Mairam continued; ‘It will be difficult for my kids to ever go back. It’s so different there. The traditions are so strong. The men must do this and the women must do that. They won’t like it. I asked my kids, ‘who do you want to marry, a white girl, a black girl, an asian girl?’ They said, ‘it doesn’t matter – as long as they’re not fat’ – they have no concept of race’. This clearly pleased Mairam and when we later discussed whether or not Owen and I would actually finish our project she smiled and said, ‘you’re doing it at exactly the right time. Right now, everyone is talking about immigration and nationalities but in one hundred years it will be impossible. No-one will say they’re from here or there. Everyone will just say they are from earth. I hope’.
For now, Kenny at least is enjoying London’s mix. ‘According to my embassy there are only three hundred Hondurans in the UK and just 150 in the London. I’ve never randomly met anyone else from Honduras here’. Nor have I, I thought, extremely grateful that she’d found us rather than us having to search for our own Honduran needle. ‘If I go to a party there are people from everywhere. It’s great’, she went on. ‘We have perfect conversations about London, where we’re from and what we think of life here’. I make a mental note to try to blag an invite to one of these parties. When I ask her how long she’s planning to stay, she shoos the question away; ‘Oh no, don’t ask me that! I love Honduras but I’m doing things here that I’d never have got to do back home, like going to different countries every other weekend. When I go home now, after a month or so I start feeling restless…’ I know the feeling.
Perhaps surprisingly, Mairam herself is determined to return to Kyrgyzstan; ‘As soon as I’ve set my children on their own two feet I’m going back’. ‘But why?’ I ask, ‘when your life is so much happier here?’ ‘I miss the mountains’, she answers quietly. Kenny nods and we revert to talking about the weather. Mairam says she misses the four seasons they have back home. In London, she says, the weather is always the same. Kenny disagrees. ‘In Honduras we don’t have any seasons – just wet or not wet’*. Honduras and Kyrgyzstan, it seems, are at either extreme of the seasonal weather scale with London (and now the two of them) landing somewhere in the middle. ‘I’d never seen snow before I came here!’ laughs Kenny. ‘Oh, I long for the snow!’ smiles Mairam. Kenny can’t understand that. ‘But it’s so cold!’
And then, lunch hour over in a flash, it’s out into London’s unlikely sunshine, up to Gresham Street and back to work.
*As we left the café Kenny passed me a brand new Lonely Planet book entitled Honduras and the Bay Islands. ‘It’s the first one they’ve done for Honduras individually’, she told me. ‘It’s for you’. I love Lonely Planet guidebooks and in particular the photos they choose to adorn the front cover that so brilliantly depict the country in question. On my book, however, Kenny had written; ‘to Alex and Owen; a little insight to my beautiful country’. And I think that sums up Kenny and her country better than any picture could ever do.