My paternal grandfather migrated to Barbados from Gujarat, India in 1937. We are not sure if he arrived before or after the riots of that year. He was following in the footsteps of his brother who, with some others, made that journey to these shores, by chance, in 1929. The research published in Bengal to Barbados by Sabir Nakhuda documents these first Gujarati Muslims coming some 90 years ago this year. Today, the Gujarati Muslims and their descendants make up the bulk of the East Indian population in Barbados.
My grandfather started the itinerant trade on his arrival and built a small business from that. He was a school teacher in India so his nickname was ‘Master’ which was passed on to my father. Sadly, my grandfather’s time on the island was not long as he passed away from a ruptured appendix 14 years later in 1951 at the young age of 36.
My father, having lost both his mother and father at a young age, made the journey from India just after his father’s death, arriving here in the early 1950s. Immediately upon arrival, he took up his father’s business of itinerant trading and continued with the customers that my grandfather had made. It was just a few years ago that I met a lady who told me the interesting story that when she was much younger, she knew my grandfather as a salesman coming to their family home in Howells Road and then missed him for a while until my father turned up explaining that he had died. I believe she is the only person, besides my father, that I have met that knew my grandfather. And perhaps she may have known him even better than my father as my father was only five years old when my grandfather left India.
These are familiar stories of migrants throughout the world. People leave one place to go to another for a variety of reasons. In most cases, it is economical, for a better standard of life. In the early 20th Century, India and Barbados were both part of the British Empire. It was therefore a movement of people between colonized lands. The economic circumstances for Indians, in the villages especially, were poor. They spread throughout the world, mainly to British-ruled territories, in search of better economic circumstances. And so, one century later on, the script is the same for many migrants. Moving from one’s home to another for what is perceived to be a better life. Migration has undoubtedly made the world what it is today.
Migrants, by and large, have done well and made great contributions to the nations which they adopted. There are numerous stories of migrants who, despite having nothing on arrival, went on to build tremendous wealth and inspired thousands by their entrepreneurship and enterprise. Unfortunately, there are some migrants who chose instead to go a different route and caused pain and grief to the society in which they found themselves. Trump in the US chooses to focus on migrants who do the evil deeds and ignore the vast majority who have been productive citizens in their adopted countries. His anti-migrant stance is to stop the criminals from entering the US as he claims.
There is a growth in this type of rhetoric among several politicians in the world today. Today, the United Kingdom has a Prime Minister that is very similar in style to Trump in the person of Boris Johnson. Very anti-migrant and insulting to people who don’t conform to his thinking. But these two leaders are ironies in themselves as both are descendants of migrants. Boris Johnson’s great-grandfather was Turkish. Ali Kemal Bey was an Ottoman Turkish journalist, newspaper editor, a poet and a politician who, for three months, was Minister of the Interior in the government of Damat Ferid Pasha, the Grand Vizier of the Ottoman Empire. He was killed during the Turkish War of Independence.
Anti-migrant parties are growing stronger in Europe with the rise in fascist and far-right political groups. The tone, speeches and rhetoric from these extremist politicians serve only to incense passions and create discord and disharmony among the diverse communities that make up these countries. How ironic that just two centuries ago these same European colonizing countries were hell-bent on grabbing as many Africans from Africa as they could get their hands on to slave on their plantations. And since then have been pauperizing these same countries that they once ruled, stripping them of all their valuable resources to build up their own countries and wealth. Now, they want to turn away the same people that they have condemned by their colonialization.
We have to be extremely vigilant that such rhetoric never takes root in our Caribbean countries. Life has a way of going full circle. Some years ago, the issue of Guyanese in Barbados was prevalent. I believe it is fair to suggest that it was used in the political arena to garner support and an anti-Guyanese sentiment seemed to have come about. Today, the irony is that Guyana is set to take off economically and Barbadians are being encouraged to go there and invest or get employment.
All Bajans, through their ancestors, undoubtedly have arrived to these shores from somewhere else. For the vast majority, this was without their consent, having been taken as slaves and shipped here. For others, like my grandfather, it would have been a conscious decision. In our world today, independent countries will have to determine what standards of immigration policies they wish to adopt. Some countries are facing a depletion in human resource capital, a crisis of lower birth rates, and a transfer of brain capital to other jurisdictions. Their only recourse is to extend open gates to selected groups of migrants. We see this in the recent policy of inviting nurses from Ghana to come to Barbados to practise and ease our shortage in this profession.
Migration began with the first humans and will continue until the last. It is a fact of life and living on this planet. Indeed, scientists are even strategizing and preparing for migration to other planets. We choose to live with it as a reality of life on this planet. Those who resist migrants are ignorant to the fact that in their bloodline are also those who, for whatever reason, chose to transfer from one place to another. No society can truly survive without people moving around.
In this season of Emancipation, let us take the time to celebrate all those who have been emancipated from the physical shackles of slavery and from the psychological shackles of injustice, imposed poverty and oppression and persons who left without much from one place to go to another to make life better for themselves, their families and the rest of the community.
My connection to my grandfather is made by visiting his grave at the Westbury cemetery where he is interred. My eldest daughter made a more important connection recently as she spoke at the St Michael School Graduation. She said that one of the frequent questions asked of her as she prepares to marry is whether she will take her husband’s surname. Her response after careful thought is no, she prefers to keep her family name as it reflects that important link to a man who chose to venture thousands of miles from his birth home in search of a better life.
(Suleiman Bulbulia is a Justice of the Peace, Secretary of the Barbados Muslim Association and Muslim Chaplain at the Cave Hill Campus, UWI and a Childhood Obesity Prevention Champion. Email: [email protected])