A A. Wouter’s Story

by Dr Wouter Servaas, originally from the Netherlands

 

My very first visit to the UK was in the summer of 2000 for a cycling holiday with my brother. We got off the ferry in Hull and, before we were well on our way to York, it started raining and I had a flat tyre. Luckily though, that was the only flat tyre of the two weeks’ cycling and only the first of three rain showers. Four days later we arrived in Wales and from there we made another loop back to Hull to get on the ferry again.

Fast forward four years. I graduated with an MSc in Cultural Anthropology. My birth country, the Netherlands had seen some political upheaval with the assassination of a rightwing populist in 2002 and in November 2004 when the movie director Theo van Gogh was slaughtered in the streets of Amsterdam. With the political climate making a further shift to the right, my anthropological knowledge on participation and integration of ethnic minorities had become unfashionable. Then came an invitation to pursue a PhD with the University of Sheffield. I didn’t need to think long.

When I first arrived in Sheffield, in the Tapton Hall Building for a conference, I had the strange sensation that I had come home, as if I had been there before. It didn’t make sense though because I knew I hadn’t. From 2005 to 2007 I set up my PhD into children’s perceptions of the countryside and how rural policies connect with their ‘lifeworlds’, I joined the Sheffield Philharmonic Orchestra, and you could find me in the Peak District every weekend with the University’s walking club. I moved out of student residence and moved into a mid-terrace house in a typical Coronation Street setting – as my family said more than once – where I shared the rent with a British PhD student. As I was doing part-time study, I found time to have a job as well, in public transport, and I also helped out with exam invigilation at University.

In 2007 it was time to embark on my PhD fieldwork, so the family van came over here to pick me up to return to the Netherlands. As we left Sheffield it started to rain. Three days later, back in the Netherlands, I looked up BBC Look North online, and saw cars floating near Meadowhall. It hurt, even though I am not much a fan of Meadowhall. In 2008 and 2009 I had fixed-term jobs in Belgium and the Netherlands, but still no prospect whatsoever for permanent work.

In 2010 I decided to return to Sheffield. I finished the PhD, picked up my exam invigilation job again, rejoined the orchestra, and started volunteering with Riding for the Disabled (RDA) helping children with behavioural issues to ride, as well as Whirlow Hall Farm Trust, where we offer children from inner-city areas the opportunity to learn about farm life and having a first experience of pony riding. The Job Centre staff weren’t so sure about my volunteering though, as this would take away valuable time I could spend looking for work. I reminded them about who their employer was, HM Government, and that the leader of the Government, one David Cameron, had rolled out his ‘Big Society’ idea where volunteering was considered an indispensable way to maintain connections with a working life and to gain new skills. After I asked them how their remarks about me volunteering too much fitted in this outline of the Big Society it went quiet. It was my first encounter with how apparently ‘concerned’ but actually just nasty the government could get with unemployed people and/or people from the EU-27.

As it was difficult to find work in Sheffield, I was also looking beyond Sheffield for work. I ended up travelling to Edinburgh, Plymouth and Stevenage within the space of a couple of weeks for interviews, presented research findings at an anthrozoology conference in Cambridge, and suddenly in late 2012 I got a temporary job with an equine sanctuary in Norfolk. Even though it was only for three months, it was emotionally difficult for me to leave Sheffield but, well, you’ve got to go where the work is.

However, with spring returning to the UK in 2013, I returned to Sheffield. The search for jobs and the constant reminders from the Conservative Government that unemployed people and/or citizens from the EU-27 were scroungers resulted in stress and depression. I ended up going out at night for walks usually out of the city, and luckily somehow I managed to stay off the train tracks. Then, when I finally was under NHS treatment for mental health issues and when I explained how much the volunteering and the horse riding helped me getting through the days I was reminded by the therapist that avoiding people too much wouldn’t help me, and that I shouldn’t allow the horses to take over my life. That was my last session there. I burnt the last letter they’d sent me and closed the book on NHS mental healthcare as just another episode of time wasted.

And now? I have friends throughout the UK. I have a permanent job here, had to give up volunteering for the RDA because of time constraints, but I still am part of the orchestra, still a volunteer with the Farm, and I have my own horse to look after. Everything that shapes my life, apart from my family, is here. I was finally happy… until 23 June 2016.

I have always been politically engaged (I volunteered with the Dutch Greens) and am quite sensitive to changing moods in society. When, after the referendum, hate crimes went up, I didn’t even need to be a direct target myself to feel how it changed the way some people were looking at ‘foreigners’ like me. Because, that’s what it was: overnight I turned from an active fellow UK-resident into this Schrödinger-type immigrant who takes away jobs from British people and who lives on British benefits at the same time. When I protested that it was ludicrous that EU-citizens had no say in the referendum, I was told that this was a referendum for British people to decide about the future of their country.

Really?

My contributions to this country, in work, volunteering, consumption, culturally, and in taxes, suddenly were dismissed. Suddenly the mask fell off. And, regardless of any claim that the country is coming together, it isn’t. Every year, in early July, my orchestra is the final act of ‘Music in the Gardens’, where we perform our own version of Last Night of the Proms. I used to always enjoy it, seeing the audience having a good time, getting the picnic baskets out, and waving their flag along with Jerusalem or Land of Hope and Glory. Last year, however, I couldn’t stomach it and told my orchestra I was out for that year. Some of my friends who voted for Brexit were surprised and disappointed about this, because their objections to immigrants didn’t concern ‘people like me’. No, they were thinking of those ‘other immigrants’, who came here for the benefits. They still don’t understand that calling me an immigrant is how they keep on setting me apart from other members of British society who make valuable contributions to that society.

Anyway, I know the UK is no ‘Land of Hope and Glory’, but it is where I have made my life, where I find the solace of working with horses, and where I have invested too much, financially and emotionally, to let a random xenophobe or Brexit supporter take it away from me. Recently I joined the Green Party, simply because I refuse to stay silent. In short, whatever they throw at me, I ain’t budging.

 

Dr Wouter Servaas with horses

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