Last summer, I received an email that matched a letter from the Hogwarts comic book writer – Marvel Comics wanted me to pitch a story for their massive Edge of Spider-Verse comic book series.
My proposal was eventually approved and I got to help create the new Spider-UK, a British Spider-Man, a young black Muslim woman who swings through the streets solving paranormal mysteries.
The previous Spider-UK was Brian Braddock – an English aristocrat – but with this character I wanted to create a working-class, inner-city hero who shows a different side of the British experience and one where I can share my perspective as… Black British Muslim. It was so much fun to write.
All of this was far removed from where my life as a refugee child began.
My family and I traveled to the UK from Somalia in 1989 to escape the civil war raging there. Since I was only two years old, I have little memory of my home country other than snapshots, confusion and being on the move all the time.
Arriving in the UK in the middle of winter felt like stepping onto another planet. I only knew the snow from cartoons and the mixture of stone, old and high glass new buildings was just as wonderful. A double decker bus blew my toddler away.
I remember the children from school greeting us and a Turkish neighbor who had lent us kitchen utensils.
It wasn’t a total love fest though, there were a couple of smelly old guys in our building making rude remarks about the “smells” of my mom’s kitchen, and white van men yelling horrible racial slurs at me out the window as we drove away. Luckily for me, such incidents rarely happened.
I fell in love with comics before I could read English. I used to borrow TinTin books from the school library, which really helped me learn to read.
Soon after, I was making my own comics, which improved my writing skills. I would conjure up elaborate stories where I was a world-travelling adventurer or a knight in a fantasy world besieged by dragons.
Aside from the educational benefits, comics have also helped me escape from many of the grim realities of life on a run-down council estate. I continued to make comics until I made it my career.
In fact, I recently signed a book deal to write and illustrate a series of books very loosely based on my childhood experiences.
Additionally, in June of last year, I received an email from an editor at Scholastic who had read an article I had read in The Bookseller about the impact reading stories had on me as a refugee child when learning English and promoting escape and connection to care. They asked me if I would be interested in writing a short story for an anthology about refugees called The Power of Welcome.
At the time, I had read a number of very stereotypical stories about the refugee experience written by non-refugees, so I saw this project as my chance to highlight the importance of telling our own stories.
In this graphic novel, you will not only read about refugees enduring hardship, but also learn how many newly arrived asylum seekers feel alone and isolated after losing the support networks they once had. It’s not all bad, however, because a neighbor, classmate, or even a friendly person on the bus could make a kind gesture and suddenly that refugee is now part of a community.
However, I had to take a small leap of faith when I was asked to entrust my story to an illustrator other than myself.
I was fortunate that the artist I worked with had a background similar to mine and was able to give the main scenes of my childhood flight to Britain the serious tragic tension they required – rather than overloading them with maudlin sentiment.
Being a part of this book was so important to me because it is a fantastic demonstration of the diversity of refugee stories that go beyond the typical illegal boat or truck rides we see on the news.
As my story and many others collected in this anthology show, the British public is much more open-minded and hospitable than some would lead you to believe.
Britain has a rich tradition of welcoming migrants and refugees, all of whom have made enormous cultural, social and economic contributions. From Albert Einstein, Sigmund Freud, the parents of Mo Farah and Dua Lipa, to the Windrush generation and all the other immigrants who helped revitalize Britain after the Second World War.
But most refugees come to Britain and live what many of us take for granted – a normal life, safe from danger.
I think it’s important to share the stories of immigrants in the UK because they enrich our country by bringing new perspectives and cuisine.
There is so much to gain by welcoming others. The greatest lesson of all is that diversity is actually a strength, not a threat.
Immigration Nation is a series that aims to destigmatize the word ‘immigrant’ and explore the powerful first-person stories of people who have arrived in the UK – and call it home. If you have a story you’d like to share, email firstname.lastname@example.org
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