My Parents’ Three Migrations

by Storyteller Kiran Singh Sirah

 

Story Summary:

 Kiran shares the stories he heard about his parents’ three migrations from India to Uganda to England.

For a print friendly version of the transcript, click here:  My-Parents-Three-Migrations

Discussion Questions:

  1. If a story plays a part in your identity – what is it and why do you use it to state who you are? Is there more than one story we can use to claim or identify who we are?
  2. What is your family migration story?  Does it matter or not?
  3. What are some of the challenging moments in your life? How did you handle them? Could the challenges you faced and the solutions you created be a story that you tell?
  4. Can you describe the story of a world you’d like to see and live in?

Resources:

  •  Idi Amin: Lion of Africa by Manzoor Moghal
  • Immigrants Settling in the City: Ugandan Asians in Leicester by Valerie Maret

Themes:

  •  Asian American/Asians
  • Crossing Cultures
  • Family and Childhood
  • Identity
  • Immigration
  • Living and Traveling Abroad

Full Transcript:

So, my name is Kiran Singh Sirah. And this story is about my parents.

How do you eat a mango? You hold a mango in your hands, you caress it, you squeeze it, and you soften the pulp from the mango, and then you suck out the juice from the middle. I know how to eat mango because my parents told me how to eat a mango. They came to Britain in 1972 from Uganda as Ugandan refugees, and I was born in England. But they told me how to eat the mango because that’s what they did in Uganda. Mangoes flourished in their garden. And we eat mangos every day. But there are so many other stories from Uganda and Kenya.

There were stories about how my mother, when she grew up, she was sitting in an elementary classroom, and, she picked… a cobra, walked into, came into the classroom, and she picked up a hockey stick and killed the cobra. And still to this day, that cobra is in a jar and in the school museum with a label on it, “Killed by Pravina Korga Tora.” There were so many other stories from East Africa, from Kenya, and Uganda, where my family grew up. Stories about how they’d make popcorn and go to the drive-in cinema. Or stories of how they would pick food from the garden and make bugga or baquarda, bagia. Or how they make African food and combine that with Indian ingredients like ugali.

There was even a story once that my mother told me that the Bisaya people used to come on trains with vegetables and fruit and sell these vegetables to the houses. And one day, a young boy was knocking at the door to sell vegetables. And my grandma opened the door and invited this young boy in. And he became a friend of the family and as he grew up with my mother.

There was a story about my grandfather that one day, he looked out and he saw so many people walking past thirsty, they had no water. So, he went out with his own hands, he built a well so they could drink fresh clean water. There are many stories such as this and I know them because my parents told them to me and I had never been to Uganda.

But in 1972, in the summertime, Idi Amin, the then dictator of Uganda, announced on public radio, that Ugandan Asians had to leave the country in three months or they be executed. Now, you can imagine the panic. People were scared. But they had no time to fuss around. They had to pack up what they could, put their possessions into bags, and then leave the country, or obtain the visas so they could leave the country. A sociologist once described my people as the thrice migrant community. A community of people that had migrated across three continents in one lifetime. Thousands fled the borders. Some moved back into Kenya or Malawi or Tanzania. Well, my family were kind of lucky because they were born as British citizens. Originally, my grandparents came from India to East Africa to build the railroads from Mombasa to Jinja, the source of the Nile. The British needed the British railroads to keep control of the British Empire. They needed an access from the sea to the source of the Nile, to keep control of the Suez Canal. So, they sent for migrant Indian skilled workers to do this. And when it became an independent country, both Kenya and Uganda, the Ugandan Asians, they stayed and they settled and made Uganda their home.

On route to Britain, though, in the winter of 1972, things weren’t all that rosy. When the plane tried to land at Luton Airport, the airport was stormed by far right fascist groups that tried to stop the immigrants from coming into the country. And this was spurred by Enoch Powell’s “The Rivers of Blood” speech. Enoch Powell was a politician that talked about the blood of migrants is going to ruin our country. Many of the refugees settled in refugee camps. But my father got word, because he was a young architect in Uganda, that sister branch in a town called Eastbourne, sent word that any Ugandan refugees that were going to come to England had a promise of a job. So, my parents moved to Eastbourne.

The front page of the headline of the Eastbourne Herald Newspaper read, Uga, “Eastbourne  Welcomes Ugandan Refugees,” and there was a picture on it of my parents. A young, cool Indian couple. My father wore a bright red turban. My mum even, even bright red sari and they carried a little baby, my older brother.

Eastbourne was where they grew up. It was also where I was born. It was a town that welcomed my family in. There was so many stories about those early years. I remember, my dad told me once, when he was walking down the Eastbourne promenade, a young boy called out, “Look mum, aliens!” My dad loves to tell that story. I once asked my dad what was it like. You left Uganda at gunpoint. You came to England, you had, your plane had to reroute. You started a new life. You had no possessions, no houses, hardly any money. The only money they brought into the country was jew… wedding jewelry, stuffed into my brother’s diaper. They had to start life from scratch. Must’ve been really difficult.

And my dad was like, “No, Son, it was fun. It was an adventure. And you know why? Because we’re doing it together. We had a sense of community. We helped each other out.”

When they came to Britain, alls they had was minimal possessions but what they did have was the power of the stories that are passed on to them and the power of stories that they passed on to me. I’m so grateful for the stories that were passed on to me by my parents. And the strength and this belief that I believe. That to tell a story in this world is more than a human right. It’s actually an act of love that can change the world. And I’m grateful for the stories that have changed my world and made me realize the person I could be.

The Story of My Teacher

by Storyteller Kiran Singh Sirah

 

Story Summary:

 Kiran reveals the experiences of living between two worlds: on one hand, his experiences with racism being one of the few brown boys in his town contrasted with the kindness of strangers as well as the inspiration he received from his storyteller teacher, Mr. George.

For a print friendly version of the transcript, click here:  The-Story-of -My-Teacher

Discussion Questions:

  1. Is there a teacher, a parent, a movie star whose life story inspires you? If so, describe why.
  2. Recall a story you heard, a folktale or someone’s personal story that influenced you. Why does it matter to you?
  3. We can all be the stories we want to see in the world. Do you agree with this or not? Explain your reasons and what would your story be?
  4. Why did Kiran talk about both racism and the kindness of strangers in one story? What do you think was his intention by doing so?

 Resources:

Themes:

  •  Asian American/Asians
  • Bullying
  • Crossing Cultures
  • Education and Life Lessons
  • European American/Whites
  • Family and Childhood
  • Stereotypes and Discrimination
  • Taking A Stand and Peacemaking

Full Transcript:

My name is Kiran Singh Sirah. And this story is for my teacher Mr. George.

I was born in 1976, in a summer heat wave. In a town called Eastbourne. My mother called me Kiran. Kiran which means in Sanskrit, light from the sun. The town I was born in was on the south coast of England, about 80,000 people. I was the first person of color born in that town. On a clear day, you could look out to the sea and you could see France. “Bonjour,” I would say sometimes. And I imagine people back saying, “Hello.” There were so many stories about growing up. It was a good place to grow up. It was a nice town. There was good things that happened. We used to go out for ice cream. We would go down to the seaside. We used to go to and sit on blue and white deck chairs and listen to the bandstand. We would even eat a lot of the fish and the crab sticks. And we used to be a lot of family gatherings.

But then there was the bad side. There was a lot of racism going on at that time. Spurred by Enoch Powell and the far-right fascist groups. The skinhead punk, the green bomber jackets, the Dr. Martin boots. They used this word called “Paki.” It was a horrible word to use. It doesn’t matter what co… where we came from; we could be from Pakistan or India or just brown skinned. They just refer to all of us as Pakis and they’d go out Paki bashing. For us, it’s like the N-word. That’s how we felt. It wasn’t so much about when someone… I’d would leave the house and I’d feel like I have to be on my guard. And it wasn’t the hurt that came to me. It was when I heard someone use that word against my parents, my mother or my father or my brother.

One day when I was about five or six years old, and I remember this vividly, I woke up in the living room on the couch. I’d been knocked out. I didn’t know where I was. My memory just before that, as I was cycling around my BMX bike and a punk had knocked me out. He’d gone Paki bashing. But my mother told me that this old lady, old white lady, had seen what happened. And she picked me up and she took me home. Racism existed in our, in our community. As I said, there was good and there was bad. But sometimes, it was just very difficult to understand why I felt so different. Why was I being treated different? Some of these people called my people the smelly Curry people. The people that worship lots of gods. We’re somehow different and sometimes made to feel really different. I couldn’t concentrate in the school classrooms. I found it really hard to focus. But that was until my head teacher, in the classroom assemblies, started to tell stories.

Mr. George was an older white man. He wore a tweed jacket and always wore a kind face. He told us folk and traditional stories from all over the world. And one day, he told us story about a prince. This worldly prince that gave up all his worldly riches and went out into the world to explore the world and to meet the people of the world. We took two objects with him, a cup and a toothbrush. And one day, he looks out and he sees this man break a twig from a from, a tree and starts chewing it and release these juices that start to clean his teeth. And he realized, I don’t need my toothbrush. And he threw it away. And then, he looked out again and he saw someone bent double, by a river, and used their hands and they cup their hands together and poured out a scoop of water and then drink the water from their hands. So, he threw away his cup, realizing he don’t need that too.

But then one day, he tells us the story about someone that really inspired him throughout his lifetime and that man was called Nelson Mandela. He told us how he remembers him as a chubby man going into prison for his beliefs. But then, over the years, were the images that were coming from South Africa, was this man that had gotten thinner, he’d become wiser, he’d become calmer. And he was promoting messages of peace, of unity. Not just to unite the people of South Africa from all different backgrounds and races and ethnicities, but to unite the world. He was like the conscience of the world.

From Mr. George’s stories, he was connecting me to the wisdom of these folk and traditional tales to know that we can go anywhere in the world. We don’t need the objects. We just need our human bodies. And he’s also connecting us to the idea of social justice and equality and that we actually belong and we’re part of the world around us. I now live in Tennessee, in Jonesborough, Tennessee and I oversee the work of the international storytelling center. My job is to advocate for the power of stories to change people’s lives and to enrich people’s lives. But then I realized last year, now living in the States, I haven’t actually thanked the person that inspired me to tell stories and to think about life in this way. So, I contacted my old elementary school back in Eastbourne. I looked them up. Phoned up the school and I asked about Mr. George, where his whereabouts. They told me that he’s now retired. He’s doing well still. And, uh, but he’s there… in touch with his daughter Claire George.

A few months back, I got an email from Claire George. Never met Claire, his daughter. And Claire had said that she had printed out the articles. She’d Googled me. And she used these articles to speak to Mr…. her…  Mr. George, her father. And all the articles I’d written about Mr. George and talked about what I’m up to. A few weeks back, I received a letter in the post addressed to me at the International storytelling center. And guess who it was from? It was from Mr. George. Mr. Len George. I’d never known his first name. In the letter, he talks about how he remembers me but not just me, he remembers my mother. He remembers the house that I grew up in. He remembers my character, and he remembers, and he’s so proud of me, he said in the letter, of what I’ve achieved and what I’m doing now. And he also studies, still telling stories.

It’s been 30 years since I’ve had any contact with Mr. George. But I know that I owe so much to this teacher, this great teacher, for inspiring me and make me think about the world and how it can also teach. Storytelling is such a powerful teaching tool to enrich other people’s lives. The fact that we don’t need any props or things or objects to experience the world just like that prince in that story. All we really need are the stories. And ultimately, the fact that, we can be the story that we want to see in the world. That was for Mr. George.