Longing for home

My father was from a typical South Asian Sikh family. He was born in Rawalpindi, which was northern India before partition, and lived with his parents and 11 other siblings. My grandfather had his own shop and enjoyed living in Rawalpindi. It was their home.

Their decision to leave was not planned but it was forced upon them because of the deteriorating situation before partition. There was increasing violence across India and present-day Pakistan and people’s lives were under threat. One day my grandfather was standing on the terrace of his house when a bullet flew past his ear, narrowly missing his head. For him that was the definitive point, and he knew it was no longer safe for them to remain in Rawalpindi. My dad was only 7 or 8 when they had to leave.

I lost my father when I was very young, so I learned about the events of 1947 from my uncle who was a teenager when partition happened. My uncle recalls the day they left as the most emotional day of his life. My grandfather only gave them a day’s notice that they were leaving. My uncle didn’t have a chance to say goodbye to his friends, he also wasn’t in a position to say much to his friends because he feared for their safety. He told them he would see them later because they thought the move was temporary and they would eventually return home. My uncle is now in his 80s and that day hasn’t arrived yet. He never got the chance to see his childhood friends again, to say goodbye or find out what happened to them.

Leaving was not an easy decision for my grandfather and it ultimately took his life. The trauma of partition took a toll on his health, and he died in his late 40s, leaving his 12 children and a widow behind. It wasn’t just a case of leaving and arriving on the other end, the entire family was disbanded, and they had to keep moving from place to place to find safety and stability. My grandmother suffered with depression her entire life because of the trauma she faced and never fully recovered from partition.

I feel the trauma my family suffered due to displacement had a significant impact on my childhood and influenced who I am today. I didn’t really reflect on it as a child, but I understood it more and more as I grew up. My father’s mental health was impacted by the trauma he faced because he was a young refugee who lost his father, his home, wealth and witnessed the breakdown of his family. In the South Asian community, working through trauma is not common and my father was not able to process his trauma due to the lack of understanding in the community. Most of the families around us were also going through similar issues.

Today, when I see refugees across the world going through the same trauma as my family did in 1947, I feel connected to them. It was my family’s experience which made me realise the impact of displacement on people. It is that realisation which led me to expand The Washing Machine Project to refugee camps and the wider humanitarian sector. I believe it is my duty and purpose to support refugee families where I can.

The way I look at it, if there was someone there for my family years ago when partition was happening, they would have stuck together. My grandfather wouldn’t have suffered as much as he had which resulted in his death at such an early age and my father would have been able to process his trauma.

People think that being a refugee is a temporary phase of their life, but it isn’t true. My uncle is in his 80s now and fondly remembers his time in Rawalpindi, his home. His fondest memory of the house was laying on the Chesterfield sofas they had. He got one made just like the one he used to have so he could sit on the same sofas he’d had as a teenager 70 odd years ago. He has this longing for Rawalpindi which I feel is poignant and jading at the same time. More than 7 decades have passed and he still wants to be home in Rawalpindi, for him that is his real home and it’s a beautiful and heart-breaking thing.

If we look at the life of refugees today, their journey can’t be described as a phase especially when the average age of a refugee camp is 19 years. Being a refugee is long and protracted with very little chance of being able to go home. I’m not sure how my father would have been received in the current climate, especially in the UK. It is very difficult to be a refugee in the world today. Claiming asylum has become such a challenge and the hardening rules force people to arrive on boats, which is dangerous. On the other hand, you see the people welcoming refugees and it’s nice to see but overall, it is a very tough environment for refugees.

We have seen some beautiful moments of the Refugee Olympic team which shows how integration can help them thrive. My father was an aerospace engineer, he was skilled. I can only hope that if my father was alive today and came to the UK as a refugee in the current hostile climate, he would have been welcomed and integrated into society.

Navjot Sawhney

~Nav Sawhney is the founder of The Washing Machine Project. Nav was born and brought up in London but his family are from unpartitioned India. During the 1947 Indian Independence, Nav’s father and his family fled their home from what now is Pakistan with only the clothes on their backs. This has always been the foundations of why he wants to help people fleeing conflict. He has always been passionate about helping others, with a particular interest in International Development.~