The 23rd of June 2016 was a dark day for my husband and me. We tried to joke about the referendum, as neither of us actually believed the outcome would be in favour of Brexit. We discussed what country to flee to in the event that it all went disastrously wrong, and settled on Canada. I ranted about how unfair it was that I didn’t get a vote, as a resident for 13 years and a taxpayer for 7 (after 6 years of higher education). We went to bed anxious, knowing we had both done our best to convey to every one of my British husband’s family members why it would be devastating if the UK voted to Leave, and hurtful on a personal level if THEY voted Leave. In actual fact what I didn’t realise until later on was that I started to distance myself from some of them when it transpired that they were even considering to vote Leave. As my husband patiently and calmly explained the possible consequences for us, a Dutch woman married to an Englishman with a Dutch/English daughter, but also the consequences for the economy, small and even larger businesses, British people wanting to go on holiday, etc etc…, I left the room, unbelievably hurt at the mutterings of “take back control” from his aunts and (directed at me) “it’s not YOU we want out dear, it’s all of the others”. Some of the relationships have not really recovered. Though we have not “broken up” with any family members, I feel that some of the warmth has gone from them. I guess we are all making an effort because of our daughter. I remember looking at her asleep in bed at 6am on the 24th of June, as my husband whispered the news to me and tears filled my eyes. “We can’t raise her in this hate-filled environment,” I whispered. My husband went to work, I tried to smile when my daughter woke up, but it was an awful day. When I walked the dog, I was unable to look anyone in the eye, wondering whether they voted Leave, and how they felt about me being in their country.
I grew up in the Netherlands, then in Belgium, in Brussels, in my view one of the most multicultural cities in the world, and we also spent a couple of years in Spain. In my whole life, it had never occurred to me that anyone could be stopped from living in the country of their choice. I’ve always been quite proud, when people ask me what my dad does, to say “he works for the European Commission”, implying “he helps to keep the world open, safe, welcoming, accepting, peaceful”, as does anyone working there, whatever their role. Now I was afraid, there were reports of people shouting abuse at anyone foreign and worse, physically assaulting people for speaking a language other than English. A German woman in our city had faeces posted through her letterbox by her neighbours. We had decided to raise our daughter bilingually, but I no longer felt safe speaking Dutch to her in public. I wanted to move away with every fibre of my being, but my husband loves his job and his family has always lived within a stone’s throw of each other. I am self-employed and can do my work anywhere in the world, but what use is that when he is tied to this country? I dread the day my daughter starts primary school – what if she gets bullied for being “half foreign”? One of my friends is planning to move to Sweden, her family is mostly British but they can’t stand the atmosphere since the referendum. I envy them, as I feel trapped. While I know that those moving away are also facing a difficult time, at least they will be free from this constant helplessness and anxiety.
Comments below articles about EU citizens say “she has a French passport, she can just go and live in France”. I have a Dutch passport and I cannot tell you how badly I “JUST” want to go and live in the Netherlands, or Canada, or Denmark. I’m not picky, any country that is welcoming for foreigners will do. But what the media, the politicians and the Leave voters can’t seem to grasp is that a decent chunk of the EU citizens here will be in relationships with British people, so if you want to get rid of 3 million EU citizens, you might also lose 1.5 million Brits with them. And what would happen if every country acted like this, rejecting anyone foreign? Where would couples with different nationalities to each other go?
As a history graduate, this closed-minded mentality started to terrify me the first time I heard Nigel Farage speak, making xenophobic jokes about pigeons in Brussels, hearing how many people laughed and applauded, and feeling like I might as well go home and start sewing EU flags on my clothing if he got any traction. I do feel lucky sometimes, to have friends who feel passionately about the EU, friends who support me and never make me feel foreign. But I also know that they will never understand quite how this feels, like constant, daily rejection. I know that my husband doesn’t know how it feels, because if he did we wouldn’t still be here. Some days I can put it to the back of my mind and most days I can enjoy work and raising my daughter. Some days I need a cry. Some days the constant anxiety of not knowing is exhausting. “It will be ok,” people often tell me, “they are never going to throw out 3 million people.” They’re missing the point. If I was thrown out of the country, provided I could take my husband and daughter with me, I would be just fine. I would have certainty and the option of choosing a place to live that accepts our whole family. I could be happy every day. It’s this period of uncertainty that is impossible to deal with. One practicality that people conveniently tend to forget is that in a relationship between a Brit and someone from another EU country, it is usually the latter who speaks English well enough to function in Britain, whereas sadly, the British partner will not speak another European language well enough to move abroad with his or her family. That’s not a criticism of Brits – my husband has put a lot of hard work into learning Dutch and speaks it quite well now, but in order to do your job in another language you need to be completely fluent. If we were to move countries, the negative effect would be on him, not on me. He would experience culture shock, have to learn what it’s like to be far away from his family, to be without his favourite foods, to not understand some of the conversations or jokes and feel left out when people talk about what TV shows they watched when they were kids. So there’s the choice: stay and I suffer, or leave and he does. Of course it’s always more complicated than that.
The outcome of the referendum has mostly added anxiety to my life, but has also affected me in a few small practical ways. When I walk the dog along the canal, I always turn left now. Turning right makes for a nicer walk, but someone spray-painted LEAVE on the path, and it makes me angry, so I avoid it. I’ve started speaking Dutch to my daughter again in public, because now more than ever it is important for her to be bilingual. It will give her options. But when I’m alone with my daughter in public, I speak quietly when there are other people around, to keep her safe. Just in case. On the positive side, I am paid in Euros and Dollars, so my income has had a boost. We have some lovely British friends who are as disgusted by this whole situation as we are, and they remind me to focus on all of the warm and welcoming Brits in this country. And I’ve become closer with some of my fellow EU citizen friends, we’re all in the same boat after all.