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Interview: Emily Dugan, journalist

18 September 2015

‘It was, sadly, the first time someone British other than the immigration authorities had shown any interest in them’

I’ve been at The Independent for more than eight years now. I’m now Social Affairs Editor, which means covering a pretty wide range of stories, including welfare, immigration, employment, housing, social care — anything really that tells us something about our society and how it’s changing.


It’s very hard to describe a typical day, which is one of the reasons I love the job. I could be on a bus from Romania, meeting gay couples in Ireland, or women rebuilding their lives in Afghanistan. I love getting out of the office and hearing people’s stories best; social affairs could be quite dry if you took the people out and it was just policy and politics.


The book Finding Home: Real stories of migrant Britain started in January last year, when I decided to get the first bus of the New Year from Bucharest to London. There’d been screaming headlines about a flood of migrants coming, because the rules had changed to give Romanians and Bulgarians blanket permission to work here. The rhetoric around migration was getting nasty, and I wanted to tell the personal stories of what it was really like to come here and make a new life. After 52 hours on a bus, I had a pretty good snapshot of the reasons people come here (usually to work hard), and the reality of the “flood”. Most people were going to Germany, which was closer to home, and where job prospects were better.


That would have been it, if Chris Wellbelove, at Greene & Heaton, hadn’t planted the idea of expanding the article into a book about the experiences of people coming from all over the world and living across Britain.


I wanted to tell ten very different stories, of men and women from a range of continents, living across Britain, with differing reasons for coming here. I had a long list, and then stayed in touch with the ones whose stories really stood out, and who were willing to open up.


Several were people I had come across through my job. For example, I’d broken the news story about Harley Miller, the highly qualified NHS therapist threatened with deportation to Australia, and then stayed in touch with her. I came across Ummad Farooq, a young Pakistani man who sought asylum here after he was shot in the head for being an Ahmadiyya Muslim, when I was writing about the sect’s annual meeting.


I met Emad, from Syria, when reporting several years ago on the Syrian secret service’s threats to expats in London who took part in protests. I had no idea that just a few years later we’d be driving across Europe together with his mother, Nawal, after she fled Syria and was rescued in the Mediterranean. For others, though, I had to start from scratch.


Yes, there were some I couldn’t publish. Some were legally difficult. There was one case of a woman who was at risk of being deported and separated from her husband and young son, after serving a prison sentence. I wasn’t convinced of her version of events, given a criminal court had ruled the opposite.


I tried to explore every aspect of people’s lives here, because I wanted to make it feel more like a series of short stories than something dry and polemical. That meant including all sorts of personal details, from their love lives to family dramas, and religion.


Religion meant a great deal to many of the people I met, whether it was Aderonke Apata, from Nigeria, who found that she and her girlfriend were welcomed by the Church of England in Salford in a way that churches back home would never have done; or Ummad, from Pakistan, Nawal, from Syria, and Hassiba, from Algeria, for whom Islam is a big part of their lives; or Klaudia Cichawa, who goes every Sunday to the Polish-language service at St Mary’s Roman Catholic Church in Boston, where the congregation has been swelled beyond recognition by migration.


I was very heartened by the welcome I got from everyone whose stories I told. I had countless meals cooked for me, and was greeted with so much warmth. I’m still in contact with almost everyone. For many, it was, sadly, the first time someone British other than the immigration authorities had shown any interest in them or their lives.


I wrote the book in the hope that a few undecideds — as well as those who are anti-migration — might read it. If we don’t make an effort to understand and befriend those who do make new lives here, then we’ll wake up to an ugly country, rife with divisions.


In the case of Syria, it’s clear that we should take far more refugees. It’s frankly embarrassing. We need to be pulling our weight in Europe. Numbers are always difficult for people to grasp: they all sound big, and people can be sceptical; but, in the European context, Britain is taking a tiny fraction of what the rest of Europe is doing.


It’s quite a defining moment for Cameron, and it does seem cowardly not to take more. It’s not as if Angela Merkel has got all this support for her position: German citizens are getting frustrated, too. But she’s taken a moral stand. If you read coverage in the Daily Mail and similar papers in the Second World War, there was a lot of similar reporting: there was going to be a wave of refugees, an invasion; it would be terrible. . . But, time and again, refugees have proved themselves to be very grateful, and very hard-working, if they’ve been given a chance to live in a safe place.


I felt very certain about God as a child, and was brought up in the Church of England: going to Sunday school, singing in the choir. With every year that goes by, that certainty has been eroded, and I only go to church when visiting family now, because the church in my parents’ village [St Agatha’s, Brightwell cum Sotwell] still has a wonderful role in the community. That is why my husband and I got married there last year. But I haven’t totally given up on the idea that there might be something more powerful than us out there — and I still think most of the basic principles that the New Testament instils are pretty good ones to live by.


I grew up in a small village in Oxfordshire, in a very secure home, with my parents and older brother. The furthest we moved house was two doors down, to the other side of the vicarage. Since leaving home, I’ve lived abroad for brief spells in Malawi and South Africa, and have travelled fairly far afield for work — which gave me a very small idea of what it’s like to be an outsider in another country. But that’s very different from starting a whole new life somewhere.


I’ve spent most of the past 15 years in London, and I’m lucky that I’ve never been far from my family.


I don’t read newspapers at the weekend for pleasure. I try to think about other things — go to the sea, see my parents in Oxfordshire. Otherwise, I’d end up tied to it. If you do a string of very upsetting stories, it is draining.


I’m probably happiest when out surfing with my husband, Oly. Bobbing around on the north Devon coast is the best way to cure any bad mood. The sea is, perhaps, my favourite sound.


When David Cameron and Philip Hammond described migrants trying to cross at Calais as a “swarm” and “marauding” — that made me angry. For two of our most senior politicians to use the language of pestilence to describe what are, in the most part, refugees fleeing horror at home was inexcusable.


My parents have influenced me most, encouraging me to work hard and do the things I enjoyed. They met on a journalism postgrad, though they ended up working in television and academia; also, my grandmother, who qualified as a doctor during the Second World War, and went on to be a magistrate and family planner; and my husband, Oly: whether I’m going to Afghanistan, or the Central African Republic, or just hitch-hiking round Britain for a story, his encouragement and support make me more confident at what I’m doing.


I’ve been lucky enough to work with lots of fantastic, inspiring people. John Mullin was my editor at The Independent on Sunday when I was still cutting my reporting teeth, and taught me a lot about the importance of telling people’s stories and using them as a way to engage readers in issues rather than reporting dry policy.


If I was locked in a church? Martha Gellhorn: I’d like to chat to her. She was a fantastic, fearless journalist at a time when not many women were reporting, and not many were out war reporting. She also managed to write beautifully about what she was seeing. I knew of her, but became much more interested in her when I decided that that’s what I wanted to do. She was a pretty incredible phenomenon.


Emily Dugan was talking to Terence Handley MacMath.

Finding Home: Real stories of migrant Britain, was published by Icon on 2 July: www.iconbooks.com.

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