It was a rough night for Jen. This Briton living near Dunkirk (North) with her Belgian husband, Danny, did not sleep until 4 a.m. She thinks of her 74-year-old mother, who is ill and needs her, in Kent, a region in the south-east of England. Jen prepares to join her and a probable separation. With Brexit approaching, Danny is not sure he can go with him. At 52, “I have to choose between my mother and my husband”Breathes the English woman with a round and smiling face, whose eyes mist at the mention of her mother. The approach of the effective divorce of the United Kingdom and the European Union, on December 31, plunges many British and bi-national families in similar ordeals.
For Jen, emptying her house is heartbreaking. She who loves so much to take care of her interior has started to tidy up her life “in boxes”, in case you have to leave quickly. The family photos have left the living room sideboard into the basement, where they are neatly wrapped in newspaper, and stored in a massive stack of boxes.
For the couple, settling in the North was the easiest. Danny, computer engineer, works regularly in Brussels. Dunkirk saves him long journeys between his missions in Belgium and Jen’s family in England.
Things changed at the start of the year when a doctor diagnosed Jen’s mother with possible heart failure. The concern rose again this summer, when she became unwell. “It happened again a week later.” The idea of returning to the UK to take care of her sprouted, but how do you live in Kent when Danny isn’t British? “If we go, he will have to apply for a visa, imagines his wife, shocked by the prospect. The only fact that he needs a visa… He’s still my husband! “
“I am an immigrant here, and he is an immigrant there.”
Danny, 57, remained hopeful that his five years previously in the UK would count towards obtaining his residency status. In reality, to benefit from it, you have to have lived “continuously” in the kingdom for at least five years. “I have been your husband for eleven years, I should have pre-permanent resident status”he said, looking at Jen. She herself is awaiting her residency status in France. She does not yet have a Vitale card, despite several reminders. However, she must have health insurance to obtain a residence permit.
“I think I will go back to the UK”, loose Jen, who nevertheless feels more European than British since Brexit. The only view of his British passport – received a week earlier – provokes in her “anger”. Danny will continue to work on the continent and join them on the weekends. A long-distance relationship that the couple hoped not to relive. “I don’t want to do this anymore, it’s not our way of life”, continues the Briton. When they met, Jen was living in Folkestone and Danny in Herne Bay, two towns in Kent.
Murielle Stentzel knows these two localities very well. She lived there for several years, at the heart of what she immediately called “the land of Nigel Farage”. An area of England which voted overwhelmingly for Brexit, and where the famous Europhobic leader is from.
After nine years in the UK, this 59-year-old Frenchwoman is now “uprooted” in La Rochelle (Charente-Maritime), far from her daughter and her granddaughter, who remained across the Channel. “I’m not rich, I can’t go see them every month, explains Murielle Stentzel. It is extremely hard. My little girl said to me on the phone: ‘Nanny, I miss you’ (‘Granny, I miss you’). There youwe hang up and you cry. “
The vote in favor of Brexit changed everything for Murielle Stentzel. Suddenly, the attitude of some English people towards foreigners changed. She says she received “a dumpster of insults” online, after testifying to the local newspaper, The Kentish Gazette (link in English). “I was told that if I could drown in the middle of the English Channel, that would make one less foreigner”, she recalls. Virtual attacks, to which were added other xenophobic insults, in the street or in the bus. Then a physical assault one evening in Herne Bay.
“I was walking out of a pub with a friend when pro-Brexit people heard my accent. They started looking for me, like, ‘You foreign girl, get out!’ I couldn’t help calling them jerks. One of them spat in my face. That’s when I made my decision. “AdvertisementMurielle Stentzel
Her last three months in Kent will remain, in her words, a moment she doesn’t want “never live again”. On the way home, her tears did not stop falling. “I can’t come to terms with my life in England. I don’t think I ever will., she sums up. I have a granddaughter who is growing up without me. ”
In In Limbo, collection of stories of Europeans living in the UK, Murielle Stentzel describes Brexit as a “scar”, “a trauma that I carry with me since my return”. How many have had to leave their adopted country, after years, even decades across the Channel? Laure Ollivier-Minns, who also contributed to In Limbo, Took this step in September 2018, after thirty-two years in the United Kingdom. “I left everything I had built”, sums up this 53-year-old Frenchwoman. Everything, including her marriage to a Briton. “I had to leave, she writes. It was physical. “
The mother of two children aged 23 and 26 who remained in the UK has also faced hostile remarks in public. The lack of private support was much more serious. His British in-laws, however mostly opposed to Brexit, “minimized what I said, changed the subject” as soon as she mentioned the thorny issue, says the teacher who became a sculptor, now living in Loire-Atlantique. “Pretty quickly, it became a taboo subject. I was not allowed to talk about it, including with my ex-husband.”
Laure Ollivier-Minns also demonstrated against Brexit without her husband, when so many other binational couples were present. “It made me burst into tears”, she confides, her voice faltering. The lack of conjugal support, in these uncertain times, “was the ‘crack’ in our marriage”. When her husband left for a four-month trip in early 2018, Laure began to “looking for a pied-à-terre” in France. It is at this moment “that I realized that I couldn’t take it any longer to be in the UK.”
“It was an urgent need. My whole body was screaming ‘I want to go, I can’t stay any longer’.”AdvertisementLaure Ollivier-Minns
Laure Ollivier-Minns ends thirty-two years of British life a few months later, and divorces in 2019. She leaves “bruised” and at the price “huge sacrifices”, like living away from your children. Brexit has him “stole a lot of things”. “Slam the door” from his home in Norwich on the day of departure, “was a huge relief”.
The Polish Maggie Howlett took almost three years to slam the door of the United Kingdom. On June 23, 2016, when the referendum result fell, she was visiting her parents in her homeland. The United Kingdom, the country in which she had lived for twelve years, had just voted for her exit from the European Union. “I was devastated. I felt betrayed by the country to which I had given years of my life”, relates this woman separated from the father of two daughters aged 3 and 7. “I knew I had to do something. I started looking at real estate offers in Poland.”
The decision to leave Nottingham gradually came to fruition. The verbal attacks started and then escalated. One day in 2016, “I was coming out of a store and asked my daughter to give me my hand. I said these few words to her in Polish”, she recalls. “A passerby heard me and said, ‘Fuck strangers, come home!'” Sometimes the English passing by in a car would shout the same thing to him. “When I heard people being beaten up for speaking Polish, I thought it was time to go.”
Maggie Howlett and her two daughters left for the Czech Republic, to be closer to Poland where her parents live. The news was painful for her in-laws, deprived of their granddaughters. A situation that is all the more cruel as they themselves voted in favor of Brexit.
“I told them we were leaving about six months before we left. They were devastated. They regretted what was happening, but it was already too late.”Maggie Howlett
Like these Europeans, the British also took this step with the announcement of Brexit. Since the referendum, the number of British citizens joining another European country has increased by 30%, according to a study (in English) published this summer by the Social Science Center in Berlin, with the University of Oxford. Brexit would be responsible for a 15% increase in these migrations.
The book Brexiles, by illustrator and anti-Brexit activist Madeleina Kay, profiles 27 Britons living on the continent. Among them, Anouska Carstairs, a 21-year-old student. Since her parents’ divorce, she lived with her father while her younger sister, Mary, lived with their mother. All in the same area of Surrey, where the family met several times a week. Brexit came into play. Anouska and her father Rowan, deeply European, did not want to lose either their identity or their EU rights. They left Godalming (UK) for Zagreb, Croatia. Mary and her mother stayed behind.
“I miss them a lot, it is much more difficult to see them with the Covid-19 pandemic”, recognizes Anouska Carstairs in a discreet voice. The student has not seen her mother since February, and her sister since July.
“It’s hard for them and it’s hard for us. I miss walking in nature or talking about Russian films with my mother. Playing and talking with my sister, being in the same room with them, I miss it. as well.”AdvertisementAnouska Carstairs
Rowan Carstairs did not imagine “stuck up” in Croatia because of the epidemic, without being able to make the round trips he imagined between Zagreb and Surrey. He would of course like to see his daughter Mary more often. “What I miss a lot is seeing her grow up, seeing her become a young woman”, he confides. But for him, the United Kingdom “was becoming a country in which I didn’t really want to live anymore”.
Jen still has her kitchen stuff to put in boxes. There is already one thing that is gone for good: a refrigerator in the colors of the Union Jack, the flag of the United Kingdom. “I said ‘let’s sell it’, I couldn’t see it anymore, comments the Briton with a bitter laugh. I don’t feel like a patriot anymore. ”