A German migrant in the UK: Dr Soeren Keil’s Story

Writing this blog, I break one of the very sacrosanct rules of academic blogging. I am going to get personal. Not in a mean way to attack anyone, and not in a way that enforces my view on things on other people. I am going to get personal, because for the first time in my academic career (and probably in my life) I am writing about myself. I have thought about this blog for a long time now. Let’s see where it goes.

After finishing school I studied Politics and International Law at the University of Würzburg in Southern Germany. I had a splendid time, great friends, really enjoyed my studies, and I was well integrated into the village community where I lived. Yet, I decided to leave this wonderful place called Waldbüttelbrunn (I am looking forward to hear English-native speakers pronounce this word), and come to the UK.

The decision for the UK was more by accident than planned. I basically missed the deadline for the University’s exchange programme with a University in Texas and I had a scholarship that would support one year of studying abroad. The plan was 10 to 12 months in the UK and then back home. I am not sure if my parents would have let me go, knowing what they know now, namely that I would not return.

I arrived in the UK on the 18th of August 2005 (funny how one remembers some dates). It was on a direct flight from Leipzig airport to Stansted, I was picked up by a pre-booked taxi and had my first on-hand experience with English culture. I had been to the UK before, when I was 14 on a 2-week school study trip, but other than playing lots of football, having a fight with a schoolmate and really not liking English food, there is not much I remember from this trip. So here I was, embarking on a new adventure. An adventure, that would see me complete a Master’s degree at the University of Kent in International Relations.

I thoroughly enjoyed my Master’s degree. What I remember most about my studies was the exchange with other students from many different cultures. Not only within my own degree (although there were people from many different cultures in the course as well, my best friends were English, Northern Cypriots, German, Greeks, Georgian, French, Czech, Belgian and Norwegian), but also everywhere else on campus. The guy living across the hall from me was from Pakistan (he taught me how to do a tie up), the guy a few rooms down the hall was from Indonesia (he let me drive his car), the woman opposite him was from Japan (she always giggled when she saw me, still don’t know why) and the guy living next to her was from Singapore. What united all of us was a feeling of being new, of speaking English as our second language and of getting on very well. In contrast to other classmates, we never had any noise issues on our corridor, and the one time food was stolen from our kitchen, we knew it was by a stranger. We cooked together, met for a beer in the kitchen, discussed deadlines and just generally were very supportive of each other. Looking back now, it might have been this time when I fell in love with living in the UK. There were so many cultures, so many different people, but they all got on and supported each other. Clearly, part of this was being a student, being young and living together, but I really enjoyed it.

What happened next is a long story, but here the short version. After the MA, there was a lot of discussion about what to do next. However, in the meantime, I had fallen in love and decided to move to Brussels with the Misses, where she would complete a post-graduate degree in Law and I would work for two years, before coming back to Kent, because I had been offered to study for a Doctorate. Brussels did not really work out, mainly for financial reasons and so after 12 months in 2007 we found ourselves living in Margate. Now, Margate is a very challenging place for many reasons and it was not difficult to spot the social tensions, the problems with alcoholism and drug abuse and the generally scruffy nature of the place. But we had a flat overlooking the beach, went for wonderful walks, had a great balcony, hang out with friends and spent a lot of our time in Canterbury anyway.

We moved to Canterbury a year later, into a wonderful flat, where I would stay for nearly 3 years. In the meantime, my then-wife and I would break up, I completed the PhD and I was, once again, planning to go back to Germany. By then I loved the UK, because I really enjoyed the attitudes of English people, British values, the diversity of Canterbury with its large student population and my circle of friends. But, when a relationship breaks down and with my PhD studies coming to an end, going home and finding a job there seemed like a good idea.

Things ended up differently once again. I applied for a job with an organisation called the Dover Detainee Visitor Group (DDVG) (now Samphire), which worked to relive the plight of those detained in the immigration removal centre in Dover. The job was originally offered to my ex-wife, but she went back to the US, so I put an application in, “just in case”. Not only was I invited to an interview, but I was eventually offered the job as the new Ex-Detainee Project Manager. I had the chance to build a new project from scratch, and learn a lot of new skills.  It was in this time that I learnt a lot about human misery, a lot about human decency and a lot more about the United Kingdom at its best and at its worst. I met people who were destitute because they had no access to any financial support, women who were sexually exploited whose partners threatened to report them to the Home Office, people with Mental Health issues struggling because there were no adequate provisions, and I heard some genuinely gruesome stories about the experiences of people in their home countries. This made me not only realise how important my work, and that of DDVG was, but it also got me to understand how lucky I have been in life. Yet, in all this misery and desperation I learnt about people willing to open their doors for those that the system had abandoned, I got to know some volunteers who were doing an amazing job supporting people in need, and I generally met some wonderful people who worked together to make this misery a little bit better.

In September 2011 I started a new job at Canterbury Christ Church University as a Lecturer. Finally, I got the job I wanted ever since I entered Würzburg University and saw how relaxed and genuinely happy the Lecturers and Professors looked (or so I thought). Since then I have been very happy with my job at Christ Church, teaching probably thousands of students and also having the opportunity to research the things I find interesting. I have done other teaching stints in Germany, Austria, Spain (well, Catalonia), France and Turkey, and have been really lucky to be able to engage with interesting people, have great discussions, and develop wonderful friendships on the way!

Now, why do I spent so much time talking about my own background? Well, I am a migrant. In fact, I am an economic migrant. I am an EU immigrant, who came to the United Kingdom to study, and stayed on to work here. I sometimes need to remind myself of this, because rarely have I felt like a migrant. Coming home from my many travels I refer to the UK as “my home” and while the little village in Eastern Germany will always be “meine Heimat” (it means home as well but in the sense of where one grew up), my current home is in Deal with my family.

However, in the recent 24 months or so, I have begun to feel more strongly like an immigrant. As the discussions about immigration have heated up in the UK, I have felt as if these are targeting people like me, in fact, targeting me directly. As an immigrant, I am lucky in many respects – I am reasonably well integrated into the country, I speak the language, and not to forget, I am white and come from a Christian-heritage country (nope, not a Christian, not even Baptised). Yet, when people are talking about the hordes of EU migrants entering the UK, I feel targeted. When people call for an end of “the open border policy”, I feel like they want to get rid of me. When people demand “Britain is for British people”, I feel that I do not fit in. Yet, I love Britain. I love living here. I would like to think that I have made a contribution to this country (well, I pay taxes, I volunteer, I have so far been lucky to not need expensive medical treatment or rely on benefits), and I work in a job where I teach many young people about international politics.

So what is this blog about? As I said at the beginning, this blog is about me. I have had a wonderful time living in the UK, a country I have learnt to love and to call home. Yet, every time people argue that foreigners are taking this country over, I feel like they are talking about me. Whenever someone wants to end immigration, I feel targeted. What is for many an abstract demand to protect “British values”, is for me an attack on my right to stay in this country, to live here with my family and to be happy. Am I an intruder? I would like to think that I am a benefit to this country. Yet, why are immigrants targeted consistently for all things going wrong? How must immigrants feel who are not white, not Christian, not lucky enough to be entrenched in strong supportive social structures? People who came here as asylum seekers, fleeing prosecution, torture, rape, starvation, genocide? Are they intruders?

Turns out that this blog is not really about me after all. What this blog is really about is people. The debate about immigration has completely lost its human dimension. We are not talking about goods in a warehouse. We are talking about people, with their dreams, and their fears, their hopes and their worries. We should never forget this.

*Dr Soeren Keil works as a Reader in Politics and International Relations at Canterbury Christ Church University, UK. His main area of research is territorial autonomy, the Western Balkans and EU enlargement. He is currently an academic adviser to the peace processes in Myanmar (Burma) and Syria, and he has previously given evidence to the British and German government on Western Balkan affairs. Since September 2015, he is the Chair of the Board of Trustees of Samphire.


2 Comments Add yours

  1. Marie Kelly-Thomas says:

    Thank you Soeren you have crystallized what I’ve been thinking and i come from Ireland !


  2. lightgift says:

    Hi Soeren – I received a link to this page from Samphire. I’ve signed up to their new project to help with UASCs. Migration and immigration have always been of interest to me, really since I was a little girl living on the west coast of Ireland. Family History research has brought me and my Curling genes to Kent – after 200 years away. When I moved with my parents to England in the 1960s, there were still signs in guest-house windows saying ‘no blacks or Irish’. I feel very strongly that we are all im/migrants to this remote island. I recently had the opportunity to butt in to a shop conversation which was getting uncomfortable, to say in my ‘received english accent’ ‘well I’m an immigrant too’. It seemed to take the heat out of the situation. The history of the Curlings – and I would suggest most British families – is one of immigration. The original Kent Curlings are thought to have been Jutes or Normans. Humans have been on the move, seeking better environments for themselves and their families. I agree very much with you that we must see individual people not statistics. Generally, when confronted with someone in need, the average Brit is only too keen to help, even when it means putting themselves out. The nation as a whole should be responding similarly. Yes, we may have to ‘put ourselves out’ a bit to accommodate the large numbers currently knocking on the nation’s door, but we have so much in the way of comfort, infrastructure and basic necessities compared with the destitution im/migrants and asylum seekers have experienced.


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