Written by Nina Camara
In Liminal Space is a series of interviews in which I want to highlight the experiences of people who have decided to leave an environment which did not reflect their story for a liminal space ‘between the known and the unknown’, in order to put their past behind them and create a new beginning somewhere else.
This second story is about Samira, who after early childhood in the Czech capital, moved with her family to a rural area even less used to seeing anyone like her. Talking to her brought many flashbacks to my own past growing up in Slovakia and made me reflect on the things in my past that I could not change back then. It is encouraging to see that some positive changes are finally taking place.
Life back home
Describe the place where you grew up. What was it like in terms of cultural and ethnic make-up?
I was born in Prague, which is the capital of Czech Republic, and lived there until I was eight years old. From what I remember I never actually knew any people of colour, I didn’t know any black people and I don’t remember ever seeing anyone who would look like me. Then when I was eight we moved to a village where my mum was born which is a four-hour drive from the capital and that was just [laughs]. I mean you can imagine what it is like to live in a village in Eastern Europe. I would see Vietnamese people here and there but no one else. I don’t remember seeing any black people at the time even in Prague. The only people that I would see that looked like me were my sister, my brother and my dad.
How did you feel growing up in this community?
The way I always describe it to anyone who asks me is that you literally feel like an alien. You feel alienated, there is no other word to describe it because they look at you and treat you like you are from another planet and they just treat you that way anywhere you go – in school, in a shop, when you’re walking down the street…
The only safe space for me was my room that I shared with my sister. Any time I walked out of my house I would get the looks, I would get the comments. Also, I didn’t appreciate the way teachers spoke to me in school, when there were school performances I would get the worst role, when there was a beauty pageant I would come last. They would never pick me for anything.
In the shop, it is the way cashiers would treat you or security guards following me around for no reason. I felt alienated and isolated, didn’t see anybody like myself, only when I watched music videos on TV, American movies or videos on YouTube, I would see something that I felt connected to but in real life there was nothing. You’re just an alien and it affects your confidence a lot.
How did people react when they first met you?
I always noticed their surprise. Sometimes it was in a good way, like ‘you are very beautiful’ but some people just looked at me like ‘what is that, I have never seen this in my life’. What sometimes happens to me now is that I go to see a doctor or I go to book accommodation and speak in Czech but people are still staring at me and they look so confused and they can’t get their head around the fact that I actually speak Czech. Some of them continue to speak in English, some of them ask again if I understand them. I am just standing there like ‘listen, I was born here’. They are always surprised or shocked. Some of them make comments, usually older men but sometimes also young guys.
When you now return home and compare your experiences from back then, are they different? Has anything improved?
If I talk about the village where we moved from Prague, not much has changed over there. It’s only because I grew up there most people know me, as everyone knows each other. So, they are not so surprised or shocked when they see me, but some of them still make comments. For the most part, it’s still the same. My brother still lives there and is going through the same issues as I used to. However, if I talk about Prague I can see a small improvement because there is a lot of international students and tourists. So, if you spend time in the centre you don’t feel strange as I would feel back then but still, I am still very self-conscious because most of the time I am still the only person of colour on the bus, on the train or in the shop. Subconsciously, I am always ready for something to happen because I always hear so many stories.
How long ago did you leave and what motivated you?
I came here in 2013. To be honest, the memories of my teenage years are kind of blurred, as it happens when you go through a traumatic experience. I was just really struggling with finding a job, I didn’t go to university and had just finished high school and didn’t really know what to do with myself. I heard of this opportunity to work as an au pair in the UK or like a live-in nanny for all kinds of families. The thing that stuck with me, even though I was just 19 and not aware of many things, was that I was particularly looking for a black family. I just wanted to come here and work for a black family, that was my kind of escape.
When you finally found that family what was it like?
Basically, I didn’t know what I was going for. The family was Nigerian, and they were very Nigerian and had their traditions and ways of doing things. I didn’t know much about that culture, so I have learnt a lot but at the same time… I mean, sometimes they would make me feel accepted but there were times when they’d also make me feel like, because I’m not fully black, I don’t belong neither. But still, it has helped me on the journey of finding myself and I definitely felt more comfortable with them than I ever felt in Czech Republic. It was hard but that was more to do with the way the family was set up than with the fact they were black. Children were spoilt, so that was hard. In terms of identity, it still left me feeling a bit confused however, I felt a bit better about myself.
Do you have plans to return to Czech Republic?
No, I am not planning to return. I mean, I go there quite often because I have lots of friends and I like going there for like a holiday just to chill out but to live and settle down – no way. I would never want to bring my children into a culture and society like that. So no, I’m not planning to go back.
One interesting thing that you have done at home after you left, which is a paradox, is founding the group for Czech and Slovak people of colour. What motivated you to do it after you actually left?
I followed stuff like ‘dark skinned girls’ and ‘black couples’ on Instagram and all these kinds of pages which give you a feeling of being represented. My group, Afrika kids CZ SK, originally started as an Instagram page. I was always thinking that in Czech Republic there is actually nothing for people of colour, black or mixed race, no representation, no safe space, no place where we can really express ourselves. So, I created the Instagram page and started posting pictures of people whom I knew like some of my friends and slowly started adding more and more people. That was two years ago and today we have more than a thousand followers and almost 300 people in the Facebook group, so the community has been growing, we do meetups regularly and there are always 20-30 people and we always have fun. It’s been going well.
I didn’t have a chance to grow up with my father who is originally from Congo, that’s why it is so important for me to be around people who are also half black or black, so I can discover the community and understand things a bit more. The way people support each other in this group is indescribable and I appreciate every event that we’ve already had and I’m looking forward to more in future.
How did people react when they suddenly had this space?
They liked the Instagram page, the fact they can see themselves and get to know who lives around them and where they can find people very similar to them. Then I founded the Facebook group. When we started discussing different issues, it would sometimes get a bit tense, at the meetups it was a bit awkward in the beginning and people didn’t really know how to feel about it. They have never experienced anything like that before, all of them probably felt isolated and some of them subconsciously probably felt like ‘this is not something that I need or even deserve’ to some extent.
As time went by and we did more and more, people kept coming and we are now like a big group of friends. They sometimes tell me things like ‘I saw someone on the train whom I know from the group’ or ‘if I see someone who is cool I tell them we have our community’ so now more of them are happy and most of them like it. Of course, you will find people who criticise us and claim that we are excluding ourselves from Czech society and what we are doing is actually racist, not what they are doing to us. You get a mix of everything, but the majority of feedback is always positive, and people are always happy when we meet up and we get to see each other, talk and share experiences. You can just see that they have finally found a safe space and it feels more like home for them.
I am there for black feeling. It is hard to explain, but when you grow up with white people and you are black… When you get some black friends, who understand all of your issues and they don’t need any special explanation… you just feel it. And also, for the parties because they are lit!
Life in a new place
How was it getting used to life in London?
When I first came, of course, I had a bit of a culture shock. It was a new environment so I had to get used to everything. Sometimes I would take a bus which took me to the other side of London which was not intended [laughs]. So, I had to learn lots of new things, also get confident to move around London and talk to people. The past couple of years helped me to develop myself, my personality and my confidence a lot and opened my eyes to things that I didn’t see before, especially with regards to racism, identity and these kind of issues that we also have in Czech republic.
Suddenly, I came to a place where nobody was looking at me in a strange way and no one was calling me names. Everyone was just treating me normally. I would see people who are like me every day, so of course, it changed the way I felt about myself and just the feeling of freedom that came opened my eyes a lot. I started to look more into African history, the system that we live in, and realised so many things. I think that was also one of the things that inspired me to set up the group. I would always reflect on the time when I was living in Czech Republic and how people treated me and why. It all came together and made sense. So, I’m very happy that I moved here.
Was there anything that surprised you about this place?
I think that for everyone who comes here, in the beginning, you are just surprised by, I don’t want to exaggerate, but I would say kindness and the way people are just open towards each other, although it’s not always the case.
In terms of my identity, when I was growing up in Czech Republic, I was black, everyone would just call me black, but here I was suddenly mixed race and I was not black enough and also not black anymore. So, that was another confusion – ‘they don’t see me as black so who am I then?’ – that question came up again which surprised me.
If you could sum it up, in what way did living in a multicultural environment change you?
I would say that for me, personally, it was my confidence. My confidence and my self- esteem were really, really low because of the experiences I had growing up. Living in a multicultural environment has helped me to expand my thinking and to see that everyone is different and it’s OK and it’s beautiful. They never made me feel like I am beautiful in Czech Republic, so I never felt that way. It helped me gain my confidence and find myself as well. I think that anyone who moves from their home country to another country is going through like a school of life, it helps you to find yourself and opens your mind. It was a life experience which definitely made me wiser and able to see things from a different perspective and make more sense out of life. When I was living in Czech Republic, I didn’t understand what was going on but now it all makes sense and I can identify my issues and move on.
Is there anything you miss from your home?
Some of the food my family used to cook. Well, it’s not that deep, I can live without the food. Or housing – houses and flats in Czech Republic are built in a different way than here in London. Here there are a lot of people living in a very small space. Sometimes I miss the amount of space we have and access to nature but it’s not like something I can’t live without and that would make me really sad. I miss my friends that I made through the group, I wish I could spend more time with them but there is nothing that would make me go back [laughs].