“No, I wasn’t somebody just to be picked on” — Part 2: My life as a Moroccan child immigrant in 70s England

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This is the second part of Noor’s story. Noor is sharing her experience as an immigrant child who came to England in the 70s from Morocco. At the time, Noor was still grappling with the English language and finding her place in High School. This article contains strong and racially offensive language.

In 1976 we moved to Poplar in London. One thing I remember is a Saturday market full of hustle and bustle, with working class people grabbing bargains under a wave of brightly coloured merchandise. We had moved into a four bedroomed Maisonette, not far from our new secondary school. We lived amongst a majority white community, but there was one black family who befriended my sister and I.

It was February and incredibly cold. I remember walking to my new school that day with dread and fear twisting inside me. All that I could do was anticipate the worst things that could happen to me at the new school. The thought of having to face 30 children, not understanding much English, and trying to make sense of the school timetable, was nauseating.

The school’s main building was Victorian, and my form room was in a slightly more modern side-building built in the 1960s. In my form class, there was one black child and myself amongst white children, so, needless to say, I felt that I stood out for the wrong reasons. 

The teacher allocated me a buddy, a fellow classmate to take me to classes and show me around. The reality was somewhat different though. My “buddy” would delight in taking me to the furthest point from where I needed to be, leave me there and run off. I would spend the next hour trying to get my bearings. It would often result in the school secretary finding me and sending me to the right place. After some time the school swapped the buddy by alternating other girls, some who took the role more seriously than others. Nonetheless 

I was settling in by myself, without friends but finding my way. 

In the middle of the school year, a new girl joined our class. I noticed that the other girls were enjoying bossing her around, telling her exactly which chores she needed to do such as fetching something for them, and sharpening their pencils. I said to her quietly “You don’t need to do that, you know you can just say no” and from then on, she and I became best friends. 

Later on in the year another girl joined the class from Bangladesh and she slotted into our friendship group too, followed by  a Turkish girl, a girl from China and another one from Yemen. It was nice at this time to have finally formed a friendship group, our peers left us alone when we were all together, and it was such a wonderful feeling.

Noor 4
Noor and her friends at high school. © Noor

In the second year of High school, I took an interest in contemporary dance and I encouraged one of my sisters to join me as well. She soon began to outshine me and was obviously very gifted. Partway through my second year, I did find that I had started to communicate more. I even started to feel that I was somebody valuable in the school! My confidence was cautiously growing. No, I wasn’t somebody to just be picked on. 

I can vividly remember two skinheads from my class who were very friendly to me in the classroom, we’d chat and do our work together. But in the playground, their whole attitude would switch and they’d morph into playground bullies. They would taunt me, chase me, all while shouting racist slurs at me. I just didn’t understand why they’d change to this outside, then switch back in the classroom to being friendly.

One day I asked them, in my broken English: “Can I just ask, why? When you know I am not from Pakistan. I am from Morocco, why do you call me a Paki?” 

They just shrugged it off in the classroom and continued their playground torment. It was so odd that they continued to be friendly in the classroom and verbally abusive in the playground. I did not get it.

Aside from that, I felt that I had made a place for myself and things were looking up. By the end of the second year, I had started to take an interest in learning and doing the best that I could in every subject. I was lucky to have had quite a lot of teachers who were always willing to listen to my suggestions for adapting projects to match my abilities and interests. 

I had to figure out all the homework on my own, as my mum didn’t understand the English language. Somehow I managed to plough through, and always managed to obtain good grades. In particular, I remember a brilliant history teacher who taught us about the slave trade. I remember also learning about feminism; it was quite a radical school really, where traditional gender roles were not spoken about. It was also one of the few schools that took dance seriously and even taught dance A Level, unusual for its time. 

Noor
© Noor

By the end of the second year I had perfected my dance technique and choreography, and became one of the best performing dancers in the school who choreographed one’s own dance pieces. I believe that dance was the language that I was able to communicate in where language failed me. We had two wonderful dance teachers who made us feel like Ballet Russes! However, we didn’t have a proper theatre and we had to perform in the assembly hall. 

One of my dance teachers invited three of us students to her home for lunch. She made us baked beans on toast. I remember leaving her home and realising that my teacher’s house was the first British home that I had been to, and what an interesting and strange lunch it was! 

One teacher however sticks out as being rather cruel; it was my cookery teacher. They forced me to cook pork sausages. I was distressed at having to touch the meat and crying as I had to cook it, but my teacher could not understand what I was so upset about.

At school we were not allowed to speak in Arabic with other Arabic children, because we were told it would interfere with our English learning. When another Moroccan joined the school, they were all dispersed into different classrooms. 

Then I developed an interest in boys. There was infact one boy who I was madly in love with, but my mum had reminded me that as a Muslim girl, I wasn’t allowed to have a boyfriend. Any boys who did ask to take me out were rejected due to my faith. Truthfully, this rather suited me, as really I was scared of boys in any romantic context.

The cultural clashes were ongoing, but school life had begun to feel calm, rewarding and promising.

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