Blog entry by Astrid Dinneen
Anyone in the world
By Lynne Chinnery
In this three-part autobiographical blog, Hampshire EMTAS Specialist Teacher Advisor Lynne Chinnery takes us on a journey to Libya where she reminisces about the challenges and opportunities of moving to a country so drastically different to her own. In Part 1 and Part 2 we experienced Lynne's culture shock when she first arrived in Libya and read how she eventually found her place. In this final chapter Lynne focusses on her children and the decisions she had to make for the best of her family.
Part 3: Our children
We had made a conscious decision to bring our three children up bilingually from the very beginning as we could see the amazing benefits bilingualism could bring them. And so I mostly spoke to Sami, Leyla and Idris in English and my husband spoke to them in Arabic. As they spent more time with me when they were little, my husband would insist that they spoke to him in Arabic to ensure that they progressed in this language as much as in English. He did this in a playful way, pretending that he didn’t understand them whenever they spoke to him in English and they found this very funny as they knew that his English was really very good. They would use either language when talking to each other, often switching depending on who they were with, but there were some words that, as a family, we always tended to use only in one language or the other because they felt so much better in that language. For example, we’ve always referred to flip-flops or slippers as “shib-shib”, and shout “khalas” when we want someone to stop something. I’ve noticed many bilingual families do the same. Gaining Arabic literacy skills was not a problem, as all their lessons were in Arabic, and it was exciting but a bit daunting for me to see their writing in their school books in a language that I could barely read. I started teaching our children to read and write in English too as there was little of this taught at their schools. It took a lot of time and effort and I can understand why some parents baulk at the task, especially after a long day at work or school.
The Libyan people were warm and welcoming, many of my students became close friends, and I soon found that I regularly bumped into people in the city centre who I knew or who knew me through our school. I also found that the more my Arabic evolved, the happier I was, as I could ask for things in shops, joke with my neighbours and chat to the people in the doctor’s waiting room or on the bus. My children really helped with my Arabic acquisition as I could listen to them speaking Arabic to each other, and they also interpreted for me when I was stuck. I had made some English-speaking friends as well as my Libyan friends and we would meet on the nearby beach every morning during school holidays, which were wonderfully long. Our children would play and swim together while we chatted and shared food and drinks. It was particularly at times like these that our children seemed complete: running across the sand, climbing rocks and jumping into the clear Mediterranean Sea, code-switching from one language to another – half Libyan, half English but now, for these moments, whole.
Over the fourteen years that I lived in Benghazi, life grew easier. Of course there was some racism, as there is in every country. Some people slowed down in their cars to shout insults at me; some people talked about me rather than to me, thinking I couldn’t understand them; and some people were just hostile because I was a foreigner. But these were few compared to the warmth and generosity of the majority of the community; the friendships they offered assuaged the hurt I felt from any racism I experienced.
Our school flourished and we expanded the number of staff and classrooms. We moved from our small flat into a large, family villa with a surrounding garden that I loved to water at night. Gaddafi eased up on his restrictions on private shops and imports and so a much wider choice of groceries and products became available. Satellites arrived and although the government attempted to outlaw them, they were unsuccessful in doing so; the satellite dishes were being raised as fast as they could dismantle them. Eventually, they gave up and we could watch channels from many other countries, mostly Arab countries like Lebanon and Egypt, which had TV programmes and films in both English and Arabic. We were also finally able to watch world news via CNN and Al Jazeera, giving us a less censored version of current events. My husband and our children were happy watching TV in both languages, but I still craved English programmes as a way of switching off and relaxing in an Arabic world.
As time went on, however, it was actually the education in Libya that caused us the most trouble. By the time we had three children of school age, we found ourselves constantly trying to protect them from being beaten in school. We put them into private schools, which at least gave us the right to complain, but the system was still very old-fashioned: the classes were led by strict teachers who stood at their blackboards and dictated what should be copied down or memorised without any discussion. The pupils were sat in formal rows and if they stepped out of line or even answered incorrectly, a short piece of hose pipe or stick was used to hit them on their hands, and in extreme cases on their feet. I can still remember the fear we felt sending our children into such an environment; as well as the dread I felt when my husband was away and I had to go to the school unaccompanied, often to complain to the head about the corporal punishment being used. This would have been a difficult conversation to have in my first language, let alone in one I was still learning. In fact, I found it very stressful to attend any important meetings without someone there with me, even when my Arabic improved.
Eventually, as the political situation was not improving much and because of our growing concern about our children’s education, we decided that we would move back to the UK and put our children in English schools. The plan was that I would move first with the children and that we would visit Benghazi regularly, while my husband stayed on in Libya until he could get a job with a European airline. I had longed for this moment when I had first started living in Libya, but for a long time since, I had become accustomed to my life there: to our school, our home, our family and friends, my students (many of whom had become friends), and so I had stopped wishing that we could move to England. Now, although a part of me felt excited at the thought of moving back to the UK, another part of me felt that I had been away too long.
On my last trip to England, after a period of nearly four years without visiting, I had felt like a foreigner in the UK. It was a terrible realisation when it happened. I had thought that I still didn’t truly belong in Libya, but then upon visiting the UK, I realised to my horror that I didn’t belong there either. So much had happened while I was away, and this took me by surprise because in my head everything had stayed the same. Of course it would change, everything changes, but we don’t think of this when we are away, just as we don’t think about a child growing up and then we are surprised when we see that they are taller and older than before. But it wasn’t only this - I had changed. And so I suddenly had this awful realisation that I no longer belonged anywhere. I have spoken to other immigrants who have been through the same thing: that longing for home, then finding it so different once there that it no longer felt like home. It is a terrible feeling and one I will never forget. Feeling homeless. It does ease with time, and as I returned to Libya after that visit and continued my life there, I just felt that it was Libya which was becoming home to me more and more and I began to realise that I could see things differently to other people, neither one ‘side’ nor the other, a kind of insight into two worlds that are usually seen as poles apart.
So now, given the opportunity to move back to the UK, possibly for good, the thought of returning to live there was both exciting and frightening. Libya, in comparison, seemed safe – it was what I knew. I thought about it long and hard and decided it was right for us at that time and so we came. My husband visited us several times and we visited Libya too, but eventually he met someone else and we split up. I ensured that our children still kept in regular contact with him and they visited Libya at least once a year in the school holidays throughout their childhood.
Although the break-up of our family was a terrible time for all of us, I have never regretted my move back to the UK, especially in light of the terrible turmoil that has ensued there, just as I have never regretted my decision to move to Libya all those years ago. I learnt so much in Libya: the people taught me to understand other ways of living, of seeing, of understanding the world but they also revealed the similarities we all share: the love of family and friends and the hope for peace and security in our lives. They helped me to truly understand that people are people wherever you go and the majority of them are good.
Many thanks to Lynne Chinnery for sharing her personal story. Resources
for parents can be accessed from our website and on our Moodle.
Parents/carers who speak English as an Additional Language | Hampshire County Council (hants.gov.uk)
[ Modified: Tuesday, 18 October 2022, 2:49 PM ]