"I don't think that anybody should be entitled to a better life because of where they were born, who they know and what their connections are."
Balvinder Sopal - Actress & Supporter of Kent Refugee Action Network
This story is part of an ongoing project in collaboration with the Kent Refugee Action Network [KRAN]. For this storytelling project, KRAN's youth ambassadors are sitting down with people in their county and asking them about their migration stories and experiences with prejudice. All of us, in one way or another, have a migration story - be it in recent years or hundreds of years ago - and all of us deserve equal opportunity and a safe place to live. Below is a conversation between Rishan, Daniel - both KRAN youth ambassadors and Balvinder Sopal - actor & supporter of KRAN.
WARNING: this conversation contains content that some readers may find distressing
Daniel: Hi. My name is Daniel Habte and I'm from Eritrea. I'm a student, and today I'm here with Bal and Rishan on Folkstone Beach. Okay. So can you tell us about yourself?
Bal: Yes. My name is Balvinder Sopal I am an actress from Gillingham, and I am a British Indian. My dad comes from Africa - Tanzania, Dar es Salaam - and my mom comes from Uttar Pradesh in the north of India. I have a little bit of African culture as well as Indian culture, as well as British culture, which makes up the whole of Balvinder Sopal. I feel very proud that I belong to three different continents. And I love the fact that my parents, they encouraged us to speak Punjabi growing up, we would watch Bollywood movies, Indian TV series, so we would learn bits of the language and be able to sort of speak the language when we went to India to see our cousins.
Daniel: How was your experience growing up in Gillingham as a young girl? Did you face any challenges or racism?
Bal: I don't think I really noticed it when I was growing up, or I didn't pay any attention to it. If somebody had used the 'P word' in my direction or would say things like Oh, yeah, she's really pretty for a 'P' I would take that as a compliment because I'd be like, oh, they're calling me pretty for an Asian person, but we're all beautiful, right? As I've gotten older I've realized that certain events in my life were racist. When I look back, I go, oh, they say things like, Bal smells like Curry and oil. And yeah, my mom cooked Curry and she cooked it in oil... I don't if they were being overtly racist or if they thought that was just ok to say back in the day but my parents were supportive of who we were and our identity.
"For a very long time, the only roles that I played were Muslim women with hijabs, they didn't speak English, they were always victims of domestic abuse or terrorist's wives."
Balvinder Sopal - Actor & Supporter of Kent Refugee Action Network
Daniel: What makes you want to support asylum seeks and refugees?
Bal: I think the answer is really simple. I don't think that anybody should be entitled to a better life because of where they were born, who they know and what their connections are. I think if we have human beings who are in distress or in need of help, we can always offer help. And it doesn't always have to be monetary, just sitting down, having a chat with somebody, giving them your time... This whole thing about borders and countries belonging to people… Humans have always moved around the globe.
Daniel: We all deserve love and support and help. And even me. I was forced to leave my country when I was 14. I left without having the chance to say goodbye to my mom and my little sister. I never knew that one day I would have to leave my country. But it happened. It took me over a year and a half to come here. I never thought that this was something I would experience.
Bal: My father was an economic migrant. He came to England to have a better life. You hear of all these expats going to places like Spain and France and India, and they want to go for a better life. That's okay. But for somebody else to do that, it's a problem. They're immigrants. They're refugees. They're taking our jobs and all this. They just want a better life. There's nothing wrong with anybody wanting a better, more fruitful, happier life.
"I was forced to leave my country when I was 14. I left without having the chance to say goodbye to my mom and my little sister."
Daniel - KRAN Youth Ambassador
Daniel: So my next question is, why do you want to support the Kent Refugee Action Network?
Bal: I was really impressed by the social media presence of KRAN. Bridget Chapman, is a master on Twitter. And I just love the things that she tweeted. And it's local. And I thought, if I want to make a difference, I can start to make a difference locally.
Daniel: You know, no matter how small or big it is, we all face, in our day, struggle. And we need support in our bad days. I came from Eritrea and I came all the way through Ethiopia, Sudan, Libya, Italy and France, all at the age of 14. So I know those struggles. I know the feelings. And I've seen so many things, people left behind, starving, women getting raped. Really bad and horrible things you never wish on anyone. And I don't want it to happen to anyone. And I just want to support people who face struggles, no matter how big it is. Some people, when they get here [to the UK], they face the struggle from the government. They don't give them the right to stay in the country because they are 'illegal'. Which means they're not allowed to work, they're not allowed to get a house or they're not allowed to get anything. And that makes them more stressed because they already have been struggling to get here. So that's what makes me support people. And that is why I am one of the youth ambassadors for KRAN, I help young people in crisis. I really want to help people. I really want to help.
Bal: You are not going to lose out by helping someone who comes to the UK. Instead, you can gain friendship, you can gain an understanding of another person’s culture, you can gain an understanding of who they are. And it makes you look at yourself and question your potential is as a human being.
Daniel: When you do something for people, you feel good about it.
Bal: Exactly. And like I said before, it doesn't have to be financially. It can just be just sitting down and listening to someone.
"What I really want people to know is that we are really trying our best to contribute to this country."
Rishan - KRAN Youth Ambassador
Rishan: What do you think we can do to help people understand the experience of refugees?
Bal: I think we, and you guys as ambassadors, have to tell our stories. If we tell our stories and if people really listen – the attitude towards how we are perceived can change. So, for example, in my career as an actor for a very long time, the only roles that I played were Muslim women with hijabs, they didn't speak English, they were always victims of domestic abuse or terrorist's wives, or they were pushing their daughters into arranged marriages or were part of honour killing storylines. And I was like I'm sick of it because I know I don't come from that sort of family. My family are very encouraging of women in education and making sure that we get a good standing in the community. My sister is a mother, but she's also a career woman. We are not suppressed or oppressed by our culture or our religion. And a few years ago I decided to stop telling those negative stereotypes. I didn't want to tell those stories anymore because I was doing a disservice to the women of my culture and I thought I need to do something about this. My agent thought that I would never get any work and I said So be it. I'm not telling that story. Because If I keep telling that story, that's the only way people are going to see me. And sure enough it changed. I'm now playing Suki Panesar [on Eastenders] and she is a bad-ass.
Rishan: Coming to the UK I've been placed with a foster family and I had the support from my foster family, I had the support from my social worker, but many of my friends who are refugees don't have this access. But I can see them, they want to work, they want to get educated, they want to do these things, but not having this support, it is hard for them. But then you hear people say You're not doing anything - it's wrong, because my friends tried but they cannot get access to those opportunities. What I really want people to know is that we are really trying our best to be contribute to this country. I'm working really hard to be adult nurse and working with the NHS that's what I really wanted because as Daniel said earlier I want to give back not just only for the country but to support people the same way I became I've been supported.