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Oral History Interview - Frances Howe


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Audio recording of an oral history interview with Frances Howe, who came to Britain from Montserrat following the volcano disaster there in 1996.


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Q. Can you tell me your age and where you are from?

FRANCES HOWE(FH): I am Frances Howe from Dominica and I have been residing in Montserrat.

Q. You have been here for a year now Frances, what was it that brought you to Britain from Montserrat?

FH: Due to the volcano crisis in Montserrat, I decided to relocate to Britain.

Q. Many people would not be familiar with what the “volcano crisis” was. Can you describe it, from the moment that you decided to relocate? What exactly happened?

FH: Well the volcano crisis began in July 1995. We got up one morning and a noise was heard all over the island. We wondered what was happening and we were told by the Governor that it was something to do with the volcano and shortly after, we signed on the scheme. Since then everybody’s life has changed in Montserrat. For me personally, my life has changed extremely because nothing has been the same since. Afterwards, we woke up to find ash outside every morning. No one knew where to turn and we were always wondering what was going to happen. We were relocated to the other side of the island. It was very hard because some people were living in shelters but I was living at a friend’s home. Times were difficult because you had one room for your whole family, you had lost your job and you did not know when you were going to return back to your home. As I was born in Dominica, I decided to relocate to Dominica and I went over. I returned to Montserrat and my work had closed down for good. There was nowhere else to turn to so I decided to relocate to Britain.

Q. What work were you doing in Montserrat?

FH: I was a supervisor in a shop.

Q. How much choice did you have in your place of relocation? Could you choose between Britain and the States or was there no option?

FH: At the time that I relocated to Britain, the States was not an option. I had only one option at that time, which was Britain.

Q. So you came to Britain? What were your expectations once you set out from Montserrat to come to Britain? The link between Britain and Montserrat is a very old one so to what extent did you feel that you were sort of coming to a “Mother Country”?

FH: Well, it all depended on what we had heard from the Government. We were told that when we came to Britain, we would get homes and our children would be able to go to school and that generally we would be okay. However, on arriving in Britain, it was a completely different story At first when I arrived at the airport, the immigration officer said, “Can I see your papers?” and I said that our papers were supposed to be here, arranged by the
Government. I was told to stand aside while the immigration officer went to check. She came back and said “okay, your papers are here and we are stamping them for two years”. We did not know what was going to happen afterwards. The next morning we were supposed to go to
Social Services and when we arrived there we had a long wait again because they too wanted to check our papers etc. We didn’t know where next to turn. Getting a school for my daughter was very difficult. The Governor of Montserrat assured us that it would not be a problem. I ended up going to one of the Education Boards in Haringey to register my daughter. They said they would find her a school. I asked about getting help with her school uniform and they said “okay”. I did not hear from them until (I came in 1997) January 1998 when they told me they had found a school. At that stage I had already found a school myself, the Old Lady’s Convent in Stamford Hill. When I found this school, I went back to Haringey and asked for help to prepare my daughter for school. However, they said “no” because she had not just started school. I explained that we were from Montserrat and the circumstances we were in, of having little money. However, they said that they could not help because she was in her 10th year. So here I was again, struggling to get her into school, and to get her school clothes etc.

Q. So your daughter now goes to that school?

FR: Yes.

Q. So you have this link with Hackney. Do you actually live in Hackney?

FH: No, I do not live in the Borough of Hackney. I found it was so easy to get help from
Hackney, I decided that my daughter would go to school in Hackney and so I do a lot of other things in Hackney. I go to college in Hackney. I found it very difficult to get along in Haringey.

Q. Do you have any family around in Britain?

FR: I first came to stay with a friend of mine who was living in Montserrat and who was also relocated following the volcano crisis. To find a house in Hackney was difficult because they kept me waiting for at least a month or more until I could be re-housed. I had to go private. I am having a lot of trouble with the private sector but I am trying to be re-housed in

Q. What do you make of the Caribbean people that you have met here? How much do they differ from the Caribbean people that you met back in Montserrat?

FH: Some of them have changed quite a lot. I have met a few Dominicans, I feel very comfortable around them. I feel very happy. We have not lost touch yet and I have met a few
Montserratians and they are the same warm, friendly people.

Q. What about the Caribbean people who have lived in Britain for some time? Are they different from people living in the Caribbean?

FR: Some of them have changed because they say “well we came to Britain first, you all have it easy because when we came to Britain first, we had to rent little houses and we had to struggle in the cold without central heating”. So I think it is a big change that I have all these things now which they did not have.

Q. You have been relocated and have been here for a year now...

FR: I do miss Montserrat very much. Words cannot describe how much because nothing here is the same and you sometimes wish that the volcano would resolve itself so that we could go back home.

Q. However, that is not going to happen straight away, so what are your ambitions while you are in this country?

FH: Well, hopefully to study Social Care Work.

Q. Is that something that you would wish to do if the opportunity arose for you to return to your island?

FH: Yes, I would very much like to deal with people because since the volcano crisis, I realise that there are so many people that you can help, especially the elderly. They have had to move from home to home and some of them had no help at all and it was very difficult finding help for them. So, I would like to learn these skills.

Q. When people first started coming to the UK from the Caribbean they experienced racial prejudice. Have you experienced racial prejudice?

FH: No, I have not. Though, sometimes you tend to wonder, because sometimes you are in a situation and people look at you a certain way or you say “morning” and they do not answer.
Lately, however, I have realised that this is just their style. I have found that people are generally friendly.

I tend to have a sense of freedom being in Britain and feel at home because you see black people around and white people are very friendly, if you get to know them.

ED: Is there a positive side of Britain?

FH: The positive side of Britain is that you build a sense that you never had in dealing with people. You become brave to walk the streets late at night, as you never know what is going to happen. I think it has made me a brave person and also opportunities in going back to school are very positive.

Q. What would you say the negative side of Britain is?

FR: Negative? Well, in my area (we live in Haringey on Seven Sisters Road) I am afraid of the prostitution. I have never seen it so boldly and you see young girls on the street and I have a 15-year old daughter who is very scared. I am also afraid to travel on the trains. This is negative because, on the trains, the security is not good and although there may be people on the train at the time, you never know who you are sitting opposite to and so that gets me very scared.