“A refugee is… my wonderful mum”

Suzanne shares her refugee mum’s story of resistance, hope, and the solidarity she found in Port Talbot, Wales.

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© Suzanne D.

 

A refugee is my wonderful mum, a vibrant, caring, intelligent, outgoing person who at 10 years old was abruptly displaced from her home in Spain during the Spanish Civil War where she escaped from fascism and persecution for a new beginning and better future in a welcoming country, our Wales.

My mum, Olga, was a passionate, bright, colourful personality who cared deeply about world affairs and frequently voiced her opinions on social injustice, something she instilled in my brother and I. She was a larger than life character; wise, exuberant, tolerant, and fun. She was also forced to flee her country of birth, twice.

Olga was born in Spain but in 1937, during the Spanish Civil war, she fled alongside her parents, aunt and younger brother. Her father Josè’s involvement with the republican government and his resistance to fascism made it difficult for my family to stay, and my mum experienced what it was like to be a refugee for the first time.

Josè, my grandfather, was a school teacher, humanitarian and pacifist. From 1937 he ran a war resisters international safe house and school for refugee children in Prats De Mollo Perpignan, France; however in 1940 he was arrested and sent to a concentration camp in France. He eventually escaped after two years, and later died in exile in Mexico.

Suzanne’s mother and father.

In 1940, the same year her father was arrested, my then-15-year-old mother, her aunt and younger brother were sent back to Spain under an agreement between the Spanish dictator Franco and his regime, and the Nazi occupied French authorities. My family lived in constant fear in Spain, afraid of reprisals as a result of Josè’s noble actions. This caused my family to move around Spain often: travelling to different regions where people did not recognise them or know of their republican-linked past.

Eventually, my mother and her brother managed to leave Franco’s Spain. Her brother travelled to Mexico to reunite with their father before he died, while my mum came to the UK and eventually settled in Pyle, South Wales, where she stayed until her death aged 80.

Mum always felt very welcome in Pyle, something I want every refugee to experience. Our parents made a good life for themselves and contributed locally to society, and loved to travel. My dad was a design engineer in the steel works in Port Talbot, and Mum was a nurse, then a seamstress and Spanish teacher after my brother and I were born.

When asked, Mum always said that she attended the ‘University of Life’, as she had been forced to leave school abruptly when she was just 14 due to the war. Despite her troubled and tragic circumstances as a young girl, she had a very positive and cheerful outlook on life.

Both of my parents fought for what they believed was right: they were involved in the Ban the Bomb events in the 70s and 80s, attending anti-war rallies over the decades, and were very supportive of the Welsh Miners by helping raise money and discreetly providing food for neighbours and locals during harder times.

Olga at a ‘Stop the War’ demonstration.

I think it’s very important to recognise that refugees come from many different backgrounds and circumstances. Every refugee’s story is precious.

This particular story is not only part of my family’s history, but part of our social history and needs to be remembered. I hope that the atrocities leading up to many people becoming refugees do not repeat themselves, but instead help people to empathise with refugees today.

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