It can be tempting to look back at the men and women of history who have accomplished something great and noble and, in seeing the whole picture and the way things turned out, not realise exactly how hard it was at the time. We watch Hollywood dramatisations and glamourisations, and long for the same level of adventure and excitement.
But as I watched the film Oranges and Sunshine about the work of Margaret Humphreys, British social worker from Nottingham, I didn’t long for the death threats and heartache that woman went through.
From 1987 for a number of years that followed, Margaret bravely fought to uncover the truth behind up to 130,000 British children in care who were deported to Australia, Canada, New Zealand and Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe) among other Commonwealth countries. These were forced migrations, with children as young as three years old being told that their parents had died (often untrue) and often facing all kinds of hardship and abuse in the children’s homes they ended up in.
Then grown up, these children started seeking out Margaret for help in finding their parents, their past and their identity. Who are we, they asked, often discovering living parents they long thought were dead or forgotten names on original birth certificates from a country they’d never seen.
It took years for governments and social bodies to recognise the mistakes, apologise for the abuse and offer any kind of recompense for what these children had been through. During which time Margaret had to spend weeks away from her own children, receiving threatening calls of physical danger, and not know which way things were going to go, whether the sleepless nights and middle of the night calls from Australia to Britain to speak to her children were worth it. The stress took its toll on her body, suffering mental and physical illness.
There is a beautiful, heart-breaking scene in the film where Margaret has to face the children’s home where one of her clients was abused, and she is overcome by emotion with him outside. He remains quite calm and dry-eyed, saying simply he has no tears yet to cry, and that’s why they love her so much – she cries for them, she feels their pain for them. Whether or not she succeeded in her task to bring this wrong to light, he felt what she was doing was more than anyone had ever done for them.
More: visit the Child Migrant’s Trust Margaret founded here