Finding financial wellbeing when… you experience financial hardship in an immigrant family

by | Jul 8, 2021 | Articles, Debt, Finding Financial Wellbeing When..., Wellbeing

By Melody Askari

My parents came to the UK in the mid-’70s to study. They intended on returning home to Iran after they graduated, but like so many Iranians in the UK (the 2017 census found there were approximately 70,000 Persian Iranians here) as the Iranian Revolution took hold, they were forced to seek asylum, and so their planned futures suddenly became a blank space. Their support networks reduced from large extended families and old friends, established routines and pathways, to their Iranian student peers, most of them barely in their 20’s and living in a foreign land with little imminent chance of return.

For my parents, assimilating to life in the UK with three young children was unexpected and unplanned. The pull of the diaspora to maintain traditional cultural customs and expectations, and of course my parent’s unconscious need to keep alive their own sense of self, was understandably strong. For me and my siblings, as with many children of immigrant parents, walking the cultural tightrope between our inherited genetic & cultural roots and our lived present was tricky. There was no manual, no user guide, and as a family, we often got it wrong. The residual trauma from our collective experience was never articulated, but it filtered through all aspects of our family life only appearing as fully formed trauma at the precise moment we lost everything. It’s taken a decade in the aftermath to unravel.

When our financial house of cards started to crumble in the early 2000s, culminating in an avalanche of bankruptcies and repossessions, it was of course in part because we made unbelievably bad financial and business decisions on the cusp of the 2008 recession, but it was also partly because we were driven by something deeper, this unspoken need to succeed in our adopted home. The ultimate vision of success meant not only money in the bank but the outward perception of financial wealth. It meant myself and my siblings having access to the things my parents didn’t have growing up. A university education, an upwardly mobile executive career, a good respected culturally appropriate marriage. A house, each. We continually measured ourselves against the diaspora who, in the absence of other deeply rooted sense of belonging and community, very much used material wealth to determine ‘success’. I am sure those families did the same as us, outdoing each other with the slightly more successful son or daughter, the slightly better degree from the slightly better university, the slightly bigger house, the better car, the fancier gold jewelry.

It was not only the perception of wealth that drove us, the obsession with each of those things, a home, an education, a career, were also ways to strengthen our small family unit, a way to create roots, a way to push our feet firmly into the ground, to hold on, to claim a stake in the country we had worked and contributed to in our own way. We wanted to belong, to fit in, to make the best of the unchartered territory. To thrive. To show the world we could do it. The trouble was that we didn’t really know what we were doing as we embarked on these financial and emotional risks. We had no support network to give us advice, or to say no, to tell us the risk was too high, that the consequences were too steep. We were going it alone, as do so many immigrant families across the globe, living the immigrant version of ‘Keeping up with the Joneses’ whilst also trying to manifest a better life for ourselves too, in our tiny family unit of 5. We almost didn’t make it.

But here we are, a decade after the flood of financial misery, we are all back on our feet, we have roofs over our heads, we each have careers, we are calm in our bodies and minds. Our family gatherings are joyful and light. There is much laughter. But I am still struck by how much our experience as an immigrant family influenced both how we created the situation in the first place, and how we managed it in the aftermath. I wonder how many other BAME families might be living the same version of this story, the sleepless nights, the anxiety, the cultural void, the weight of success. I wonder what would have happened if we had been different people, who had different lived experiences. We might, for example, have accessed a charitable debt charity service at the first sign of trouble. There were so many reasons why we didn’t, and why so many other BAME families going through financial hardship don’t, won’t, or can’t. It might not be clear that charitable services exist. There may be additional language barriers, there could be religious reasons; it’s hard to admit you are in significant debt, when your religious beliefs forbid money lending, for example. Traditional gender roles might stop you from knowing the depth of the problem, or from accessing services even if you do. There is often a deep sense of needing to maintain appearances at all costs. The terror of the community finding out, and in some cases, the ostracism that follows is a very real threat, for a family whose network IS the community they live in, it can cripple any attempt to seek help.

In the end, the thing that bought us peace was understanding why and how we had arrived at the place we found ourselves. We had to get to a point where we did this without blame and that took time, space, and understanding. The most important lesson we learned was to put away the shame, to redefine what we considered to be a success, to be happy with the things we did have, to remember to have hope, to regain trust, to seek help, to talk to people, and to breathe.

About Melody:

Melody lives in the Midlands with her very beautiful wife, scruffy dog, and 2 rescue chickens. In her spare time, she is an enthusiastic but dreadful gardener and a very slow long-distance hiker who hates hills. When she isn’t huffing and puffing her way up or down a mountainside, she spends her time reading, writing, or napping. Melody talks about her financial experiences on her Instagram @pennilesspersian