The other evening I was at home relaxing, watching television and an old episode of ‘Airport’ came on. I always enjoyed the series. It always reminds me of my times of travel and excitement and of seeing people bustling on the concourse and feeling my hopes rising and feeling as though my dreams are appearing through the mist of uncertainty and becoming more solid.
Watching the screen you see such a diversity of travellers and then all the staff of Heathrow (or it could be any airport really). The end credits to the film ‘Love Actually’ always come to mind as well when watching this program.
The episode trundled along and we saw an American from Chicago who had to be cautioned by the Police because he had made a joke about ‘a sub-machine gun in his violin case’ and then some very angry travellers being refused ‘exit seats’ because they hadn’t pre-arranged anything even though apparently, by European Law, ‘disabled’ seats had to be provided for children or special needs people.
Then … something strange started to happen. I started to have feelings of empathy on a different level. I started to feel uncomfortable as I watched events unfold. Normally these things wash over us don’t they but now, it didn’t. Everything I saw and was watching took on a new perspective. This program is all about emotions.
A Nigerian woman was up next. She had presented a Passport and the Immigration Officer was talking to her. The woman seemed to be in her mid forties, clean and smartly dressed in a lilac 2 piece suit and seemed very quiet and reserved. The Immigration Official, a young man, was quite brusquely asking her questions about the reason for her visit. As he asked his questions he looked away from her. He didn’t, couldn’t hold eye contact or even engage with her through his eyes. He wasn’t taking any notice of her whatsoever. He was ‘not present’ with her but was only ‘present’ with himself. His vocal tone and body language were all wrong. His demeanour was negative and his attitude very obtuse.
He told the woman to take a seat and went to see his colleague. Eventually, he returned to the woman and told her he was going to take some pictures of her and compare the pictures with the photographs in the Passport.
I have NO explanation as to why he should have to do this as she was very, very clearly not the woman in the Passport Photograph but … he had his due process to go through I suppose.
This episode was now making me feel very uncomfortable. It was apparent that the Immigration Official was neither sympathetic but, crucially for me, that he was so emotionally ignorant. He just didn’t know any better.
Now, try this. Put yourself in that woman’s position. You are from Nigeria, probably either very poor or escaping from some threatening situation. You are flying to a foreign country where you know no one at all. You don’t know the culture. You only have a small ‘carry-on’ luggage case so your possessions are virtually nil. How does that make you feel to start with?
Next, you know you don’t have a Passport of your own but a friend has purloined one. In your desperation you accept it. You know there are at least 2 checks going to be made on this escape journey.
The first check happens at the ‘Check-in’ Desk in Nigeria. You approach the Immigration desk hand your Passport and airline ticket over and you are checked in. The staff there are not really bothered if another poor person is leaving as it means more room for them in a desperate country. So, you pass through and on to the airplane. Your stress levels must be so very high. Anxiety, stress, fear, worry, trepidation. As you sit in your seat on the airplane your stress levels start to fall. You feel relieved, perhaps elated, happy but still a little suspicious. You now need the airplane to get off the ground. To leave that world behind. To leave those fears, perhaps horrors, perhaps terrors behind.
The journey is wonderful. You are treated as a human being by the airplane staff but after a few hours you know you are approaching the second stage. The Flight Captain announces you are on final approach to Heathrow Airport, London. The weather outside is fine and dry and it seems like a nice day.
The airplane lands and your anxiety levels are rising. You are starting to be filled with apprehension, trepidation, fear of the unknown.
Disembarkation. You file off the airplane with your meagre possessions. Confused and fretful you approach the Immigration Desk and you are confronted by this Official.
The drama played out on my television screen and I was so in-tune with this woman. Empathy is a wonderful thing if you can handle its depths but this was very uncomfortable and very revealing for me personally.
As a former Police Officer I remembered that position of authority, of power, of control. As a businessman now I understand pressure, compliance, compromise and tolerance. As a man, I better understand now my compassion, empathy, connectedness, feelings and emotions.
It was not her Passport. She knew it and so too did the Immigration Official. Yes, it was a television program but I have no doubt whatsoever that this ‘drama’ is played out day after day after day after day and in every International Port, whether sea or air.
The woman apparently, volunteered to return to Nigeria, to that land and environment she had been trying to escape from for whatever reason.
The Immigration Official would continue his work with the relish he showed in the program.
I now just hope, I do sincerely hope, that since the making of that program, some years ago now, he will have gained some measure, some level, of emotional intelligence and awareness and is treating people a little differently.
Empathy, a wonderful thing ~ a wonderful aspect of emotional intelligence ~ a wonderful aspect of our enlightenment through emotional awareness ~ if only we can handle and understand its depths.
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