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A migrant's life well-lived

J'can woman in UK honoured by Queen

BY INGRID BROWN Associate Editor — Special Assignment browni@jamaicaobserver.com

Monday, August 13, 2012    

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LONDON, England — Eighty-three-year-old Jamaican Gloria Bailey has literally supped with The Queen; but you would never know it just by looking at her as she sits in her home in Thornton Heath, London.

Her unassuming persona belies the tremendous accomplishments of this woman who came all the way from Manchester in Jamaica. The real giveaway is in the numerous awards, pictures, magazine articles, and even a television documentary that feature her good works.

Her house now holds the memories and keepsakes of a migrant's life well lived, selflessly offering her home and love to more than 100 British foster children and making history in the process — along with her late husband —- by being the first black couple in the Lambeth Council in South London to be allowed to foster white children.

Bailey was personally awarded an MBE (Member of the Order of the British Empire) by The Queen three years ago, as the ultimate recognition for the many years of community service she has given to that country. The award is one of the highest that can be conferred on a citizen.

Bailey recalled attending the function at Windsor Castle where the medal was personally presented by Her Majesty The Queen.

"The Queen kept looking at me, and later she asked who did I bring with me today, and I said my son, my daughter and my granddaughter, and she squeezed my hand and said 'that is very nice,' Bailey told the Jamaica Observer.

She is the recipient of a long list of awards including the London Community Award, the Lambeth Council Civic Award, Experience Corps Women of the Year Award, and Parent Governor of Norwood Girls School, to name a few.

But with a gentle smile which warms the heart, Bailey attributes her success to taking the advice given by her father when she migrated to Britain 54 years ago.

"My father said three words would help me get by and that is 'how to live'," Bailey recalled.

And with that, she began the story of how she left her hometown of Devon in Manchester during the tail end of the ''immigration wave which saw thousands of Jamaicans coming here by ships to fill the many vacant positions which were then available to immigrants.

After passing her teacher training, Bailey first established herself as a teacher at the Devon Elementary School where she stayed for three years before relocating to Clarendon where she met and married her now late husband Stanford.

Stanford, who had travelled before to America on the farm work programme, had decided to head for the UK after it was advertised that there were numerous jobs there for migrants.

Bailey landed here in November 1954, at age 30, in the middle of a cold winter, at a time when signs were still posted on certain buildings, saying 'no blacks allowed', and there were no suitable accommodations for migrants.

"At that time there was the Windrush [an immigrant ship from Jamaica] and a lot of people were coming here and all one needed to come is a passport and references," she told the Observer.

Coming to the UK meant the couple had to give up their properly appointed dwelling in Jamaica to share one room with her husband's cousin, who gave up his bed for them and slept on the floor.

As soon as possible, the couple went to the Labour Exchange and joined the long lines to register for a job.

"There were so many people there waiting, but the lady at the desk asked us to stay back for awhile until after the crowd had gone."

The couple was then introduced to a very wealthy man who needed a reliable caretaker for one of his many houses which he wanted to sub-divide and rent to migrants.

Given that most of the jobs for immigrants during the Windrush era were in factories and consisted of mostly manual labour, Bailey said they thought the offer was a perfect one and they readily accepted.

"Although I was a teacher in Jamaica, I was prepared to condescend because of my father's advice on how to live in a foreign country," she said.

A few years later Bailey was the first black person to be employed to the Strand Palace Hotel where she worked as a supervisor to the chambermaids.

"But my husband didn't want me to stay, because people were so excited to see a black person there that they were always coming to pat me," she recalled with that gentle smile.

It didn't take her long to get an even better job, that of a Great Britain telephonist, a position she held for three years before moving to a similar position at the Cunard Steam Ship Company for a five-year stint.

"Being a telephonist was a very interesting job, talking to people; and I remember they would ask me where I am from when they heard my accent," she said.

The couple parented eight children and Bailey boasts that none of them were cared for by others, as the couple ensured they worked on separate shifts.

"When he came through the door, I would already have my coat on, and he would give me a kiss on the check and I would go to my job, and he cared for the kids until I got home... but one thing we always ensured, is that we took our day-offs together," she said.

But even with eight kids in the house, Bailey felt there was so much more she could do and immediately set about getting involved in foster care after seeing a television advertisement requesting persons to sign up as foster parents.

With no hesitation, Bailey said, she quit her job, despite protests from her boss who didn't want to lose her service.

"But I said to him, anyone can do my job, but not everyone will be able to care for kids," she recalled.

This began what was to be a rewarding journey of taking children between the ages of two and 10 years old into her home to live, for many years in some cases.

But the challenge came when Bailey wanted to foster two white siblings who were desperately in need of a home. The Lambeth Council, which maintained a rigid same-race placement policy, denied her request to place the children with them, but Bailey said she waged a legal battle until they relented.

"I remembered one headline in a newspaper read 'black mother with white children', but I didn't care because those kids stayed with me for 14 years and now they are doing very well," she said, with a satisfied smile.

Pictures of many of her foster kids, who all referred to her as Nan, now line the walls alongside those of her birth children.

One special picture is that of a mixed-race boy, who, having been sent to several foster homes, eventually ended up with the Baileys at age six. Bailey recalled that her husband searched until he located the boy's father who was from Sierra Leone. She said they even went to court to speak on his behalf so that the father could get custody of his son.

On their recommendation, Bailey said the father was later granted permission to take the boy to live with him in Sierra Leone.

A few years later, as the war raged in that country, Bailey said she received a desperate call from the British High Commissioner to Sierra Leone who informed her that they were sending out all British subjects including a boy who said he knew her.

"He told me that the war was raging there and many kids were having their hands and feet chopped off... he had found a boy who had been hiding in the bushes, who told him he didn't know if his father was killed, but he can remember the number of the lady who fostered him in Britain.

"Without hesitation, I said, put him on the next plane," she said.

Bailey recalled going to the airport to meet him; and as the memories came flooding back, so did the pain she felt at that moment.

"The BBC was there with us at the airport when we went to get him, and I remembered seeing this six-foot-tall lad coming towards me and he just jumped in my arms and said 'Nan', and I just fell to pieces," she recalled, her eyes still growing misty with tears at the memory.

But when her husband died and Bailey had to give up fostering, she knew there was still more she could do for her community.

However, when she decided to try to join the popular Darby and Joan Club -- a popular nationwide group for active pensioners -- she was strongly advised against it, as no none had ever seen a black person accepted as a member.

"But I said that is where I was going, and that is how I became the first black member," she said.

It was from this that her Afro-Caribbean group and later the Make a Difference group were formed to provide various services to her community, with one such being to befriend hundreds of lonely people.

At 83, Bailey's plate is still full, as she spends her days doing fulfilling things such as going to schools to give motivational talks to young girls.

"I hope that my health will continue to be good so that I will be able to do a lot more," she said.

Going home to Jamaica is still something she always looks forward to, having been to Jamaica two years ago to visit her 90-plus sister who still lives at the family home in Devon.

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