When my patients ask me where I am from, I usually reply, “Wyke Regis in Weymouth.” They shake their heads and ask, “No, nurse, where are you really from?”
My name is Ramela O’Malley. When people hear my name without seeing my face, they think I have made a mistake; that my name is Pamela and I am Irish. When they meet me in person, I see their puzzled expressions as they try to work out where I am from. I did not make a spelling mistake when I wrote my name and I am not from Ireland.
I was born in 1967 in Istanbul/Turkey to Armenian Christian parents. I am a descendant of survivors of the Armenian genocide that took place between 1915 – 1918. 1.5 million Armenians were killed or went missing during this systematic killing generated by the Ottoman Turks. The Turkish government still denies to this day that there was a genocide. Yet I know first-hand it was real – my grandmother lost 7 siblings during a death march on the way to the Syrian desert.
My original Armenian name is Ramela Nersesyan. The Turkish government changed most Armenian surnames and ours was changed to Nersesoglu. In Istanbul I went to an Armenian kindergarten and began speaking Armenian. My mum was a seamstress and my dad a silversmith and hand-engraver. In 1969, when I was two years old, my parents decided to emigrate to Germany like so many other immigrants who left the country to work in German factories.
My sister was born in 1970 in Germany. We both went to German schools. We were one of only a handful of ‘foreigners’ in our little village in Hessen, West Germany. Most people knew we were Armenians, not Turks, and we were accepted in our community. I don’t know why, perhaps it was because my parents were Christians, liberal and modern and my mum did not wear a headscarf. We went to church on Sundays, which was run by my uncle who was a lay preacher. We integrated well. I started my nurse training and qualified in 1989. Again, I was the only ‘foreigner’ in the nursing school. I worked as a staff nurse in Oncology and then later as a Junior Sister.
In 1990 I married my Scottish husband Tam, who was working for the Army in Germany and then later MoD police. We had our first child, Mary, in 1991, and moved to Portland. Dorset. Our second child, Gregor, was born in 1995.
I have been working as a staff nurse for the same NHS Trust hospital in Dorset since 1996. Now, when people ask me “Where are you from?” I cannot give them a straightforward answer. My face, with its olive complexion, my dark hair, my name, and my accent don’t all match up.
I am not a Turk, even though I was born in Turkey and was given a Turkish passport at birth. Armenians are a minority in Turkey and calling an Armenian a Turk does not go down too well. I am not German even though I was brought up there and still have a German accent. I am not British even though I have a British passport. I am Armenian, even though I have lost most of my Armenian language and I have been to Armenia only once as a tourist. Yet it is the country of my ancestors, my roots.
Every country I have lived in I felt like a foreigner. Even in Armenia, when we went there on holiday, we felt like foreigners. Sometimes I feel sad and think I have lost my identity, that I don’t belong anywhere. But every country I have lived in has made me who I am now. And I speak many languages – sometimes all in one sentence without realising it! Living in different countries has given me first-hand knowledge of different cultures, customs, laws, traditions and culinary skills; it has given me diversity.
I like Turkey. It is a beautiful country and I still have many relatives there who I see when go there on holidays. I love Germany, it is my second home. The way I do things are sometimes so ‘typically German’. I still go to Germany as often as I can to see my family and friends. I love England, it is my home now. I have many friends here and I have lived here longer than I have lived in any of the other countries.
Someone who has not experienced living in so many places might not understand any of this. People are quick to judge without having an insight and understanding of the difficulties I might go through. I wonder what might have happened if my ancestors had stayed in Armenia and hadn’t moved to Turkey? What if my parents hadn’t moved away from Turkey? Would I be the same Ramela I am now? I don’t think so. If I had stayed in Germany, would I be the same person? I was just about to be promoted to Sister on an Oncology ward. I would have moved up higher in my career which I never dared to do here in the UK. I always felt, and still feel, like an imposter. If I had stayed, I would have spent more time with my parents and sister. The separation from them has been extremely painful at times especially when I lost my dad in 2018. We were all able to go to Germany and spent his last few hours at his bed side.
Have I experienced racism or discrimination? Yes. Sometimes deliberate, sometimes subtle and sometimes unknowingly. It has shown itself in different shapes and forms, and has come from total strangers, work colleagues and patients.
But I am here now in beautiful Dorset and I am happy. I have my husband, my children and our gorgeous Westhighland terrier, our lovely house and pretty garden. It was hard as a 24 year-old to move here, but I think I have done well. I had to adapt and integrate so many times! I have embraced my mixture of traditions and languages and used them to benefit myself and others. In my free time I do a lot of art and gardening and I use my language skills to welcome cruise passengers to Portland Port. In the past I have worked as an interpreter for asylum seekers. I understood some of their difficulties and the problems they had to endure which enabled me to develop a bond with them. I am Ramela, an Armenian who has come from many places.
By Ramela O’Malley © 2020