Do you ever truly belong in your new country?
Are you a migrant, a refugee, an expat or perhaps a digital nomad?
I guess I’d be labelled as a digital nomad, although where I live, in North Africa all types of migrants are simply ‘foreigners’. Tunisia doesn’t attract enough immigrants for us to be given misleading labels.
For the 215 million of us who are living in places other than our home countries, whether we are perceived as an expat or an immigrant can have a huge impact on the welcome we receive and our feeling of belonging in our host country.
Different reasons drive us to move overseas. I personally was propelled by a fit of madness following my divorce and naively ran away to a land that promised sunshine, palm trees and hopefully an exciting new life.
We ‘immigrants’ all have our own unique stories, but we are all united by the trials and tribulations of adapting to life in a new country.
“I am neither of the East nor of the West, no boundaries exist within my breast.’
How welcome are you in your host country?
Some countries are more internationally minded and welcoming than others. In cosmopolitan cities it’s usually easier to blend in than in areas further afield where people haven’t been exposed to those of different races and religions. In more conservative places, those of us who look or behave different often become objects of curiosity that may evoke suspicion or even fear.
I have created a small circle of good friends and am grateful for having kind and welcoming neighbours who see beyond the pierced nose of the strange divorced woman who enjoys living alone.
But beyond the safety of my comfortable cocoon, I suspect that here in Tunisia, I will always be perceived as a migrant, mostly due to a lack of education coupled with misplaced opinions of foreigners derived from TV programmes.
The challenges of integration
The language barrier is often assumed to be the greatest challenge to integrating into a new society and warding off loneliness but I have found that cultural differences, conflicting values and not sharing the same national sense of humour are also factors that can prevent relationships developing beyond a superficial level.
The significance of religion and culture
Migrating from a multi-cultural society to a mono-cultural country or vice versa can be equally challenging. I moved from a multi-cultural metropolis to a mono-cultural state and often miss the lack of diversity.
I do empathise with those originating from a country with one predominant religion and/or culture who find themselves overwhelmed and afraid amid a fusion of beliefs and values that may be very different to their own.
Some of my greatest struggles have been against cultural taboos that undermine my beliefs and religious ideology that contrasts with some of my personal values.
Common problems experienced by international migrants
During my fifteen years as a ‘migrant’, I have experienced many of the usual problems faced by immigrants.
I have struggled (and mostly failed) to learn the language of my host country, cried buckets for faraway family and friends and been unable to secure a job.
There have even been moments when I’ve seriously considered going home.
Barriers built by bureaucracy, laws and paperwork
Although a 2017 study showed a positive association between citizenship and feelings of belonging, many countries (including my host country) rarely grant permanent residence or citizenship to foreigners, no matter how long they have lived there.
Navigating through bureaucracy without drowning under a mountain of paperwork (in a foreign language) coupled with staying on the right side of officials in ‘special departments for foreigners’ constantly leaves me feeling frustrated, alienated and downright unwelcome.
Where do you really belong?
Like many homecomers, I was shocked at finding it even more difficult to settle back into my home country after a period of living overseas.
Plagued by feelings of no longer belonging in my home country, I was carted off to the doctor and diagnosed with reverse culture shock .
As International Migrants Day approaches, I am calling time on pondering where I belong.
Wouldn’t it be more constructive to explore ways of making the entire world a more welcoming place for all its global citizens and removing potentially dangerous, divisive and misleading labels?
“And you? When will you begin that long journey into yourself?”
Julie Al-Zoubi is an English freelance writer/blogger with a love of travel and a passion for inspiring women to go beyond their comfort zones and live their best possible lives.