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The Spectrum: Immigration comes with trials, hardship and the longing for a home

Naib Mian, Columnist

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This essay is part of The Spectrum, a weekly forum in our Opinion section for marginalized voices to share their perspectives. To submit a piece for The Spectrum or discuss story ideas, please email [email protected].

One memory has persistently occupied my thoughts for the past two months: Sitting outside a cafe in Paris, my dad quickly asked to be seated in the non-smoking area and later laughed with a hint of concern as my brother decided to try raw beef. These small actions signaled an uneasiness that I took note of.

“You’re so afraid of going outside of your comfort zones and exploring a different culture,” I said to my dad. He laughed it off as if admitting he’d been caught.

But that one statement rushed back to me after recently reading Jhumpa Lahiri’s “Interpreter of Maladies,” a collection of short stories on the South Asian immigrant experience. As I closed the book, the final story, that of a man’s lonely first few years in America living in an elderly woman’s home, was still on my mind. Lahiri shows us his initial fears and anxieties. Fast forward several years, and he’s driving past that old house, showing his son where he first lived upon moving to America. I thought of my dad’s own stories of moving and the time he showed me his first apartment in California. I couldn’t help but recall my presumptuous remark in stark contrast to the image of my parents leaving Pakistan for America with no family, no support system and little to no means of communication — further out of one’s comfort zone than I could ever imagine.

I’m not sure why I’ve been so preoccupied with migration and displacement lately — possibly from reading the book while abroad. Or perhaps the refugee crisis, which, combined with a rise of the extreme right-wing Front National party here in France, has brought immigration to the forefront of national discussion in a society that fears the mere discussion of race.

As much as I decry the myth of nationalism and the hateful, militarized walls it builds, it’s hard to deny a people’s connection to the land where they grew up, the land of their mothers and fathers. That bond between a people and their land is often what lends tragedy to stories of forced migration.  

The added complexity of this emotional weight is essential to humanizing our discussions. There may not be an easy answer, but we must ask ourselves why one leaves his or her homeland.

Those who choose to do so, especially when they are people of color arriving in America or Europe, are often painted as opportunistic hordes, taking jobs and bringing instability. In the midst of this narrative, we forget the history of European immigration and the “Age of Discovery,” in which Europeans, curious about the world and in search of power, actually did plunder the places they went, taking everything from jobs to culture to land, not to mention lives.

Immigrants of color aren’t afforded this privilege of curiosity. As is more often the case, immigrants today seek better lives in an effort to financially support loved ones or help their families find opportunity.

But we must also recognize the refugees risking their lives to escape horrific circumstances. They are escaping or trying to protect their families from life-threatening oppression and a tragic war. It’s dishonest to erase their stories by failing to differentiate between those who willfully move, despite circumstances, and those who are forced to move by their circumstances. Although media outlets have been irresponsible in their improperly distinguished usage of the terms “migrant” and “refugee,” using language as a tool to dehumanize, the fact that they are successful in doing so reveals how we only feel the need to sympathize with a specific subgroup of displaced peoples. It is our responsibility to use accurate vocabulary, but we also should not lose our humanity preoccupying over whether one is a refugee or a migrant to decide whether they deserve to be helped or even heard.

I could never begin to imagine the discomfort of leaving the world you know to try to make it in a world you’ve never encountered, and one in which you so often are not welcomed.

Instead, I, along with many of America’s first generation youth, face a different struggle: the psychological rift that comes with my homeland not being the land of my mother and father.

The land to which I am native is that land in which those before me were foreign. This is the duality of the immigrant experience: the immigrant generation with their fears, hopes and uncertainties, worlds away from an integral part of their identity; and the following generation, whose identity is split, whose concept of homeland leads in two directions or none at all, whose sense of belonging is questioned in all corners of the world.

Modern immigration, a series of large-scale responses to the economic, political, environmental and physical violence wrought by imperialism, is the sequel to our postcolonial, and very much still colonial, history. The colonizer has come to feel colonized, and the following generation grows up facing both its historical tradition and its contemporary circumstance, beginning to question national bonds altogether.

The futures of immigrants and their families will surely be complex and riddled with questions of identity and belonging. In societies discussing the arrival of these immigrants and refugees, however, it’s our collective responsibility to combat xenophobic fear mongering by listening and attempting to understand the physical and psychological violence refugees have faced and the unimaginable uncertainty immigrants face as they enter a world unknown with nothing but memories of a land that was once home. I wouldn’t hesitate in saying they are the bravest among us.

Naib Mian is a Medill junior. He can be contacted at [email protected]. If you would like to respond publicly to this column, send a Letter to the Editor to [email protected].

The views expressed in this piece do not necessarily reflect the views of all staff members of The Daily Northwestern.

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