The Displaced Nation

A home for international creatives

Do refugees and migrants have anything in common with us expats? No, and yes…

displacedvdisplacedBelieve it or not, the Displaced Nation has occasional qualms about whether “displaced” is the right word to describe a group of expats and internationalists. What does a group of privileged travelers have in common with refugees or migrants who’ve had no choice but to leave their homelands? We thought we’d begin the new year by touching on this vexed question, this time with the help of a mentor, Andy Martin. Andy is now an expat in Brazil, but he previously worked with refugees in London.

— ML Awanohara

Before moving to Brazil in February 2012 I worked with refugees as a social worker in the UK, and my last job entailed supporting unaccompanied minors: children as young as 11 who flee conflicts and persecution in countries such as Afghanistan — on their own.

And it is of them that I remind myself when I reflect upon my own struggles and anxieties at being “displaced” from my own country. Suddenly, my tongue-in-cheek British moans about uncomfortable buses and lopsided pavements (yes, pavements), or my frustrations with struggling to learn Portuguese, seem trivial when contrasted with the experiences of the young people I worked with.

Given this, it would seem bizarre for a rich (relatively) migrant like myself to even contemplate comparing my experiences of displacement with those who flee poverty, persecution or some other unimaginably unfortunate situation that most of us will thankfully never have to experience.

Or is it?

Well, I guess the differences are probably easier to distinguish — for example:

1) The reasons for the migration

Whilst refugees are forcibly displaced through circumstances outside of their control, more fortunate gringos like myself possess far greater agency when it comes to the motives for our movements: love, jobs, travel, etc.

2) The journey itself

Forcibly displaced people often leave their homes unexpectedly with no belongings, or else hurriedly sell whatever possessions and land they have in order to fund their flight, whilst my wife and I had carefully planned our move for over two years (well, we read a few books and, to be fair, she is Brazilian herself — which helps).

What’s more, the route a refugee takes is often perilous, taking months or even years, and in turn may comprise many different means of movement: on foot, by car, on overcrowded boats, airtight lorries or refrigerated trucks. On top of that, their destinies also usually lie in the hands of people smugglers.

My wife and I, though, as middle-earners in the UK, booked our flight with a click of our laptop, and the path from our flat in London to our new life in São Paulo was no more than a day’s inconvenience — and a relatively smooth and comfortable one at that.

I had the cabin crew to serve me unlimited amounts of Cabernet Sauvignon and my biggest anxiety was which of the in-flight films to watch: Moneyball or Midnight in Paris?

3) The arrival at the new destination

Refugees are typically at the complete mercy of the host countries they successfully manage to reach. Most likely, they are from countries for which there are strict immigration controls and they are typically confronted not with empathy but with a culture of disbelief — yes, 11-year-old kids from Afghanistan with no family.

A British citizen like myself meanwhile, merely through my place of birth, possesses a passport that requires one of the fewest number of visas to travel around the world. Even when there is a requirement, particularly to live or work, it’s often pretty straightforward.

Refugees, though, even if they are granted some form of status, will by the nature of their former lives typically have to start from scratch, their qualifications often meaningless (that’s if they can even prove them) — and thus with access to only menial jobs and bottom-of-the-rung housing.

And then, once they’re settled, the mental scars from the trauma they’ve experienced will slowly emerge.

Fortunately for me — with the education I’ve received, the qualifications I’ve gained and the work experience I’ve accumulated — I’ll be in a far better position to start my dream life abroad.

Just take me to the beach already!

* * *

So far, so different then.

Is it really possible then that the experiences of forcibly displaced people can ever be compared to those whose displacement is chosen?

Well, yes, I think they can. Here’s a couple of ways we are similar:

1) The requisite adjustments to a new culture

One of the fascinating things about my job back in London was listening to people describe their reactions and adjustments to their strange new worlds. And, as you can imagine, the youthful frankness of the kids I worked with often made these accounts hilarious and, perhaps, more honest.

For example, I remember one young person seemed bemused as to why on one particularly hot day (well, relatively anyway) in London, so many people were stripping off their clothes and heading to the local park to sunbathe. He only realized why when by the next time I had seen him, there had been subsequently been 20 successive days of rain in London.

“Welcome to the UK,” I joked.

2) The occasional bouts of homesickness

It wasn’t, of course, just the things they were discovering which were intriguing, it was also what they were missing. For some it was their homelands, for others it was speaking their language, whilst often it was specific things like their mother’s home cooking, although most commonly it was the weather — of course.

However, a common and I guess obvious sadness amongst all of them was missing people — whether that be their friends, family or both.

* * *

In sum, writing my blog over the past year has made me realize that despite our very many differences all migrants share some common behaviors: that of exploring, adjusting and, inevitably, comparing (in my case moaning), as well as reflecting upon the losses we have to make in order to get to where we are.

At the same time, I’ve also acknowledged that my own anxieties are not trivial just because they might seem so in comparison. They are real and probably shared by many people. However, thinking about those kids back in the UK just gives me the motivation to try even harder.

Thank you, Andy, for that reality check! Readers, what did you think of Andy’s analysis?

British by birth and slowly becoming a little more Brazilian each day after moving to São Paulo a year ago with his Brazilian wife, Andy Martin is also a qualified social worker in the UK, who specialized in supporting refugees in negotiating the process of displacement. Now, as a migrant himself, he is finding out whether any of the advice he gave them was of any use in the first place. Andy is also known to drink tea, warm beer and play cricket, none of which Brazilians seem to be massively convinced by. You can learn more about him by following his blog, The book is on the table, and/or following him on Twitter: @andyhpmartin.

STAY TUNED for next week’s posts.

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Images: The photo of the boy is from Morguefiles; the other photo is of Andy Martin (his own).

7 responses to “Do refugees and migrants have anything in common with us expats? No, and yes…

  1. Pingback: The shared experience of being displaced… « the book is on the table

  2. Sine January 20, 2013 at 11:17 am

    great post! I admit I often have those same feelings. Living in Africa, you can’t help but be surrounded by those migrants you described, mainly from places like Zimbabwe, and I also often felt uneasy writing about my “hardships” of having to negotiate endlessly with the utility company or having to hang up a clothesline by myself, while others have to worry every day where food is going to come from and if they can even stay in the country legally. And I think the answer is what you did – you can’t stop writing about your expat life just because others are worse off, but you can every once in a while illuminate the plight of those others. And yes, I do think we have much in common with migrants, you said that well. In fact, if everyone from Western countries was required to live abroad for a bit when they’re starting their adult lives, they’d become much more tolerant of migrants in their own country and wouldn’t rail against them so quickly for being different.

    • ML Awanohara January 20, 2013 at 11:22 pm

      @ Sine
      What an insightful comment! Actually, this debate in someways reminds me of the one that has taken place in Western countries over women’s right to work as well as bring up families. Women from lower income households often have no choice but to work (and would love to stay at home!). Middle class women, by contrast, want to work because they are bored at home and not using their brains enough. The two groups are nonetheless grouped together under the single banner of “women’s rights” — a case of politics makes strange bedfellows?!

      I also really like your point about people being required to live abroad. I advocate that policy as well. Not only has it made me more tolerant of migrants but also (b/c I lived in Japan, where I was in a minority race) of ethnic minorities and people who struggle to speak a new language.

      • Sine January 21, 2013 at 11:36 am

        I also have become much more tolerant. I admit now that I used to look down on people speaking a language badly, associating poor speaking skills with just not being very smart. Couldn’t have been more wrong. In South Africa that point comes across very well – the locals there often struggle with English, but then they can speak 5 of the local languages without a problem.

  3. ML Awanohara January 20, 2013 at 11:30 pm

    Meanwhile, the person who tweets for Green Cycles (which aims to address poverty through green entrepreneurship and technical skills training in Africa) has been carrying on a lively debate with Andy in the Twitterverse. Here’s the gist of the GC tweeter’s argument:

    While both expats and migrants are outsiders, it’s not in the same way. Refugees are present in the new society at sufferance, whilst migrants and expats are invited guests. Expats are culturally displaced, whereas refugees are psychically displaced. Refugees are outcasts who carry cultural baggage. They don’t belong in their original culture, nor in their destination culture.

  4. michelloui January 28, 2013 at 9:39 am

    Interesting post and comments! My first 8 years in the UK were mostly in Whitechapel–an area in East London populated mainly by immigrants/refugees over the years, most recently with Bangledeshi immigrants. While living there I never felt the need to seek out expat groups (although I would have benefited greatly from being with people in a similar situation to myself), I think because subconsciously I never felt justified in claiming I was different enough from my host culture to need the support that an expat group would offer. Being surrounded by people who were struggling with language and culture far more than I made me feel more at home in Britain generallly, I guess.

    Once I started writing in the expat niche I never felt I could justify major complaints about my situation–sure, I could talk about being homesick and I made jokes about the culture shock I experienced but my life has been pretty easy compared to the people who I used to live amongst. However, I will also add that all things are relative. Although I wasn’t a refugee, I was from another country, I didn’t have enough money to visit my family more than every few years, I didn’t have a very supportive partner or in-laws, and living in London on a very low wage was a struggle. I had a hard time simply by being in a displaced situation, even though it wasn’t as hard of a life as the Bangledeshi people around me, it was hard compared to where I had started.

  5. Pingback: My interview is posted | The Panama Adventure

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