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On Emigration and Immigration – A Journey to Belong

I miss the sounds from back home; the buzzing of rickshaws and motorbikes, the bell ringing of the man rolling his vegetable cart down the street, and cawing of crows interrupting the sweet melody of the cuckoos. I miss the mesmerizing fruit stands around the corner, selling freshly squeezed pomegranate juice and coconut water straight out of the shells; the way the sand smells right before the rain; the fragrances and colors of frangipani and hibiscus flowers adorning the brick walls of most homes. Many immigrants (people who come to a new country for permanent residence) have similar memories stored in their minds, the sounds and smells of home almost more visceral than the sights. What about what we leave behind, as emigrants who leave their residence to settle elsewhere? Our families and friends say goodbye, asking us to visit soon, reminding us that we will always have a home with them to return to. 

So many people I know, personally and professionally, who have left their home country have described the feeling of living in two places at once. For me, I never had just one home because I grew up in different countries. Was home where I was born? Or where I went to school? Or determined by the languages I spoke? Fascinated by those who grew up in one town their whole life, I fantasized about what my life might have been like if I had the same group of friends from elementary through high school. As a TCK (Third Culture Kid), I flew before walking, speak at least three languages, and organize my friends by continents. I never heard the term “Third Culture Kid” until I came to the United States for college when I was 18 years old, but I was surprised at how well it described me, and so many of my friends at my international schools. 

My immigration to the U.S was a result of my parents sending me here to further my education. Many of my clients have immigrated to the U.S from all across the world, due to a variety of circumstances. Some came here to work and build on “the American dream”, others came as refugees seeking asylum from persecution, and others came to study or be with family or start anew. There is no “right way” to immigrate just as there is no “right way” to be American. For many immigrants, to be “American“ is synonymous with being “white” and while the over-used term “melting pot” has been propagated as a positive image for this country, many immigrants feel unwelcome, ignored, and mistreated.  I didn’t always mind being asked where I came from (provided you had the patience to hear me list all the countries I grew up in), but being explicitly told to “go back” to where I came from was jarring. Most of my immigrant clients have recounted their experiences of micro-aggressions and macro-aggressions, and how even after they attained citizenship in this country, they couldn’t feel at home because they were constantly reminded that they didn’t belong. There's also the question of what happens when you do in fact go “back home”. It’s a little bit like being a “foreigner” in your own country – I remember being told I had an “accent“ when I spoke English (the one language that truly does have so many accents!) by my middle school classmates. My clients tell me about the expectations their friends and family have when they go back to visit; “What gifts did you bring us?” “Is it like what we see in the movies?” “Do they have any restaurants with like ours?” There are so many assumptions made about lifestyle choices, economic status, gender equality, etc., and they seem to exist on both sides of the emigrant/immigrant coin. 

As I reflect back on my own experiences and the experiences of my clients, friends and other family members, I acknowledge that not all stories are the same. I strive to hear each person’s story as being unique to their experiences, to understand the significance of what they’ve left behind and the purpose they find/create in being here. I was afforded a rare opportunity to immerse myself in Pakistani, Italian, Saudi Arabian and American cultures, cuisines, languages, customs and traditions and I carry a part of each culture in me. As a result, I feel passionate about giving voice to the usually unheard, sharing power in a therapeutic relationship, and designing trainings and educational curricula that take into consideration social stressors when interacting with multiple oppressions. We can only successfully negotiate these barriers once social justice laws are enforced to protect us and adhere to our needs. As a clinician, I believe in going beyond the empathic relationship with my clients and help them cope with multiple oppression and identities. Specifically, we need to be aware that oppression wears many faces and can come in more subtle forms, but should not be overlooked. Perhaps one way in which we can empower such communities is by liberating ourselves from the limitations of our treatment approaches and expanding on culturally competent methods.

Dr. Ammara Khalid 

Licensed Clinical Psychologist 

CORE – Center of Relational Empowerment, P.C 

[email protected]

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