Belonging, unbelonging, and the idea of 'home'

Furaha Asani 26 April 2021

With first-hand testimony from fellow migrant women of colour, Furaha Asani unpacks what it truly means to feel and be at 'home' 

Feeling rooted and grounded in a particular space in time, is a factor that affects our physical and mental well-being. Radical psychologist Guilaine Kinouani explains that unjustly losing this rootedness is akin to “the subjective experience of losing anchor.” As someone whose family has always faced immigration struggles, whose present immigration circumstances have been affected by the legacies of colonisation, who has always found it hard to feel comfortable claiming any one nationality or culture, and who has constantly been on the move for my career, it wasn’t until I found Kinouani’s essay that I could crystallize my own feelings about belonging and unbelonging, and my desire to be anchored.

Currently, being an immigration justice advocate based in the UK, I have had the privilege of hearing stories shared with me by migrants from different parts of the worldmost of whose experiences resonate with the theme of uprootedness and unbelonging at some point or other in their lives. It is not for me to say that everyone who is a migrant has or will experience this phenomenon, nor that those (especially people of colour and any other marginalized individuals) who are born in their ancestral lands will not experience it. Yet, nationality and migration have a significant impact on our feelings of safety and security and many times on our ability to form stable homes.

It is for this reason that I sought to speak with two other women of colour about their experiences of migration and its effect on their creation of a home, physical or otherwise. Our stories highlight the long-lasting effects of colonialism on how we are perceived as migrants, open up the possibility for ‘home’ to transcend the physical, and communicate a spark of hope for our individual futures.

Illustration of a woman holding a plant pot solemnly on top of an upside down house

Furaha Asani: Leicester-based researcher, teacher, mental health advocate, and freelance writer

For the past year I’ve been fighting against being deported from the UK. The most intense balancing act I’ve been barely managing to keep up is navigating an inner world of anxiety and questions about where I belong, and an outer world of immigration precarity and continuous global tension. I am not under any illusions that I’m the only one trying to keep up such a balance. I do however harbour justified anger that a large portion of the stress associated with questions around belonging and national identity are due to borderswhich are man-made.

"A large portion of the stress associated with questions around belonging and national identity are due to borders—which are man-made"

My father was Congolese, my mother is Armenian-Ukrainian, and I was born and raised in northern Nigeria. I lived in Johannesburg, South Africa, for six years during my undergrad through to Master's, before moving to the UK for my PhD where I have now been for just over seven years. My career progression has happened in tandem with moves across continents, but this had never stopped me from wanting to find a place where I could create a home for myself. In the summer of 2019, I thought I was on track to do just that.

Everything changed in August 2019, when my visa to stay in the UK was denied and I was threatened with deportation. In the year since, my legal team has been fighting hard, and we will get the chance to appeal before the end of 2019. Through all this I have been supported by my familybased in Nigeriaand my friends in different parts of the world. Each of these individuals represent a home to me, and yet I crave to one day have a physical space where I can feel rooted enough to commit to buying a medium-sized houseplant (or two or three.) 

Woman draeing her family in a house in New Zealand

Anny Ma: London-based writer and publicist

I moved to London in June 2019, from New Zealanda small country which has almost five million citizens. I'd been planning to move to London for a while, hoping to work in the charity sector and enjoy all of the culture London has to offer. After years of wanting to do it, I finally applied for a two-year youth mobility visa as a Commonwealth citizen. It was very expensive to pay for the visa, health surcharge, flights, tenancy bond, and one month’s rent in advance. When I arrived, it was the first time since the age of 15 that I'd had no job, and I had no idea where my next pay would come from. After three months of constant hunting and stress, I was offered two jobs and chose the one that made me feel most fulfilled.

It’s been exciting for me to settle in, but at the same time I find myself thinking about some of the social habits I’ve picked up to make sure I fit in as smoothly as possible.

My name isn’t uncommon, or particularly difficult to pronounce, but I found that people got confused by my New Zealand accent. Now I always make sure to over-enunciate, and not just when I say my name. During my time here I've also been reflecting a lot on what it means to be a Commonwealth citizen. While our whitewashed education painted the Commonwealth as a source of pride, in reality it is actually just a legacy of colonization, with further hierarchies amongst Commonwealth citizens too. There are levels of privilege across these countries, privileges which I relatively benefit from. Not all Commonwealth citizens can vote like I can, or apply for a working visa to move to the "mother country" like I did either. Being over a day's flight away from where I was born, I’m trying to find my balance between really missing my family and friends, while also really feeling comfortable in Londoneven though I will soon need to try to renew my visa! 

I don’t feel like ‘home’ for me is a fixed and permanent place. Home is my mother’s house in New Zealand, my friends’ house in Newcastle, my aunty's house in Cornwall, and my flat in London. All these places are home to me, all at the same time. Home is where I feel safe, secure, and comfortable - whether it's around certain people or just by myself. 

"I don’t feel like ‘home’ for me is a fixed and permanent place"

Illustration of a woman holding her hands with eyes closed inside a house

Ngassa Moyo: Geneva-based Afro-feminist, Pan-Africanist radical liberation worker, healer & educator

I’ve been a refugee from Zimbabwe for the past 14 years. I think the complexity with refugeedom is a feeling that my trauma can never be finished.It's never done, or undone. I feel that even in my childhood, because of the trauma, I had to disassociate from my own bodywhich is one of our first homes. Also, because of moving around a lot, ‘home’ couldn’t be static. In order for me to survive, I needed to be adaptable. So, at the age of 11, the concept of ‘home’ for me was forming a connection with people who shared the same identities with meother Black girls.

As I mature into my Black womanhood, I’m invested in seeking home in expansive community spaces, which means I’m creating bonds with people I now view as siblings. We provide support for one another as we all navigate white supremacist structures. I’m also returning, with greater knowledge now, to my childhood feelings of body consciousness, and not just in the physical. In my journey to healing I’m thinking about my ancestors’ experiences. How did they navigate healing in the midst of settler colonialism, terrorism, and the violence of forced migrations? I’ve realised they understood that concepts like epistemic homelessness and physical displacement are not just a disconnection from land, but tied to spiritual existences as wellincluding being ripped apart from cultural practices of grounding.

So, for me this feeling of groundedness and home, or the lack thereof, is not just about materiality. My healing cannot only come from forming a physical connection to any place that I call home, or even belonging to a family structure. I’ve had to disconnect from the idea that all these material forms of belonging- that are so steeped in heteropatriarchyare what can provide me with a home, because for me it’s much more liberating to politically view ‘home’ as a spiritual experience rather than simply a physical one.

"For me it’s much more liberating to politically view ‘home’ as a spiritual experience rather than simply a physical one"

Because the concepts of land, migration, and nationality feature so heavily in all our stories, I wanted the opinion of someone with both lived and learned expertise on how we can centre healing as we navigate forwards. Dr. Ayesha Ahmad, Senior Lecturer in Global Health at the University of London, researches mental health and humanitarian responses in conflict. Dr. Ahmad recognises the burden placed on those who bear mental scares from trauma associated with their lands and experiences within these lands. “I wonder what it is like to not feel your own land as wounded.”

Dr. Ahmad’s views on how we connect and disconnect from feelings of belonging and unbelonging, also draw from personal experiences too. “When I visited my ancestral land, trying to reach as near as I could to the village, to the compound, to the mango tree that had been rooted in my memory of when I tried to envision my family's memory, I had a strange sensation: I realised that I was now on the soil where I no longer was originally from somewhere else, I was in my origins. That story is grounded in the space of land trauma, of migration, of conflict, and of separation. I had to be there for the story to grow.” Dr. Ahmad’s work uses traditional story-telling in trauma therapeutic interventions.

I am unsure if and when I will ever be able to reconnect to the land of my origins. Yet, telling my own story and holding space for others to entrust me with listening to theirs, and sharing openly, has created a comforting solidarity. While itself not the cure to feelings of unbelonging, it strikes me that documenting these lived experiences can also be viewed as creating a form of rootedness whereby a part of each of us will etch a home, if only for a moment, in the minds of those who read our stories. Story-telling then becomes a medium for our own healing.

Read more: The origins of tattooing

Read more: How Western society has commercialised yoga

Keep up with the top stories from Reader's Digest by subscribing to our weekly newsletter