I may never fully understand what it means to be a refugee. From my understanding of the term ‘refugee’, I know that it means to seek refuge due to unstable circumstances in one’s homeland (for varying reasons). I understand that my parents were a type of ‘refugee’, as many people of their heritage are. They’re highly educated, loved their country, but wanted a better life for their children. Because of this, they were willing to sacrifice their own comfort for our futures.
As a child, I didn’t really understand their problems. My older sisters understood it all much more, since they had actually experienced life abroad. They saw my parents’ struggles, and knew they were different somehow. I didn’t know I was different, but I always felt different in some way. Although Canada’s a multicultural country, I always felt as though I would never feel completely at home in one place. So far, that’s been mostly true.
However, I feel a great connection to California. I used to think it was because of the beach, the sunshine, and because of my family that lives there. While it’s true that I love all of those things, I think I also know that a part of me loves it because I feel as though a lot of my community also lives there. It may not be obvious, but my parents are Afghan. They were born and raised in Afghanistan, a country I have yet to visit. California has a large Afghan-American population, including my own sister. While Toronto, and other parts of Canada, have an Afghan community as well, it doesn’t compare to the Afghan presence in California.
I’ve never really thought of myself as someone who was overly proud of being an Afghan-Canadian. In fact, at many times during my upbringing, I didn’t associate with it at all. I didn’t dislike Afghans, but I didn’t understand them either. I grew up in a city with a smaller Afghan population, especially in my neighbourhood. I felt first-and-foremost Canadian, and mostly still do. I felt as though I couldn’t connect with Afghans, because I’m more of a free spirit than I thought other Afghans were. I blindly agreed with Afghan stereotypes, thinking I was so different. There was absolutely no possibility that I would ever really connect with them, or so I thought.
Recently, I’ve started to connect with the North American Afghan community more. About a couple of months ago, I went to a conference dedicated to Afghan-Americans. Many of the people there knew each other since the Afghan community is somewhat well-acquainted in California, but there were also those of us who grew up in places where Afghans don’t usually form large communities. While I was there, I noticed that there were a lot of people who thought the same way I did. I met, and heard from, people who went through similar experiences, who felt the same disconnect yet yearning for more connection. Suddenly, I felt my previous misconceptions dissipate. Sure, some people fit into the stereotypes that I grew up thinking of, but many were just like me.
It was during this conference that I realized how much of my identity is due to my “Afghan-ness” as a Canadian. I always grew up being told that I was ethnically ambiguous; that I could fit into many other countries, and that no one could really tell what my background was. A lot of the others at the conference had the same experience and same frustrations. I also grew up feeling a divide between wanting to be “liberal” but also knowing that some of my beliefs were “conservative”. This was also a common thread at the conference, as many people had the same values. Being an Afghan-Canadian also meant that I’ve never felt like the majority in any place, even amongst minorities. This, undoubtedly, had an impact on how much I’ve always felt the need to represent myself in large groups. I never realized it until now, but I have always felt the desire to tell other people what my background is, as though it’s something I do associate with. It’s strange how despite my disconnection from the Afghan community, I still felt a large connection to my identity as the child of Afghans.
Now, I’m beginning to understand how and why I relate to other children of refugees and immigrants. I’m starting to know why I love to learn about other cultures as much as I do. I am a curious person by nature, but perhaps my upbringing as an “other” has made me want to know more about “others”. My sense of understanding people who had the same experience of growing up in a place where their parents didn’t grow up in shows me that it’s difficult to shake this innate sense of being a “refugee”. I would never represent the “refugee” community, as I believe I have been privileged and blessed in my life. However, I feel an appreciation for those who know what it means to leave their homeland in the pursuit of a better life. I feel a sense of comprehension for those who not only left their homeland for a better life, but felt forced to do so for their children. It takes an immense sense of bravery to do so.
And for the refugees who’ve had to leave their countries in large masses – as Afghans, Syrians, Congolese, Palestinians, Iraqis, etc – there’s a familiar sense of having lost something. While we may always lead a life of complicated identities, a mixture of different cultures, and slight confusion, we’re fortunate to have options in our lives now because of the bravery of those who came before us. It’s important to want stability for ourselves, and also for other innocent lives. I’ll always feel blessed to be Canadian, but now I also know that I feel Afghan. And, put simply, that’s a beautiful thing.