By Ferial Berjawi
During one of the sessions, we discussed the concept of belonging and how it manifests itself on micro, meso and macro levels in traditions, norms, language, community practices, symbols, etc. This session made me reflect a lot on my sense of belonging since I have moved to the United States four years ago and the different aspects that either undermine it or foster it. And indeed, three layers shape my belonging, not only in the US, but also in Lebanon, the country in which I was born and raised for 18 years – the personal, the societal and the national.
I never thought that I would consider the US my home. I was neither born nor raised here – I came to this country with nothing but a suitcase, an accent, and aspirations for a better life. However, it only took a year or so for me to feel connected to this place, and that really made me think about what constitutes a “home”. On a personal level, I was comfortable speaking the language, I embraced the cultural shocks and found ways to navigate them, and built relationships that were so real and full of substance. This place feels like home because I am always being pushed to become the best version of myself, which is something that I never experienced back in Lebanon. Here, I was able to grow on a personal, professional, and intellectual level. I have become a more empathetic, more knowledgeable, more critical, and more reflective. Unfortunately, due to the socio-economic and political situation in my country, this growth environment does not really exist in such a robust manner, and being there has hindered my ability to achieve my potential, which made it feel less like a home.
Does this mean I no longer feel connected to Lebanon? Hell no. I miss it everyday with every bone in my body. I miss the aroma of my mom’s homemade meals, the jogs at the waterfront, the shouting and honking of taxi drivers, the crowded streets in Downtown, Arabic slangs that would never translate into English, spending four nights a week in our favorite neighborhood bar Locale, and the Sunday hiking trips in the mountains. I miss the society that I am so deeply a part of – I understand every cultural reference, every joke, and every gesture. I have been in the US for four years and while I pretty much understand “American society” now, I am still trying to learn its ins and outs – how baseball or football work, the different cultures of different states, or country slang terms that make absolutely no sense to me. But, unlike the US, Beirut pushes you out, it separates you from the people that you love, and it gives you a bit of sweetness before dumping on you a bitter and sad reality: you will never grow here.
On the macro level, my feelings are mixed. I have a Lebanese passport, but what does that really mean? I personally do not feel protected by my government, but rather exploited or ignored. My country does not work for my wellbeing and safety, but rather that of a handful of corrupt elite political leaders, aka former warlords that have held on the reins of power for decades. But what about the US? The government here would pretty much always side with an American over me – I have to constantly prove my worth to reside within its borders, and I do not have the privileges that someone with an American passport holds. However, at least I am valued as an individual, I have rights that this government would preserve regardless of the origins of my passport, and if I manage to prove my worth enough, this country will take me in with open arms and provide the resources that would help me further grow and develop.
With time, my English will slowly become better and better that one day, people will stop noticing that it is not my mother tongue. I will also slowly continue to lose my Arabic vocabulary, become less familiar with the corners of Beirut, and forget what some of my mom’s favorite dishes are called. I will pick up American slangs, learn more about American sports, and hell, I might even get citizenship and be able to vote. But, I will never fully belong. I have come to realize that home is not a place, and it is not a feeling that suddenly overwhelms you once you have achieved it. Home for me is my parents, my best friends, the food that I love, and the place that makes you grow and become the best version of yourself. It is where you feel appreciated, loved, and at peace with yourself and others. I am grateful that I can find home in so many different places, but it scares me that I think I will never feel fully at home. Whether I am in Lebanon or in the US, there will always be something missing. But, maybe that is not necessarily a bad thing – all I know is that I will always try to find home in myself as well, by being at peace with myself and bringing out from within me the higher power that ultimately connects all humans.