Blog post

A favourite story to tell it again: Who is a refugee and the inner need to feel deeply rooted

By Joanna Kats

It was in England when I was asked whether I felt like a refugee, in Finland when I was given an interesting interpretation of the question, and again in England when I found out about a creative way to feel more rooted no matter where we are located. This is how the story goes:

In England, chatting with friends

It was autumn and I was having a chat with friends over coffee (true, I enjoy coffee) there, in England. There was a thoughtful young man among the group. I would soon find out that the local language wasn’t his mother tongue and that he didn’t feel comfortable with English.

When I engaged in conversation with him, we shared the reasons why we were living away from our own country. I heard that we come from countries confronted with common problems and common worries about the future. Despite difficulties involved in using the local language, we could communicate with ease in a language “familiar” to both of us and “foreign” to the rest of the group: the language of fiscal crisis. That was the language used when I was asked whether I felt like a refugee.

“Who is a refugee” – I started to wonder when I reached home. I looked up the term in the dictionary. I could understand that refugees, contrary to migrants, have no other choice. They must flee their country for specific reasons. Otherwise, their safety may be at risk. I failed to understand what other time one may be or feel like a refugee.

In Finland, attending a meeting

It was winter and I was attending a meeting there, in Finland. The meeting revolved around social integration of refugees into host countries. The temperature was below zero, I could barely breathe, yet I was determined to take a specific question to the meeting: is there a difference between “being a refugee” and “feeling like a refugee?” I think that you as well will find the answer interesting.

I heard that anyone located in a country other than the one they consider to be their homeland, may feel like a refugee. If for some reason, they find it hard to interact in the local language, if others fail to understand them, if there are no opportunities for meaningful contact, they may feel like a refugee. If they consider that getting rooted where they are located isn’t possible, they may feel like and perhaps be a refugee. In other words, they may face the risk of social exclusion.

It is interesting how a short question may encompass many meanings. The thoughtful young man may have been deeply impacted by the fiscal crisis, thinking that he had no other choice but to leave his country. Maybe he hadn’t developed meaningful contacts, needed more time and hence couldn’t feel rooted. And he needed to know that there were other people with similar experiences. That he was not alone.

Again in England, chatting with my mentor

Again in England, getting back to my daily routine and voluntary work. I am having a chat with my mentor, about the question posed at the meeting. And I find out a creative way to feel more rooted no matter where located. I hear that when invited to reception centres for refugees, to lead training projects, she would suggest that they grow tomatoes in a pot. Can you figure out why? To have something that is just theirs; something stable and sustainable; something growing, developing roots.

And now in Greece

It is interesting how some things we hear take root in us. Well, I don’t have my own tomatoes in a pot. Whenever I do my groceries, I make certain to buy a bunch of tomatoes. I wish to have that sense that I have picked them from my garden!

Have a creative week!

A blogger friend, Joanna

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Comments (10)

  • Tracy

    8 December 2018 at 05:41

    I read several books with my junior high students about refugees and am intrigued by the questions you’ve posed. We discuss what a refugee is but don’t address the other question. I hope that reading stories like these helps my students empathize with and help others.

    1. Joanna K.

      8 December 2018 at 11:11

      Tracy, I find it interesting, how you are introducing your students to world social issues. I am glad you’ve found this helpful. I am also glad to meet you here.

  • Leanne

    18 November 2018 at 18:52

    Thank you for sharing story, you are a very insightful writer. This has helped me understand how others might feel when new to a country.

    1. Joanna K.

      26 November 2018 at 11:30

      Leanne, thank you for your kind words; much appreciated. I’m glad you have found the story useful… Apologies for the delay in my reply.

  • Diana

    18 November 2018 at 18:46

    I am a daugther of immigrants and first American in my family. It’s so shocking to see this. How many people have different views. My parent had such a strong stance on being apart of a country that the only things they seeked was being apart not to feel different. Not to be an outsider. Refugee to some cultures is an awfully wrong thing to be called. Great piece!

    1. Joanna K.

      26 November 2018 at 11:25

      Diana, thank you for helping us to understand one more aspect, and effect, of migration. How does it sound to me? Well, there are different people/ personalities, different choices, same need: to stop feeling different… Apologies for the delay in my reply.

  • Mandy

    18 November 2018 at 18:00

    What a thoughtful question to ask and good researching! I love the tomato idea. I thought it was going to say because there are always way too many tomatoes so they would be able to share some and make connections. I appreciate this. I will make an effort to notice others and smile. I want everyone to feel welcome, because we are all citizens of the planet.

    1. Joanna K.

      19 November 2018 at 11:54

      Mandy, thank you for your kind words! I’m certain my mentor will appreciate your comment on the tomato. And that your smile will bring warmth and joy into their life. I agree, we are all citizens of the planet.

  • Joan Narciso

    15 November 2018 at 16:29

    Great reflection! One thing I can add is when we’re rooted, we’re filled, and when we are filled, we can give. I’ve noticed that contrary to what’s portrayed on the news, immigrants and refugees contribute more to the countries they go to. Like that tomato, once planted and nurtured, it gives back more than what it was given. Hope that makes sense. ♥

    1. Joanna K.

      16 November 2018 at 11:42

      How profound! Yes, Joan, that makes perfect sense. No matter what we have been through, or where we are in life, when we feel rooted and filled we can give back more than what we were given. Like the tomato…

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