Through this essay, I’d like readers to understand how important and necessary empathizing with refugees and migrants is in today’s world. I’d also like readers to notice different definitions of being foreign, and what empathizing with foreigners truly means.
A barbed wire fence blurs the foreground. Behind four people, trees grow behind tall grass, some of which is dried and dead, other parts green and thriving. To each side of a young girl, there are two older men engaged in conversation. The man to her left is zipping a large black bag. The young girl stands in a single clear spot through the wire, in front of a man who holds her right hand, presumably her father. She wears a grey zipped sweatshirt and pink patterned pants. The hood is over her head, covering her short brown hair, but her wide eyes are full of curiosity as she looks past the barbed wire fence.
This image is of Serbian refugees seeking asylum in Hungary. The barbed wire fence was built in 2015 to counteract the European migrant crisis. Barbed wire is the quintessential symbol of being unwelcome. Property owners use it to guard their private land from outsiders, and some countries’ borders use it to protect from illegal immigrants, who are seen as “the other.” Being viewed as “the other” is an experience only truly known by those who endure it. However, people who have never gone through being foreign can begin to understand migrants’ experiences through books and others’ accounts, either their own experiences or narrating someone else’s. Merriam-Webster dictionary defines the word “foreign” as a multitude of meanings, including “situated outside a place or country” and “alien in character: not connected or pertinent”. Being outside of the realm of normal and what one knows is very difficult, and can be isolating, which is why being able to empathize is so necessary today, especially considering the ongoing international refugee crisis.
Exit West, written by Moshin Hamid, a fictional account of two refugees from an assumed Middle Eastern country, explores the lives of two partners, Nadia and Saeed. In a country torn in two by military, Nadia and Saeed flee their home through special doors that transport them to a more stable location. The addition of magical doors in the narrative allow Hamid to write more about Nadia and Saeed’s lives before and after migration. He illustrates their romantic relationship, family dynamics, and day to day lives before they migrate, and how these elements evolve over time. Often, refugees’ extensive and extremely difficult journey during migration is the only aspect of their lives that non-refugees notice, which plays into how easily people label them as “the other.” Through the doors, the author communicates an understanding that refugees aren’t solely defined by their journeys and had completely normal lives before being forced out of their home. Recognizing this, readers are able to learn that people have more in common with each other below the surface. Once people realize that humans have more in common than not, they are able to empathize with others.
Enuma Okoro is a Nigerian woman, who was born in New York City and lived in Nigeria for a few years in her childhood before moving back to the United States. In her article in the New York Times, she wrote about how she felt disconnected from her culture and her background while she lived in the United States. When she was 29, her father died in Nigeria, and she travelled back with a sibling to bury him. She realized that she felt more comfortable in Nigeria than in the country in which she was born. She writes:
I started to imagine what it would be like to live in a place where you did not have to explain some aspect of your identity on a daily basis, where you did not have to offer people a reason, no matter how subtle, for why you were among them.
After that, she visited Nigeria increasingly frequently, and eventually decided to fly back and live there. Ms. Okoro’s experience of being foreign dealt with feeling out of place. Although she was not a refugee in the United States, she still had the experience of being and feeling foreign. Later in life, she felt a renewed connection to the country of her family’s roots. Her experience of being foreign is different than others. Building upon our understanding of the disparities between diverse experiences is important to express empathy towards people. Reading Ms. Okoro’s story gives us knowledge to understand the true reality and complexity of being foreign.
Enrique’s Journey, a true account of a young boy’s immigration from Honduras to the United States to reunite with his mother, depicts the story of many Central American migrants. In Central America, many mothers often leave their children behind to find a better life in America. Enrique leaves Honduras to find his mom after years of missing her in his childhood, and travels on the trains, which is a harrowing and dangerous journey that many other migrants take to the States. The book shows a very complex relationship between a mother and son, and of separated families. Once Enrique reaches his mother, he continues to struggle. He still has trouble with drug addiction, motivation to continue a job, and with finding his place in his mother’s life. For Enrique, being foreign in America means adjusting and adapting to a new culture, and measuring up to an ideal image of trying to belong.
The themes that migrants and refugees experience when being foreign, like struggling to fit in somewhere completely different than what they know, are themes similar to what we can apply in our own lives. While non-refugees and migrants have completely different experiences, human lives still share underlying themes that we can use to connect to each other.
Works Cited: A Return to Nigeria - The New York Times. https://opinionator.blogs.nytimes.com/2014/04/23/a-return-to-nigeria/. Hamid, Mohsin. Exit West. Penguin Random House, 2017. Nazario, Sonia. Enriques Journey. Random House Trade Paperbacks, 2014.