The Nomad Heart

Last night I was suddenly overwhelmed by the complexity of the issue of refugees in South Africa.  Not that I thought it would be different, but many  subtle, and some certainly less subtle, aspects of  post-apartheid South Africa, as well as the rich  multicultural heritage of South Africa, underlie the  issue of refugees and migrants seeking the new  start here. It is this new democratic South Africa  that is becoming a destination of choice for many.  Yet it is exactly things like the fairly liberal immigration policy, porous borders, freedom of movement, and access to economic opportunities that both attract immigrants and cause unrest and dissatisfaction among South Africans.

But isn’t that the case in the United States as well? I see many parallels between our two societies. Both countries are emerging from eras of the darkness of racial oppression and inequality. At the same time we are both grappling with the influx of immigrants and redefining new racial and ethnic realities both on the political stage and in our own individual lives.

In this context I was pondering the way we use words to label phenomena. Here in South Africa, the word “xenophobia” is an official term used for fear and attack on foreigners. In the States we use the more politically correct word “anti-immigration.” Americans refer to migrants without proper documentation as “illegal.” In South Africa they are referred to as “undocumented.” Yet the sentiment underneath is same here as in the US and worldwide.

I am a foreigner here. And in some ways I am still a foreigner in the States. Sadly, to a large degree now even in my homeland of Bosnia I am a foreigner. Sometimes the sentiment is barely noticeable but it is there. Sometimes it is just a flash of a thought but I can feel it. “You don’t understand, you are not from here!” “You don’t belong!” But truthfully it is also that sometimes I feel I no longer belong anywhere.

Whether for reasons of war, oppression, discrimination or economic hardships and environmental and natural disasters, we leave our homes in search of peace, security, hope, and always with a heavy heart. As we cross borders and travel places in search of a new home, I am wondering what the future holds for us global nomads. Will the rapid globalization help us feel safer and more protected, more at home? Or will it continue to cause a backlash?

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