What it is like to be an immigrant in Europe: When we lost our voices

Anyone who hasn’t been living inside a Tupperware for the past ten or so years knows about the racist, xenophobic Anti Muslim, anti foreigner, anti immigration sentiments sweeping Europe (and almost all of the Western world) by now. Practically all the mainstream media covers the opinions of what I like to call “Indignant Citizens”. Indignant Citizens protest because we have invaded their native ecosystems with our foreignness, our quirks, our smells, our cultures. We are the feared other, almost always brown, almost always portrayed as uneducated, scary, isolated and non participatory. We are the threat that is othered for the benefit and distraction of the Indignant Citizens. We populate the 8 o’clock news, we cover pages of newspapers and weeklies, we are randomly quoted either to try to present the “balanced other side” or to further illustrate the threat we pose.

However, here’s what Indignant Citizens never get to hear: when we moved to your countries, most of us lost our voices. We no longer speak the languages that could help us convey our messages in an articulate and well presented manner. We became mute. Most of us will learn our new language well enough that we will be able to communicate with our surroundings. However, because we are learning this new language as adults, we will never learn it well enough to be able to express the nuance and the subtlety required to be considered equals in the discussions about our places in society. We will almost always express ourselves with a weird accent. An accent that will further “other” us and subject us to further identification as a foreigner. We will lack words and be unable to convey different meanings. We will be open to misinterpretation because we will not be able to cover the whole spectrum of terms and grammar constructions that are afforded to a native speaker of the language. We will most likely work through simpler concepts and ideas because we will not have enough semantics and context to be able to express a wider range of meanings. We will express ourselves with the simplicity of a 10 year old child. However, we might be mute but we are certainly not deaf. We can understand and deconstruct what the media and politicians are saying about us.

The media, totally oblivious to these facts will present our simplified opinions as proof that we are “backwards”, that we lack the intellectual depth to be considered equal partners in these discussions. Indignant Citizens will point fingers and, in their direct and non nonsense rhetoric, declare us “stupid and uneducated”. And so the cycle of isolation begins. Because we have been singled out as “stupid and uneducated” we turn to the natural partners in the social dialogue, the only people to whom we can prove that we are capable of nuanced discourse: the members of our own communities. The only place where we can speak the languages we are the most comfortable with, the place that provides us with a peer group that a) can understand us completely and b) shares a common ground and context with our thoughts processes.

When this happens, we are immediately singled out as not being integrated into our new countries. We are “isolationists”, “unconcerned with social matters in our places of residence”, we are told that this is unequivocal proof of how we do not care about the places we live in and how we only care about our own. We are told to go back home.

In turn, once we are told to go back home (wherever that might be and completely ignoring the fact that “this is home” for us), we become more determined to stay within our peer group. We actually perpetuate the isolation because we know we are not wanted. In this situation, female Muslims might choose to further identify as Muslims by picking an attire that signals their place within the Muslim community. People of African descent might go back to their roots and get further involved in cultural expressions that emphasize their “blackness”. Latinos might choose to gather exclusively in places designated as representative of their Latinidad. Etc, etc.

Indignant Citizens and the politicians that represent them demand that we learn these new languages and speak them exclusively, in detriment of whatever form of expression we are the most comfortable with. This is almost always advocated as irrefutable proof that we care about our new home country. However, this is what we are never told: once you learn the new language, you will also surrender your intellectual depth and the afforded respect to be heard.

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