I didn’t escape from a war zone or pay obscene amounts of money to furtively sneak over any borders. I crossed state lines freely and more of less willingly, and have since made several trips back home to see my friends and loved ones.
However, I am a refugee in my own nation. I didn’t leave home to escape religious or ethnic persecution, but to flee from a situation where a future was too expensive for me to afford on my own. I didn’t run away from an arranged marriage but I left because I couldn’t stand it when my father screamed at my mom.
When I was younger, I didn’t understand why immigrants would fly the flags of their home countries or cling to their native cultures when they were in America. It was disrespectful and ungrateful not to assimilate, I thought. Now I realize that while they may have been grateful for the opportunities they had in this new land, they probably didn’t want to be here, and wouldn’t have been if they hadn’t been forced to leave.
I love my home very much. It’s naturally beautiful — the weather is always warm, the crisp breezes smell of ocean air and the opportunities for fun are endless. You could travel from the ocean to the mountains to the desert in a single day. My home is rich with history, cultures and languages. The food is beyond comparison.
My home is also crowded, dirty and rife with crime and poverty. Professionals scramble for jobs or leave altogether because the competition for employment is so fierce. Drugs and gangs are a way of life. Cramped apartments are rented for ridiculous amounts of money in tiny pockets of poverty right next to McMansions.
I’ve lived away from my home for three years now, and I long for it every day. I have dreams of returning, when the economy gets better or when the population thins out. Maybe one of those crazy schemes for re-sectioning the state or switching up the government might actually work. I know I’m just like a refugee, waiting, hoping for some word that it’s safe to go home and begin a better life.
The place where I live now is fine. The people are nice, the economy is better and even though I don’t have a high-paying job, I’m thriving in my new situation. I’m doing a lot better than I would have back home. Back home, I would have had no job, no care and no hope of my completing my education. Here, I have all those things, and I’m grateful, but this place will never be my home. It will never be the place where my heart leaps for joy after my plane touches down. I will never call this place my own. I can’t.
I can’t adopt the customs of the locals, as much as I probably should. I do my best to fit in, but this isn’t me and these aren’t my people. They look different, they act different and they talk differently. They say I’m the different one, and that my accent is funny. I never had an accent before. I take pride in where I’m from, and people delight in asking me questions about my home, but then they tell me I should never go back. There’s no future for me in that rotten place, they say. Sooner or later my home will be overrun by pollution, or a worse economy, or it may break off and fall into they ocean. Stay here, where you’ll be successful, they say.
They don’t understand that my heart skips a beat when I find one of my own kind, and we can talk about all the old things I know. No one understands that I know all about the crime, the poverty and the pollution and still want to live there. They don’t feel the special connection I feel to my home, like a tree with its roots in the warm, deep soil.
I came here in my own free will, but I’m trapped by circumstances that prevent me from living a good life in my own home. I don’t know when I can go home, or if I can ever go home. All I can do is watch and wait, hope and pray.
I’m not an immigrant, but I am a refugee in my own nation. And I understand now why foreigners cling to their pasts so tightly in the midst of a new culture.
They just want to go home.