Re-starting your life elsewhere — what it really means

Time to make some money with your writing?

As I watch the sea of migrants — refugees, more accurately — heading north from Syria and other nations into Europe, hoping to re-start their lives somewhere safe(r), I think about all they have had to leave behind — homes, furniture, assets, educations, family, friends.

Some have lost their husbands, wives and children, killed en route.

In the 1970s, 200,000 Chileans fled the regime of Augusto Pinochet, many headed to my country, Canada. There was then a flight from Santiago that, after 3 stops, landed in Toronto, where they would claim refugee status.

There were no razor-wire-topped fences hastily being built, as in Hungary now. But the refugees had to begin a long, slow process of finding advocates to legally represent them; as a college student studying Spanish, I did some volunteer interpreting.

I will never forget what I heard, even if I wish I could — horrific narratives of rape, imprisonment, torture. It was difficult work, for them (proud, traumatized men, many my father’s age, having to recount the worst moments of their life to a young and unfamiliar woman and other strangers) and for me (I had no idea the world could be so cruel. Their stories, decades later, live in my head.)

When you leave your country of origin, (which I did at 30, leaving Canada for the U.S., admittedly under no duress), you start anew. Your life, your accomplishments, your advanced degrees from places no one here has ever heard of or attended…sometimes vanish overnight.

No one knows your parents or went to the same schools or ate the same food. They didn’t watch the same television shows or read the same writers.

Not only do you now not know a soul, the people on whom you must now rely — landlords, banks, police, neighbors, teachers, medical staff, the legal system — are unfamiliar. You may shake at the very sight of a uniform or a gun.

And they use words and phrases they know well, and which may make no sense to you, either as language or as functional concepts.

A new language must be learned, the streets and transit systems of a new city or or town. A new national anthem and currency. You will miss subtle cultural cues everyone else understands, sometimes for decades to come.

A French laundromat washing machine...quite incomprehensible!
A French laundromat washing machine…quite incomprehensible!

If you’re fortunate enough to have classic capital — money, savings, assets you can liquidate like gold or jewels — you’ve got something to start with.

The most crucial, though, in my experience, is social capital — the vast network of people who know, like and trust you enough to refer you into their valued networks. You need a job, an income, a place to start again.

Too often, especially here in a dog-eat-dog place like New York, people lucky enough to find a lifeboat pull up their oars, so to speak. No, they will not help you or return your emails or phone calls or texts.

That takes time to accumulate and to acquire. Here, I see it used (and abused) most powerfully among those who attended the same colleges and universities, sometimes the elite prep schools that feed them. Alumni networks here seem of paramount importance compared to my prior experience in a nation with 10 percent of the U.S. population.

A Paris street -- quite different from anything in the U.S.
A Paris street — quite different from anything in the U.S.

We recently sat with a working-class friend who came to the U.S. from Eastern Europe at 24 with $200 in her pocket. “I had no idea what I was doing,” she said.

I arrived in New Hampshire, via Montreal, and would honestly now say that I didn’t either. Had I known how hard it would be to reinvent, I doubt I would have made the leap. And I was fortunate — young, healthy, educated, with work experience and savings.

I had visited the U.S. many times before I moved here and it’s not that big a shock — not like trading Syria for Sweden, for example.

But we’re here now, with friends and hair salons and dentists and a gym we like. Apartments with views that we treasure.

Imagine leaving this behind -- Nicaragua
Imagine leaving this behind — Nicaragua

And the hard-won knowledge that we did it.

From Wikipedia:

Human development theory describes human capital as being composed of distinct social, imitative and creative elements:

  • Social capital is the value of network trusting relationships between individuals in an economy.

  • Individual capital, which is inherent in persons, protected by societies, and trades labour for trust or money. Close parallel concepts are “talent“, “ingenuity“, “leadership“, “trained bodies”, or “innate skills” that cannot reliably be reproduced by using any combination of any of the others above. In traditional economic analysis individual capital is more usually called labor.

Have you left behind your country of origin for a new one?

How has it worked out for you?

24 thoughts on “Re-starting your life elsewhere — what it really means

  1. Caitlin: This really resonating with me. One of our closest friends, Carmen Rodriguez, now a noted Canadian writer, was one of the people displaced by Pinochet. It was especially difficult for her then husband, who was older and never learned to speak English that well. He was a physicist and had to get his Ph.D. all over again. She re-started her life, too, and is at the center of a Chilean diaspora in Vancouver. But it has not been easy.

  2. debra

    In 1962, my father came to Canada from Scotland when I was six. Three months later, my mother with 4 children under the age of 7, sailed from Glasgow to Montreal and then caught a train to Toronto to join him. We were six days at sea all with sea sickness and dare I mention again 4 children under the age of 7. How she managed to get us all on and off the ship and onto a train, I can’t imagine. Not a day goes by without my sister, brothers and I thanking them for bringing us to this great country. At the age of 15, my mother-in-law was taken by the Nazis in 1942 and put on a slave labour camp until the end of the war. She became a DP unable to get into Poland. She ended up in England where she met my father-in-law another Pole. He and his family were taken by the Russians in 1939 and sent to a Siberian labour camp for 2 years. Were released in ’41 and took trains, carts and walked into Persia and joined the Polish Corp with the British Army under Montgomery. His parents were sent to Uganda to wait out the war. They all eventually met up in England as the Russians had taken over both their farm and home in the city. English was learned by listening to the radio. Two children were born and in 1957, they came to Canada and very rarely made it back to Poland….I look at the current crisis and it makes me admire my parents and especially my in-laws all the more…they all came to Canada to have a better life because that was the reputation Canada had back then, the land of golden opportunities.Harper has done his best to ruin that destroy that reputation. Sorry for the lengthiness of my post, but my admiration for both sets of parents knows no bounds…..

  3. Great post Cailin. I can’t begin to imagine the trauma of the situation. I think a lot of Canadians are planning to reach out to help the refugees.

  4. I have been thinking about this topic a lot this week- because while we often call ourselves “expats”, which sounds fancier- I am a migrant worker. I am a migrant. They are calling the refugees on the news migrants. Right now I’m living in Kazakhstan, previously I lived in Dubai and South Korea. It has worked out well, but sometimes I have conflicting emotions about the kind of ‘social capital’ I’m building when I’ve moved so often. I don’t know where home is anymore or how to answer “where are you from”, so I say I’m American. Great post.

    1. Thanks so much for sharing this…

      It’s a question I grapple with. I’ve been in the U.S. 25 years but do not call myself (why?) an immigrant. Maybe because I didn’t expect to stay so long. Maybe expat sounds more glamorous? 🙂

      I moved 5 times between 1982 and 1989, changing countries twice (France/Canada/U.S.) — it was exhausting! It really takes time to create deep roots, so I know something of how you feel.

  5. I did, in a way. So far, I haven’t been disappointed. Now it’s just a matter of finding some way to stay. I’ve applied for over 80 jobs, and some of them are here in Germany, but there’s no guarantee I’ll be considered for any of those. Well, I have to hope and keep trying and see what happens. Fingers crossed!

  6. It will be 30 years since I left my home country Sri Lanka and settled in Australia. It is a tough ask and it depends on individual’s situation.

    For some it is their own choice and if they dont like their new home , they could always go back to their roots again – but for some there is no way of returning back and do not have choices. They pick the safe haven given to them and build their lives on it – Hope all the Syrian refugees get a safe place to rest and restart their lives.

    I have read and met lots of traumatised Sri Lankans who have happily settled in Canada. Thank You Canadians!

    1. Thank you for sharing!

      You make a very good point — and one that people forget — sometimes your new home is a place you have to adapt to, or else. That doesn’t make it any easier, though. I can imagine few places, in every way, more different than Sri Lanka (which I have yet to visit) and Australia (which I have.)

      Canada has historically been very welcoming to refugees, which is a source of pride for some Canadians. Getting a good job there? I wonder, though. I think too many immigrants end up in lower-level work after having had very good jobs in their home countries. I’ve been lucky in being able to compete fairly effectively here with American peers.

  7. what an amazing and life-changing experience this must have been for you. i’ve met a couple of families who had escaped iraq during a window of opportunity, who were living at my daughter’s apartment. exactly as you described, they had begun their lives over, with advanced degrees, and past lives no longer relevant in their present. we befriended them and tried to help them with some basic systems and connecting to places that could be of help. i was in awe of them as human beings and survivors with a will to live and go on, in spite of all the hardships put upon them. as i watch the syrian refugee crisis now, i am reminded of them and drawn to a strong desire to do something to help, knowing there is so much fear and hurt and unknown ahead of them. i am hopeful that the world will step up to help, myself included.

    1. It felt like a raindrop hitting the ocean — I was terrified of coming to the U.S., persuaded I could never rebuild my social capital here. I never have. Canada only has 10% of the U.S. population and I still have a wider, deeper network there…I sometimes find American work culture (East coast anyway) impenetrable. I’ve done OK but it’s been so much harder than it looked. 🙂

      I reached out last night on a Twitter chat and may have found a few places with which to volunteer…Jose and I are wondering if we could be useful on the ground over there. Trying to find out.

  8. Original story and all replies very moving. I had planned to go as a volunteer ESL teacher, but I am going to look into how I might help refugees find their way here in the U.S. Right now, all countries need to admit people who are fleeing so many horrors in their own countries.

  9. My family have been migrants for several generations. None of us seem to be able to stay put where we were born. I left Singapore for Australia when I was 18 – went to university there. I took a long while to adapt culturally, but I’m educated, spoke the same language, and was a working professional, so it was pretty easy. I’ve been a self styled gypsy for just over 2 and a half years. I don’t have as much money now so life’s a little different, but it’s still not hard. Enjoyable, for the most part.

    I was on the train from Germany to Denmark a couple of days ago, when Danish police stopped all rail, ferry and expressway entries into the country:

    I sat next to a family of refugees, got off the train at Hamburg with them, and was told by the same rail officer that our connecting train to Copenhagen was cancelled, but if we got on the train to Flensburg, we could catch a connection there.

    At Flensburg (near the border), we all got off the train to wait for the connecting one to Copenhagen, and were then told that all the major connections into Denmark were closed. Only option: take a taxi across the border into Tinglev, and catch the train to Copenhagen from the station there.

    The station was crawling with police. My boyfriend and I found 2 others to share a cab with, and all walked out the station, not drawing so much as a glance from any of the police officers. There was a waiting cab right outside.

    As we piled our bags and selves into the cab, one of the refugees we had shared our first train with, was talking with police officers, and a German (i think) lady holding a bag of things and a big bottle of water, who looked like she was being prevented from going into the station.

    Before the cab drove off, I heard him say to the police officer “I just need water for the children” and she was telling him “I have some here for you” (all in English).

    The policy with refugees here in Europe seems to be changing from day to day. On that particular day, with all the mass transit options across the border shut down, I expected to have to show my passport once we neared the German-Danish border.

    You know what though? We swanned into Denmark in that cab, got out at the station, and caught our connection train like nothing had happened. There were no authorities checking anyone in at the border, in cars, at the station, or anywhere else.

    I got to my destination a couple of hours late, but with no fuss. I don’t know what happened to all the people who were being held at Flensburg. Were they allowed to get on the train to Denmark then Sweden the next day, when the rules changed again? Were they sent back to Hamburg? Are they still in Flensburg? Or being held somewhere in Denmark?

    I’ve been trying to get my head around the significance of what happened that day. I shared a train carriage, destination and re-routed connection to Copenhagen with a group of refugees. But I might as well have been in a parallel universe.

  10. I can’t say I’ve done anything close to as hard as leaving my home country. But I know a bit about having to recreate and reinvent yourself. I did so after divorce and found myself clinging fiercely to some familiar bits so not everything was a wash–my house, my job, a routine. I can’t begin to imagine how these people feel but am heartened each day when I see the kindness they’re meeting around the world–in stark contrast to the horrors they fled.

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