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.
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.
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.
And the hard-won knowledge that we did it.
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?