June 18, 2024


I Fall For Art

The Immigrant Experience: Life in Diaspora

Most immigrants arrive in their new host country with great expectations. They have said good-bye to friends and family, traveled long distances and taken huge risks to finally arrive at their destination–the new land of “milk and honey.” This new country, the immigrant have been told, holds a higher standard of living, plenty of work and opportunities galore. Compared to what the standard of living was like in their homeland, life in this new capitalist haven should be fantastic, right? Well, yes and no.

Even under the best circumstances, immigrating to a new country can be a harrowing experience. Life in diaspora is often more difficult than previously foreseen. No matter how well prepared one thinks one is, inevitably, there are things that will catch one by surprise. Bewilderment, confusion and eventually, disappointment can set in when reality meets fantasy–when the envisioned dream of life in the “promised land” and the day-to-day reality of life in the new host country do not match.

Upon entry into the country of destination, the migrant has to focus upon the major issues at hand: gaining resident status, employment and a place to live. However, even if the migrant has managed to acquire these fundamental necessities, a number of hurdles remain to be crossed–hurdles that are both psychosocial and economic in nature. To a large degree, the immigrant experience is shaped by how well one has prepared for these problems. An old saying states that, “to be forewarned, is to be forearmed.”

Those who are unprepared will not fare as well as those who have pre-armed themselves with knowledge about the conflicts they will face, along with useful strategies to combat those conflicts–the knowledge plus action framework.

However, in this article let’s look at some of the psychosocial problems typically affecting immigrants’ life.

Psychosocial Issues Affecting Migrants

• Grief and Loss Issues

Traveling hundreds of miles and separating from one’s family, home and culture can create tremendous feelings of loss. Even if the migrant is excited about emigrating and even if the situation at home was less than to be desired, there is still an accompanying sense of loss felt by the migrant–and loss always requires adequate mourning.

Letting go of the past and moving into the future can be an exciting adventure, but underneath the “adrenaline high” lies a great deal of sadness and physiological stress. Psychologists tell us that change always produces stress in one’s life. This happens to be the case even when the changes occurring are positive ones. Therefore, the emigration experience feels particularly overwhelming because there is change and concomitant stress in nearly every aspect of one’s life–geographic, economic, social and cultural. Feelings may run the gamut of both high and low extremes, all in the course of a single day. While the migrant may feel joy at their new found opportunities, that joy is continually punctured by loneliness for loved ones back home and in some cases, a sense of guilt that the migrant is in a better place than those left behind.

Grief and loss issues are not limited to the immediate post-migration phase. It can take years to settle in to a new country of residence and during that entire period, grief issues can make themselves keenly felt. Furthermore, even though many migrants consider their life abroad as temporary, not knowing when one will return home produces an uncertainty about the future that further fuels feelings of sorrow.

• Isolation

Isolation is an essential part of Diasporas’ life. A condition universal to any immigrant experience, it may be seen as one of the defining factors of living in exile. Isolation is a two-fold problem, and can be felt as isolation from other immigrants, and/or isolation from the native population in the host country.

The degree of isolation migrants experience in Diaspora depends upon on the immigrant status–those awaiting verdicts on asylum cases, those with temporary status and those who have no legal documentation are likely to feel a greater degree of isolation from the rest of the population than those who possess permanent legal status. Legal and permanent status affords one a sense of belonging and makes it easier to begin the process of laying down physical and psychological roots to the host country. For those without legal documentation, isolation will exist indefinitely and will be one of the foremost elements of their life in Diaspora, affecting all of their decisions and actions for as long as they reside in the host country.

While isolation is an experience usually felt by the individual migrant, marginalization is felt by the entire sub-population of migrants. As a group, foreigners are often marginalized–pushed to the fringes of society, where they remain, unaccepted by the native majority. Marginalization can also turn into discrimination and structuralized racism, whereby the migrant group is prevented from assimilating into, or advancing within, the host country. Both individual isolation and group marginalization can produce acute feelings of loneliness, which in turn enter into a cycle with grief and loss. Feelings of grief can trigger feelings of loneliness, which then lead to a sense of isolation. As well, the cycle is self-perpetuating and any element within it can trigger the other two elements.

• Culture shock

Culture shock refers to the feelings of alienation and estrangement that accompany the process of learning to adapt to a new host culture. Even if one’s destination country speaks the same language that the immigrant is accustomed to, people in the new country will speak that language using different accents, dialects, euphemism and idioms. They will use unique body language or gestures and will behave in ways that the migrant is not accustomed to. Different cultures operate using different underlying normative assumptions. As a result, trying to adapt to a new culture can feel as if one is trying to learn the rules of an invisible system with no accompanying guidebook or manual–a frustrating and often bewildering experience.

For example, migrants may be puzzled by the me-oriented “cult of individualism” that pervades in the West. They may also be somewhat surprised by Westerners’ “worship” of youth and disregard for seniors. In turn, Western society, with its emphasis upon the nuclear family, will not easily understand the African practice of polygamy, nor the customary loyalty to extended family and the practice of supporting relatives back home. Furthermore, the excessive nudity and pornography found in European and North American culture may offend some immigrants, whose home culture tends to adopt a more modest approach. As a result, some migrants may view the standard behavior commonly found in the West as overly liberal, immodest or even vulgar.

For those migrants who are migrating to highly developed countries, going from a land where basic food and shelter is in short supply to the other extreme–where one is flooded with food and commodities–can be a disconcerting experience. A highly developed capitalist culture with a glut of excess can be confusing and disorienting to exiles who are used to more frugal lifestyles. Bombarded by an endless array of choices when there used to be none, some migrants may feel temporarily dizzy from the “glitz and bling” of Western capitalist culture. For younger migrants, such as university students, it is easy to become sidetracked and distracted from their goals especially during the initial post-migration period–how does one stay balanced and focused when one feels as if one is living in “Disneyland”?

Trying to adjust to new foods can also affect one physically. One may become ill until one’s body adjusts to the different types of food and drink consumed in the new host country, and the excess amounts.

A new culture means learning about new holidays, new social rituals and new political and bureaucratic systems. Having to learn fundamentals like these can make one feel like a child again. Furthermore, starting over when one is an adult past the age of thirty can be a nerve-wracking experience.

• Trauma

Trauma is a complicated emotional state that is different from loss, grief or anger (although it can include all of these emotions). It is a psychological condition that involves shock, distress and long-term emotional and cognitive effects. Trauma is considered to be a normal reaction to extreme events, such as experiencing violence, sexual abuse, war, or living through a natural disaster.

Nightmares, flashbacks, generalized anxiety and depression are all symptoms of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). Symptoms of PTSD can be so intrusive that they can interfere with the ability to function normally in day-to-day life. In many cases, individuals with PTSD will not seek help, due to the social stigma attached to mental health problems. Men, especially, resist seeking treatment because they are socialized to put on a strong front and avoid displaying emotional vulnerability. However, left untreated, PTSD will continue over a lifetime, and can seriously hinder the individual’s ability to work, study or engage in meaningful social relationships. Untreated PTSD can often lead to secondary complications–those suffering from trauma often also suffer from domestic problems and may resort to self-medicating with alcohol or drugs in an effort to cope.

In other destination countries, physical violence may not be the chief concern, but other pressures, such as immigration status, will produce daily stress. Asylum cases often take years to process and during that time, legal access to employment or income benefits is prohibited in many countries. Trying to survive when one is not legally allowed to work can put one in a state of extreme crisis, further heightened by the anxiety of having one’s claim eventually denied. And for those migrants never fortunate enough to acquire legal documentation, attempting to live incognito produces lifelong fear of arrest and deportation, and instills a sense of always having to live life “looking over one’s shoulder”.

For those who are fortunate enough to secure legal immigrant status and to live in a country where violence against foreigners is minimal, low-grade chronic stress is still a feature of daily life. Migrants as a group are at risk for financial strain, lack of social support, and under-employment in poorly paid, monotonous jobs–all of which are factors that lead to chronic, low-grade stress.

Studies show that living a life of prolonged stress can lead to physical and mental health problems as well as early onset of various diseases. These studies also suggest a correspondence between social status and chronic stress levels. Consequently, stress and poor health is a fact of life for many migrants living in Diaspora.

• The “Double Life” Existence and the Pressure to Succeed

Another huge source of chronic stress is the “double life” existence most immigrants lead. Those in Diaspora arrive at their host country feeling enormous pressure to succeed economically. Not only do they have to succeed in order to ensure their own survival, they also have to ensure the survival of others who are relying on them back home.

Many migrants hope to save up enough money to eventually bring home luxuries such as a new car or a down payment on a house. But for many, disappointment and disillusion set in again as they find that they are unable to save enough money to achieve these dreams. Life in the host country is usually more expensive than expected. As one US migrant puts it: “The flush of saved money doesn’t go far in these times when every American dollar that we have buys food and pays bills with nothing left over for the other essentials necessary for life and health. After paying the rent and the bills in the host country, and then sending cash home to waiting relatives, not much is left of a paycheck.

Each day, migrants are arriving in Diaspora with dreams of “making it big.” Meanwhile, structural economic factors in the host country are actively blocking their attempts to produce enough money and resources to achieve these goals. The economic situation for migrants is rife with contradiction and consequently, rife with frustration for the individual living out this contradiction.