I am an accidental migrant. I never wanted or needed to leave home. Not at 18 when I left to pursue higher education nor at 34 when I married Brad.
I miss the life I left behind and the incredible richness of my culture on most good days and definitely on every hard day. Far from home, migrants can never put into words our complicated relationship with our host country. To survive in my new life, I have to forget a lot of what I have left behind.
In the 14 years I have lived away from home I have had the immense privilege to be able to visit my family every year. Today as I hang up the phone with my 80-year-old aunt, who has always lived with my family and is like my mother, I wonder, is this the last time we will talk? My parents, my brothers, my nephews and nieces and all my closest friends are all in lockdown in Pakistan.
Karachi is already a place racked with all kinds of challenges and is ripe for a massive outbreak of Covid-19. My father who suffers from a debilitating auto-immune condition is easily the most vulnerable in my family. I wonder will he ever meet his new grandson?
Migrants often leave their closest family members to start a new life in another country. We arrive in different guises but underneath we all carry a similar burden of leaving behind a world which we know and understand.
Some like me, privileged with education, class, and the right accent can “pass” in my host society as an insider. More often though, first-generation immigrants are on the margins of society, not comfortable in English and working for minimum or less than living wages in spite of their qualifications.
One of the ways immigrants navigate loss is by finding comfort in the familiar. Far from home, with little to no access to return, first-generation immigrants cluster in ethnic enclaves. They move to places where there are other immigrants like them, and they fill their neighborhoods with the sights and smells of the home they have left behind.
I remember my first year in Montreal realizing how much I missed the things I took for granted in Karachi: the call to prayer, the local music, the ease in communication and the knowledge of where I belonged. Leaving Karachi drew out just how much I am shaped by where I grew up and how it will always define my identity. Having mixed-race children with dual nationalities has complicated my identity and my relationship to home even more.
This week the fear that I have in the past buried and placated with yearly trips home arises in the center of my chest. I can’t help but think of the dreaded phone call letting me know that something has happened to someone I love. The distance feels unbearable and all I have is distraction and prayer to survive.
All of us are in this boat of uncertainty together with the illusion of control thrown overboard. I’m living with the helplessness that if something does happen to anyone in my family I cannot travel there. And I am not alone. More and more people, irrespective of their immigration status, share my predicament.
Covid-19 has stripped bare our privileges, exposed our vulnerabilities individually and collectively, and demonstrates how meaningful in-person human connection is. We are reminded that we are all vulnerable to catastrophic and sudden changes and that there have always been people living with treacherous uncertainty and fear.
I hope this crisis can teach us to look with mercy into each other’s worlds. During this time, we have the most bittersweet of opportunities to stand in this groundlessness together.