Displaced but Belong

The theme for ElShaddai Centre’s 2022 celebration of World Refugee Day is “Displaced but Belong”. As I reflect on the words ‘displaced’ and ‘belong’, I realise that the meaning of these two words could not be more opposing and contradictory to each other, yet it is a reality lived by refugees around the world. How does one find a sense of belonging in a new and strange place after being forcefully displaced from a place that they call home? How does one build the sense of identity around the country that they were raised in, and the country that they are trying to integrate in? 

A refugee is someone who has been forced to leave their country because of war, persecution, conflict, and natural disasters. No one chooses to leave a familiar life that they have built, nor their comfort, culture, and home behind to become a refugee, unless there are no other options. Being a “refugee” does not define a person’s character – it only describes the circumstance in which they were put in. In fact, it is a situation that can happen to anyone, anywhere. 

A group of refugees travelling together
An Arab family walking up from the beach toward a road on the north coast of the Greek island of Lesbos

Refugees in Malaysia come from diverse backgrounds that shape their sense of belonging and adaptability here in Malaysia. Some refugees were born in their country of origin and only came to Malaysia in recent years, and many of them still have loved ones back in their home country. For refugees in this category, the memories of life back home and their recent trauma are probably still fresh in their minds. With this fresh and painful experience, they are immediately pushed into another wave of challenges as they arrive in Malaysia, with a new identity and labelled as a “refugee”. They are expected to survive, to make a living and to adapt in the Malaysian lifestyle. They are to struggle through unfriendly and discriminatory situations while facing an uncertain future. 

Some routes taken by refugees to reach Malaysia
Refugee children

I believe the geographical proximity of the refugee’s country of origin to Malaysia plays a role in how well they can adapt to Malaysia’s culture, environment, and lifestyle, as well as their sense of belonging here. For example, refugees from the Southeast Asian countries like Myanmar share similar food tastes, culture, physical features, and climate. While it is true that having the above similarities may ease a refugee’s process in adapting to their new environment, it does not prevent them from facing other challenges from society. These include discrimination, violence and the risk of detention.

A mother and her young child

Some may not know this, but there are many refugees who are born and raised in Malaysia. Refugees born in Malaysia are mostly descendants of refugees who fled their country years or decades ago and have built generations of kinship here in Malaysia. Most of them speak fluent Bahasa, wear the same clothing, eat the same food, and enjoy the same entertainment as Malaysians do. With that said, to many of them, Malaysia is the only home that they have ever known. For refugees in this category, they are being put in an “in-between” space that on one hand, they find a sense of belonging with the place that they were born and raised in, and yet they could never truly “belong”. From a society’s point of view, they will always be viewed as a “foreigner”. 

I have spent some years overseas, so to a very limited extent, I can relate to the experience of constantly being put in this “in-between” space. I found comfort and a sense of belonging to the new place that I moved to, yet at the back of my mind, I knew that I would still be a foreigner. Being in this “in-between” space means that my heart is neither fully here nor there – it is accepting that I will have to live in the in-between for the rest of my life. In my own experience, there is both beauty and chaos living and identifying in this in-between space. So, for refugees living in this in-between reality, it is their constant struggle to navigate their life in this grey area whilst they are still in Malaysia. 

A young lady doing some work
Portrait of syrian man

As I wrote at the beginning, it is difficult to reconcile and integrate the two opposing ideas of being displaced and yet, belong. However, I would like to say that it is not an impossible task. Writing this as a Malaysian Chinese, I believe when our ancestors first arrived on the shores of Malaya seeking for a better life, they too, hoped to be understood and treated fairly. The least we could do as a society is to help someone minimize the difficulty of adapting to our country by the smallest action of kindness and an open mind to embrace a new diversity.  Extend your kindness and make the feeling of “belong” a little bit easier for someone who was unfortunately displaced.