From an Immigrant to a Local - a never-ending journey
Immigration and Challenges of Indigenization
The webinar, “From an Immigrant to a Local-A Never Ending Journey” was organized on October 5, 2020. A sizable number of people including activists, scholars, academics, historians, journalists, poets, students and social workers attended the webinar on Zoom and watched the event on Facebook. The topic expressed the need to understand the emotional, psychological, familial, social, cultural, religious, political and economic factors playing role in the process of genuine integration of an immigrant. The organizers invited speakers from two generations covering over four decades of Pakistani people´s migration to Europe and North America. Dr Khalid Sohail, a renowned psychiatrist, philosopher, poet, author and social activist spoke his personal experiences in Pakistan of the 70s that compelled him to migrate. A successful story of integration, he shared his experiences and professional learnings of the host society and migrants as well. On the other hand, Haroon Ali, journalist, activist, documentary maker and author, shared his emotional pain of belonging to a broken family of a Pakistani father and Dutch mother. He expressed his sexual orientation as gay and its impacts on Pakistani traditional Pakistani mentality, which discourage open dialogue between kids and parents and patriarchal control over the teenage children especially girls. He shared his emotional experience of travelling to Pakistan and writing a long letter to his half brother that ended up as a recently published book, titled as, “Half”.
Unity in Diversity
After a short welcome, program host invited the moderator to give a short introduction to the Organization of Progressive Pakistanis (OPP). He described OPP as a forum of and for the immigrants of Pakistani origins especially the people who have progressive ideas and want to see Pakistan as a progressive, secular and humanist society. He said OPP wanted to eliminate discrimination through peaceful dialogues. He said OPP has already conducted around 20 such dialogues on diverse but relevant themes within the last three years. Explaining the theme of the webinar, Mr Bhatti said guest workers that came in Europe in the 60s and 70s wanted to go back but stayed. Their younger generation saw dreams of integration and equal citizenships but experienced conflicts of perceptions in homes, streets, schools and media. This conflict created split personalities with opposing emotional and cultural pull. He said some communities were comparatively easily integrated and some still feel difficult while the recent rise of war right is another dimension that has further complicated the equation. Talking about Pakistani society, he gave the example of Biharis, Mohajirs, Parsis and Hindus for whom indigenization and re-indigenization proved to be an ongoing process spanning over generations and decades. Concluding his presentation, he mentioned OPP´s vision, “Unity in Diversity” as both a path and the journey for immigrants and hosts simultaneously.
The Crises of Multiple Identities
Haroon Ali said his father visited the Netherlands in the late 70s with a couple of friends but decided to stay. He adopted European values of modern, secular society and as a young man married a Dutch girl who, without any pressure, converted to Islam. The family culture, however, remained secular as a beautiful amalgamation of Catholicism, Islam and secularism. The problems, however, started emerging with kids (Haroon and his sister) reached puberty and started exercising their inherent freedom as an individual. The father, on the other hand, had different ideals of traditional Pakistani and Muslim background, as wanted to control his kids. The lack of open dialogue further complicated the situation and finally led to divorce. This divorce gave them freedom and he was able to assert his sexual orientation as gay and his sister decided to live in a partnership with a man without marriage. He explained how over the years he experienced creeping racism and rejection in the society and felt the same emotional and cultural vacuum. He finally decided to experience his Pakistani roots and visited Pakistan for two months and documented his visits and interactions to make a documentary film. He explained his recently published book, “Half” as a long letter written to his half-brother. He said this book is a message to his brother that it is good to have multiple identities and accepting oneself and others make one a better and stronger person.
Open yourself to open others
Dr Khalid Sohail shared his story of migration while telling that his paternal family was highly educated, non-traditional and interested in intellectual pursuits. He said great Urdu/Punjabi poet Arif Abdul Mateen was his uncle who was a great inspiration in his life. He advised him to leave Pakistan after when Dr Sohail, as a young doctor, told him that he was an atheist. He went to Iran and finally settled in Canada in 70s where he found people welcoming and compassionate. He shared the story of a nurse who invited him to Christmas mass and dinner. Later, he fell in love with a Canadian woman who had a 12 years old adopted girl. They stayed with each other for years and finally separated amicably without harbouring resentments. The young girls chose to live with him. He shared many experiences as a professional psychiatrist how emotional traumas, split personalities, the crisis of (not) belonging and cultural vacuum played role in distorting the psychologies and breaking up the families. He said compassion and capacity to accept always played a decisive positive role at individual and collective levels. He shared a story of a young Pakistani man who married a Christian woman without the blessings of his parents but finally, with grandkids, they reunited with each other. He shares a folk tale that depicted the difference between hell and heaven saying that self-centred, fear-based possessiveness was hell while heaven meant a state of mind, which enables you to share your resources and love with compassion. He endorsed Haroon Ali´s experiences and crises and cited my examples of his patients who faced similar crises of sexual identity and cultural uprootedness. He concluded by saying that one needed to open himself/herself to be able to influence others especially in a society like Canada where sometimes three generations live under one roof with so different rather opposing values.
Questions and Answers
Education, technological skills and liberal values
An opinion followed by a question, a participant said most of our immigrants opt to marry in the back home family even after enjoying years of partying, drinking, dating or partnerships. The enjoy and earn here but they don’t integrate intentionally by deciding not to open. He asked if speakers have seen any change in this context. Responding to his observation, Haroon Ali said people of his dad´s generation saw a big difference in values, cultures and world views but now younger generations are migration with less difference with less cultural shock. Dr Sohail said the socio-economic class also played a big role as old migrants belonged to working classes so their journey was different from new migrants with a background of modern education and comfortable financial status. He also raised the issue of gender saying that the journey of an immigrant woman is different from a man. Normally, when she gets a degree and driving license, she is less prone to discrimination. Another participant said younger migrants are coming with different mindsets as they are coming as professional or for higher education. Sometimes, they are already married with kids and the conflicts of values come forward when these kids grow up. One participant viewed educated people with broad world view could integrate easily. He said liberal values are equally essential as education and technological skills. Identity relates to other´s perception of yourself. He said he considered himself Marxist and humanist, but people saw him as a Pakistani Muslim, so he had to resolve this issue of difference in perceptions.
Multiple challenges need multiple changes
A young man from Greece said he had to face multiple problems from being Pakistani and Muslim starting from the school. He asked why the older generation felt difficult to integrate and what was the nature of their cultural and emotional crises? Dr Sohail replied by saying that real change needs multiple transformations as some people change intellectually while others change emotionally but mixing with other cultures was always an enriching experience. He said the older generation connected sex with guilt and shame rather than love, compassion and acceptance. It is a psychological, social and cultural matter and there is no straight jacket for all. Some people learn easily and others wait for a crisis. He quoted a saying that human minds are parachutes that works when it is open. Haroon Ali said when they come, they enjoy society drinking alcohol and having sex with local women. But then later´, when their kids become big, they resort to their strict mentality. They tried to block the same western experiences and values from their children. Had my father been more open and showed me something positive about Pakistan and Islam, I would have gone to Pakistan much earlier and I would have tried to reconcile my gay and Muslim identities. I did not get this from my father. We should let our children explore themselves.
Distorted Version of Political Islam
Another participant opined that it is a clash between liber and illiberal cultures, values and worldviews. Is it not true that most of the problems of confrontation involve Muslims whereas Hindus, Buddhists, Sikh and others don’t translate differences in the confrontation? He said Muslim´s attitudes hardened perhaps after the Iranian revolution and the urge to export their values in all the world. He mentioned the Hijab issue and the rise of anti-immigrant parties, which demanded the state´s intervention and the collective struggle of progressive sections of the society and people at large. Haroon Ali said they present a very distorted version of Islam. The Islam the immigrant practice is very outdated Saudi version of Islam. He said in Pakistan he met people with multiple perceptions of Islam. He said Muslims in the West want to see “Either-Or” and “Black and White” situations. They want something pure which is not possible. Though their countries do have diversity however, in the West they stick to only hard sensibilities expressed in issues like Hijab. Dr Sohail agreed that it is harder to integrate for Muslims. Many people used to tell me privately that they were atheist or agnostics or free thinkers. There are many cultural and religious pressure they feel in accepting their true intellectual identity. At this moment, people are afraid, and they need icons and role models.
Religion, Sexuality and Feminism
Talking about his book, “Half”, Haroon Ali said he decided to write non-fiction because he wanted to quote all the activists he interviewed directly. He said wanted to use his book to show the Dutch society some of the aspects hidden from them about religion, sexuality and feminism. At this moment, One participant asked him if he had read the Quran in Dutch translation and how he could reconcile his identity as gay? Haroon Ali replied I read Quran in Arabic as my father wanted me to do but later, I read Dutch translation. I realize that Islam does not look positively towards my sexuality. Ms Van La Terzi asked How did young Pakistanis related to his story and what was their response to his book? He replied that most of the messages I receive are from the kids with a Pakistani father and local mother who mostly got divorced. Very lengthy messages telling that it is their story as well. He said communication with Pakistani father is a big issue for migrant´s kids especially girls of the mixed family. In the absence of open communication and trustful dialogue, the kids start doing things in secret. Or when they chose their freedom, they lose a relationship with the father.
Cultural Diversity, Integration and Patriarchal Mindset
One of the participants said integration broadly means, learning the local language, getting a job and adopting and respecting local values. He asked why most of Pakistanis and people from Eastern cultures speak the language, work hard and earns a lot, but falter on respecting the local values? Why do they start worrying about their native values and religious sensibilities when especially daughters start exercising freedom of choice? Is this patriarchal mindset that gets them scared? Haroon Ali agreed by saying that it is difficult for them to overcome their fear. It is a patriarchal fear of sexuality. Dr Khalid replied that they try to connect socio-cultural values with religious ideology claiming to have ultimate truth, which negates the reality of the existence of multiple truths. It could happen to all religions and origins. We will have to respect each other values instead of resorting to self-righteousness while terming others as wrong and evil. Another participant argued, the solution will come only from science and technology and modern values of humanity.
Melting Pot or Diversity with Identity?
One participant asked how to become a local especially given social and cultural issues of the second generation living here with myriad political? Dr Sohail said when I came to Canada in late 70, there was a major discussion between Canada and the USA. American believed in Melting Pot philosophy that demanded leaving your local values and become American, but Canada forwarded the concept that you can have your own identity while becoming Canadian. He said having more than one identity is more enriching. Haroon Ali said the white population want to see the Melting Pot where they expect you to leave your values and respective identities. But my generation is adopting the Canadian approach and result is the conflict at some levels. Pakistani youth will have to assert that I am Pakistani and German or Dutch at the same time. Another participant said It is very important to see that we are different and together. Even everybody in one family is not the same. It is beautiful to have your own culture while being a part of the larger society. How can we change others thinking without being open to change our own? She said my husband is Turkish. I was first to tell my family that I have a boyfriend. Now the other elders of my family are also slowly accepting my husband. If we don’t come out of our cocoons nobody will think differently. How can we change the Pakistani mentality about the future of the young generation? I am worried about my daughter or son. Will they be accepted if they chose differently? How to make this process of change a little faster? A participant who is an accomplished academic said it takes generations sometimes centuries to be accepted and sometimes it does not happen at all. The basic question is what sorts of laws are in society. The laws here do not discriminate. So, this process is on and it is a success story. We need to see this as a two-way story. If you have decided to stay in this society and law is not discriminating, then it is your own process and struggle. These were very repressive societies with the past of colonization’s and holocaust etc but that is past, and they are also in the transformation. A native Dutch female participant said Dutch people don’t believe in Melting Pot mentality. For me, Haroon, you are local and born here. There are a lot of people who believe in this. Another participant said I live in the Netherlands since 2017 and I am worried about my future. I think maybe at the age of 50 or 60 I might also turn towards the same fear mentality. I belong to the Pashtun community in Pakistan which are not well integrated here. Haroon Ali said a lot of problems generate out of the wish to control. Fathers want to control their kids and stop them from integrating into the local culture because they are afraid of losing control. Keep talking to your children and keep having an open discussion and honest conversation when they are choosing their own path. They should have the room to disagree with you. To be honest with each other and respecting your kids.
The Middle Way instead of Extreme Positions
Concluding the discussion with a small presentation, the moderator said 3.5% of the world population is living out of their country because of varying degree of compulsion to leave. They experience discrimination, exploitation, marginalization, denial of fundamental freedoms etc. He said Pakistani immigrants glorify Pakistan but don’t go back. Integration is a two-way process and it is a long and complex process even when the host countries don’t expect us to change our identities, they don’t want to become like them. But the problem starts when we expect the host countries to change according to our values. So, we try to change their values instead of creating some middle way. For example, in recent years the discussions on Christmas celebration, having a Christmas tree or to congratulate on Christmas shows the depth of the moral and cultural crisis. Many among the new generation resist the process of localization or integration because we tell them so many negative things about the local culture that unconsciously they refuse integration. He said there is no formula as everyone must decide for himself/herself.
Report by: Shiraz Raj is a freelance journalist, writer and poet. He writes for various national and international media outlets.