Migrant sons of migrants or citizen sons of migrants?
In discussing the issue of migration from the Arab world to the West, one dimension is usually missing. Migration, whether forced or voluntary, is a movement of people across geography to a new location or country.
One picks up his family and moves away from his country only to find a strange world waiting for him. This new world might turn out to be easy and simple but it can also be difficult and alienating. In all cases, immigrants need to adapt to the new reality.
Is this what is happening with Arab immigrants to the West? It was indeed so for some time. During the 1960s and 1970s, generations of migrants chose voluntary migration, generally for economic rather than political reasons. It can be said they were, and still are, the most adapted to the reality of living in the West.
They settled, with whatever money and memories they had with them, in societies with different value systems but which they considered better for them. It wasn’t better in absolute terms, considering that those societies were Western ones and we were oriental but they seemed a better option for the immigrant who had to choose between East and West and settled on what he deemed best. By doing so, he decided for himself and his children.
The 1980s generation of immigrants constituted a turning point from those who accepted to assimilate to those who refused to do so. Because of the growing problems in the East, an increasing number of people left their countries and families in search of a secure and decent living.
It is possible to put one’s finger on the biggest effort made by the 1980s generation to adapt. Their life outside the home was devoted to work but at home they tried to mimic the habits and memories they had left behind. This cultural schizophrenia is apparent in their children, who have become, linguistically and behaviourally, a hybrid between East and West. Their psychological link to the homeland was not broken but it is not solid enough to fully attract them back to it.
Migrants of the 1990s and beyond behaved in their host countries with the belief that they were expelled and displaced from their countries of origin. For them, welfare cheques came before work; news from the homeland was more important than understanding what was happening in the new homeland; living in Arab and Muslim ghettos was preferred to living and coexisting with society with all its segments; and adhering to traditions and religious rituals was more important than understanding what is acceptable and what is not in a Western society with a different way of life.
One cannot blame them, however, for most of them were uprooted from their villages and towns and were not ready for such drastic changes. Satellite channels first then the internet contributed to creating an illusion of communication and communion with the homeland through a daily media bombardment of channels and news sites. The media onslaught grew stronger because of social media and smartphones with free instant messaging apps.
In Western countries, you can easily find an Arab family living among Arab neighbours and which has never spoken to a Western person, except for an immigration official or welfare officer through an interpreter. They would only know a few dozen words of the language of the host country and would buy only products from so-called Islamic grocery stores. They would not know anything about the government structure in the country where they live, except perhaps for the name of the prime minister.
The only news they hear would be tragedies befalling relatives back home. Some of them might save some of their welfare cheques for the purpose of sending money to needy people back home or, paradoxically, saving it to build a home or establish a business when they return.
Religion and rituals — and nothing else — are the focus of their lives in the West. Their children are bewildered since they speak the language of their new country but still think like their parents. Instead of integrating or at least trying to adapt, they become increasingly isolated and Western host societies become increasingly suspicious of them.
Migration is a historical fact. People’s movements since ancient times are all forms of migration. The Islamic conquests were a form of migration and so were the Christian crusades, Western colonisation or the enslavement of blacks in plantations.
The immigrant bundles with him his memories and habits and sets off, willingly or unwillingly, towards the unknown. He could become the master of the new land or a mere labourer there. He could kill the people he finds or be shackled on arrival. But migration, traditionally, was based on settlement and the establishment of new communities with different values that may combine the old and the new. The most important aspect of migration is psychological stability, despite the personal tragedies embedded in the process.
Acclimatisation is necessary as long as there is room for choice. Today’s migrant is fortunate in some respects because he goes to communities that live in relative security and that helps him to meet the minimum of his needs and requirements, allowing him to recover some of his dignity. It is a chance for a new beginning, if not for the parents, then for their children. They are like new plants in a new land and they need to accept the land if they want the land to accept them.
Our children, especially those born in the West, have a crucial choice to make: either be immigrants descending from immigrants or be citizens descending from immigrants.