I clearly recall the date when I arrived in my new city in Sweden. As a middle-aged woman, I reached my destination without knowing anything about the days to come. I had left behind my son alone in that restless part of the world where I was threatened and where every day was like my last day.
Usually, anyone who dares to risk a new beginning at this age would think twice before taking any such action, but I couldn’t, because I simply didn’t have any other option. I wanted to be safe. I wanted to live. I had to leave all my thoughts behind with me with my loving child and moved forward.
There is a difference between those who are forced to leave their country, profession, career, and relatives, and those who leave their country after many years of planning. While both live a life far away from home, there is a significant difference between a planned life abroad and a life in exile.
In a planned life abroad, people are ready to embrace all kinds of unique situations, but in exile, people are traumatized, they feel rootless. I was forced to leave my country, as I had no other option. It was a dark, depressing and sleepless phase of my life.
When I left, I could only save myself. But what about my children?
I heard that my son was complaining, “My Mom has abandoned me”.
Those words haunt me to this day. He is still far away from me. I promised him when I left my country that I would bring him to me, but I have yet to do so. And my daughter, who was supposed to go back home after her completion of the study, now she can’t. My exile and my activism have turned her life upside down! Both of them blame me for their situation. So, it’s not easy for a woman, especially for a mother to make the decision to leave her country and live in exile.
It was April 3rd, 2018. According to the Bengali calendar, it was spring, but the weather in Sweden was totally confusing. I saw snow in Stockholm, but my city was dry and cold. Sofia and Sandra, my two coordinators, were waiting at the train station. I put 50 years’ worth of my treasures into three heavy suitcases and boarded the train.
Those who are coming for shelter are not children anymore. …They had their own public, political, and intellectual lives in their respective countries, and for some reason, they were uprooted, so this wound needs to be cured with love, not by turning them into a project.
I had to try to keep a smile on my face, but when the two women received me, they looked paler than I did. It’s a heavy task and responsibility to handle an exiled person, I thought.
So, I started my lonely life in an unknown world. It was a completely different and indescribable feeling. When I entered my new home, I found it well furnished, there was plenty of food and all the necessary things, but my heart was empty. I felt very lonely, as I was five thousand miles away from my country, my son, and my beloved cats.
When my coordinators met me for the first time, they didn’t know whether to smile or not, or how to receive a woman from a totally different culture, but what I needed more than anything at that time was warmth, love, a hug and human touch, which I didn’t get.
While they were explaining to me how I could meet with them, or call them, I was just feeling let down, because I am used to living in a society where you can call or go to anyone anytime, without a time restriction. But here, everything is official, even human relationships.
Gradually, I became used to society and its people. Whatever they said, I accepted. This country brought me here because they are a humane society; they are famous for their humanitarian activities throughout the world. They give shelter to many people from around the world who are in danger, who are threatened. I am so grateful to them.
But the biggest challenge of all was finding myself. I was a journalist and activist in my country, I had a very active lifestyle, so it was not easy to settle down here. My present was broken into pieces. I had this strange feeling that I didn’t belong anywhere, either in present or in the past, and the future was completely unknown.
After two months of coming here, I became so depressed, so frustrated that I could not sleep. I had no one besides myself to calm me down. Everyone was on summer vacation. Until then, I’d had no idea what vacation meant. In this country, vacation meant a withdrawal from all activities, shutting down mobile phones, e-mail contacts, everything. I used to sit on the park bench and look at the people, but I had no one to talk to. I remember one night when I called the emergency helpline and asked, ‘Can you talk to me so that I can fall asleep?’ I repeated it every night. The whole country was on vacation, and everyone was in a festive mood except for me.
This civilized country treats everything professionally, so they sent me to psychiatrists who are also very professional. I understood that they were experts about the kinds of mental health issues that people in exile go through, but for them I was just a subject. Every time I went, they listened to me attentively, but I cried and felt tired, so I left the session. From my life-long experiences, I knew that I needed someone’s love and attention and my children, especially my son, who I had left alone in Bangladesh. Being a mother, those were the most terrifying days of my life. Those days continue to haunt me to this day.
Everything was going as per usual. My story was being published in many newspapers; I was being interviewed and invited for several talks. I could walk through the city without fear of being targeted for being an activist or a woman. I had no more nightmares. Nevertheless, there was an emptiness, the emptiness of being alone, the emptiness of being rootless and most importantly, the emptiness of losing my own identity. There is a saying that time is the best healer. I waited for that healing. I am still waiting.
Although I succeeded in making many friends from different countries who have made my life very enjoyable and made my transition very easy, whenever I get the opportunity to meet new people, I still do that as much as possible.
Now, when I walk through my small city, I meet many people who know me. It gives me a wonderful feeling. I was in the habit of never depending on anyone to make my life easier. It was not easy at all to tame that restless life. I have been fighting against many things just to cope with this new life and find my place, which is not easy for an exiled person. As a newcomer I need professional help to establish myself here, which I miss very much.
After two years of official exiled life, I recently became a permanent resident here. When everything was supposed to be fine and I should have become more confident, life frowned at me again. The financial and material support stopped, and I found myself in the depths of a rough sea. The language barrier was still the main obstacle. Being integrated into society is a big challenge, and society itself is still not ready to embrace me as an insider, so the whole thing was very difficult. In my 50s, my life still remains uncertain.
I want to be a part of society, but society itself turns away. Exile has been constant throughout the history of mankind. Targeted by death squads, raped by soldiers, tortured by the state, around the world, more than 40 million people have been forced out of their homes. So, I am just a number, nothing else.
But there are also many opportunities that we need to explore and dig into as much as possible. The more people we meet, the more friends we make, the more opportunities will come.
My life has become secured in exile of course, but not cured. To cure the mental and physical wounds, the host countries must take more integrated, friendly initiatives. Specifically, they must count us differently, not just like other immigration seekers. They must handle every person with compassion, love, care, and attention.
The individuals who take care of exiled people must be more careful in their behavior so that these people don’t feel that they are exiled. There was a slogan of ICORN ‘At Home, everywhere.’ Yes, we must feel ‘home’ everywhere, because we intend to live longer and more fruitful lives, and for this, we need more integrated programs for a longer period. To assimilate with a new culture, a new country, and a new language within two years is simply impossible.
More importantly, those who are coming for shelter, are not children anymore. They have their own personality, education, values, and morality. It must be remembered that exiled people are much more sensitive than others. They had their own public, political, and intellectual lives in their respective countries, and for some reason, they were uprooted, so this wound needs to be cured with love, not by turning them into a project.
We need to remember that people cannot be projects, but instead, people have the potential to create good and important projects.
Supriti Dhar is a journalist and a women’s rights activist. She is the Founder Editor of Women Chapter, womenchapter.com/, the first-ever online writing platform for women in Bangladesh. Since its inception in 2013, the Women Chapter has received national and international awards. Currently, she is living in Sweden as an ICORN Guest Writer.