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How long does it take to belong? My personal immigration experience

How long does it take to belong ? …my personal immigration experience, by Norma Vaz

Making the decision to leave my home continent of Africa and to start a new life half-way across the world, was a massive undertaking that took place after years of feeling unsafe, uneasy, restless and discouraged about where the future of South Africa was going. I would have been happy to stay if I felt the government had a handle on the crime, but after experiencing 3 armed break-ins and multiple other ‘small’ episodes that have become just part of life in South Africa, I felt that the immigration process and the journey that would ensue, was a necessity for survival.

After having spoken to many South African immigrants, I know that for most of us, my story will be ever so real and to put things into perspective, I wanted to just go a bit deeper into the subtle but powerful motivators that we encounter on our way….

I really identify with Abraham Maslow, the American psychologist, who became famous for identifying a basic premise that humans have a ‘hierarchy of needs’, if they are to develop and flourish.
Maslow maintained that our most basic need is for physiological survival: shelter warmth, food, drink, and so on. Once these physiological needs are met, individuals then are able to address the need for safety and security, including freedom from danger and absence of threat.

Whilst in SA, I did have a good job with a major newspaper in Joburg, so I was able to give my son and I the shelter, food and warmth that addresses the bottom layer of the Maslow triangle…however, the next tier up was absent – not feeling safe, and in fact feeling like crime could strike anytime and anywhere, made my life feel like it was as fragile as a pack of cards in one of those card-towers.

This was all happening in a time of my life when I desperately wanted to settle down and raise my son with the security of a stable emotional home life and to see him through his school years with as much peace (and normality) as possible. Alas though, I felt this just not possible in SA. After visiting an immigration consultant whilst still in SA, I made the decision to immigrate to the beautiful country of New Zealand as I felt it offered the social and governmental stability of a decent, responsible country.

What I discovered when we moved here was that the initial decision should not have been so hard. It’s normal to fear the unknown, but moving to New Zealand was the best decision I have ever made.

On arrival, I knew that it would not feel like home, but I was determined that I would work hard at making it work ! I also never anticipated the strange sensation of feeling partly at home but also with a strange feeling of feeling like I was not home. My son, however, started school and within a few short weeks, had adapted and had established a new life which included being able to walk to school with his new friends and he was a happy little camper. So far so good…and now onto the next layer in this process….

enter the 3rd Maslow layer…having, no, NEEDING a sense of BELONGING..

To belong really means to be part of something.. to be needed, to feel that you have something to offer which makes you valuable and valued. We all need to have someone who gives affection and shows they care. Having a sense of purpose and connectedness was something that just evolved in my life as it does when you grow up around family and friends that you’ve known, well, forever. This feeling of belonging also affects our self-esteem and gives us emotional stability. Once this is removed , this can leave a hole, which sometimes, you can’t even really identify or put your finger on. This can cause many different reactions, but very commonly a feeling of depression and vulnerability is experienced.

In short, I believe that we need to ”belong”’ be a part of a family, community, society and be accepted.

Joining the South African ex-pat community in the North Shore really helped me and I found the easy company of other SA’frs a great way of connecting in a very easy way, with shared mannerisms, vocabulary and colloquialisms. It was a great stress-reliever to be able to make new friendships with others who had gone through or were going through the same path of forging a new life in a new country. I did not have to feel alone in this journey, what I was experiencing was normal ! how wonderful J

Now, nearly 7 years on and many experiences later, I am no longer feeling restless and disconnected, I feel like I have found my international tribe. This new feeling has come from learning that friendships can be made through shared experiences, being supported and offering support – seeking to understand and to be real and relevant.

Now I know where my home is and although I will never have the childhood experiences of growing up here, I am learning to feel at home because part of this personal immigration journey has also taught me a lot about myself. I have learned to understand and accept myself more and to know that its ok to want to feel safe and secure. I don’t have to believe that because I was unaccepting and yes, fearful of the crime in SA that I’m not a ‘strong’ person. ‘I could never understand why in SA people used the expression, ’Africa is not for sissies’ .. this to me was a misguided attempt at trying to play down the horrors and scope of a country gripped by crime, whilst trying to give the (false) impression of bravery.

It’s just a plain basic need to want to feel safe, and the pre- immigration insecurity, stress and disruption caused by the lack of it now makes sense.… Given the choice, I choose to live in New Zealand, which offers a safe environment, a great lifestyle, a responsible government, friendly people and a country which has a desire to move forward into a better future.

I can now cope with being uprooted and separated from the family and friends who have always been accessible and integral part of my life, because all of this makes sense now. I have learnt to trust myself and recognise that my core values are good and solid and that indeed, I have a lot to offer and as a result, feel valuable and secure.

I’m home now… no longer torn between two different continents … I hope that in sharing just a part of my story, that these words might help someone else in the midst of this life-changing journey.

I believe that people immigrate, not because of a wanderlust, but because of the basic Maslow law of searching for the quality of life that somehow deep down we desire and that we crave if we don’t have it.

Article written by Norma Vaz

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6 comments on “How long does it take to belong? My personal immigration experience

  1. Norma thank you for verbalizing so eloquently what we have all been through. Carole Venecourt

  2. What an article! When we moved over here 5 years ago, we had very little contact with other South Africans, and if we had the whole process would’ve been a lot easier. The South African banks don’t exactly make it easy for people to leave either! That’s why we started Rand Reunite, and we now help South Africans to bring their money into NZ. We feel like it’s our duty to help wherever we can, as we’ve been through this same grueling process! Love the article, I think every expat should read this.

  3. Couldn’t agree with you more! You have captured the essence of exactly how I’ve felt. My first year here has been much harder than I expected, but now that I feel more like *I belong*, it’s like I have my zest for life back!

  4. Yes Norma, if you know that a better future is possible elsewhere, why deny yourself the opportunity? Nothing worthwhile comes easily. Well done!

  5. Thank you so much Norma for this. I am in Cape Town my husband is a helicopter engineer and is in the process of being interviewed by a New Zealand company. I am definately doing this for my family. We have 3 girls 5,8,and 12 and they need a future.

  6. An inspirational and motivational read. Thanks, Norma!

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