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Five Things Nobody Told Me About Life in Exile

Exile is the state of being forced to live away from one’s native country, either for punitive or political reasons. For the intent of this post, and as far as my personal experience spans I am going to focus on the latter.

As a child refugee who grew up in exile, I can tell you that life in exile is by far one of the most heart-wrenching, gruesome and mind-bending things anyone can experience.

Twenty years into this journey, I am still coming to terms with it. So, I decided to shed light onto this topic in the digital realm as a way of coping and sharing my learnings and experiences with the global village. And now here is my list of five things nobody tells you about life in exile:

1. You Feel Guilty

“The problem with surviving was that you ended up with the ghosts of everyone you’d ever left behind riding on your shoulders.”

This quote from Paolo Bacigalupi, an American author of Sci-Fi books couldn’t have captured the essence of survivor-guilt any better in my view.

When you are forced to leave home, as an exile, there are people that you leave behind, whether it is your grandmother, father, sister, mother, cousins or your friends who weren’t lucky enough to escape, died along the way or bound by the prison bars. You wish you could save them, be there for them, do something but you can’t and for that you end up punishing yourself whether you realise it or not. I have seen people living in exile devote their entire lives in their new ‘home’ countries to saving the ones they left behind and becoming completely consumed by survivor guilt.

2. You Question your Identity

I have always been fascinated by the concept of ‘identity’. Changes in one’s identity obviously don’t just apply to people living in exile.

Social scientist, Peter Weinreich defined identity as “the totality of one’s self-construal, in which how one construes oneself in the present expresses the continuity between how one construes oneself as one was in the past and how one construes oneself as one aspires to be in the future”.

In the context of exile and migration, in my view, you go through a state of identity crisis multiple times in your journey. There is ‘the self’ you were pre-departure, there is ‘the self’ you became when you crossed the border, ‘the self’ you become post-settlement, and ‘the self’ you become when you integrate and feel like is truly you. I have questioned my cultural identity for as long as I can remember and, to be honest, I have stopped searching for it.  I have come to accept myself as another inhabitant on this great planet called Earth, hence the name ‘Tellurian’.

3. You Have to Deal with Even More Abuse

Perhaps you have been lucky and haven’t faced abuse in your journey and that’s great but my experience and observation of other exiles is that chances are that you face even more abuse after you leave your home country. I think this is particularly prevalent during the asylum seeking stages. Recent examples include the inhumane abuse such sexual violence, assault, and neglect faced by asylum seekers and refugees in Nauru.

4. You Feel Like You Are Always Waiting

The process of seeking asylum itself is quite traumatising. Sometimes it takes years and years before the officials decide what to do with you. You find yourself in a state of limbo and the clock ticks ever so slowly. Even if you are lucky enough to be granted asylum, you are then waiting to become a resident with rights to study or work. Then you are waiting to become a citizen, waiting to one day see your loved ones again, waiting for your country’s circumstances to change…the list goes on.

I have to emphasise on the point of ‘it feels like’ you are waiting. In no way do I mean people in exile are just sitting there passively waiting for life to happen. In my own personal experience, no matter how productive or how much of an active citizen I am, at the back of my mind, I am always waiting for that day that I can go back to “my country” even if it is just for a day, but the harsh truth is that I can’t and so we wait.

5. You Could Struggle with Mental Health Issues

It’s only natural for your well being to be affected as result of going through the trauma. For me, being forced to leave my country felt like somebody was clawing my heart right out of my chest. Decades later, I am still nursing that wound. I think the most painful and deepest wounds are the ones to inflicted on one’s soul. The ones that are invisible.I am not saying everyone will face mental health issues as a result of exile or being a refuge as each individual’s experience is unique to their own.

However, it is important to note, recent research done by Federal Chamber of Psychotherapists (BPtK) revealed that at least 50% resettled refugees in Germany have trauma related mental health issues with 58% stating that they witnessed death and 43% stating that they had been tortured. Moreover, another recent report conducted by Stonewall revealed that many LGBT asylum seekers in UK detention centers are struggling with serious mental health problems such as anxiety, depression, and post-traumatic stress disorder caused by the violence and discrimination they have experienced. My own personal experience with mental health issues is no different to what these reports reveal, and I hope to write about my healing journey in future posts.

In my next post, I will be writing about strategies to cope with life in exile. If you would like to contribute/share your story (you can be anonymous) or have any feedback or comments, I’d love to hear from you.



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