28 Jan A Foreign Stranger: Where Do I Belong?
Sidona Assefa, Policy Officer at National Survivor User Network, shares her personal feelings and experiences of belonging
I am a foreign stranger. Born in Ethiopia, raised in Sweden, now living in England, where do I really belong? A question I have asked myself silently over the years. I am a foreigner everywhere I go, even in Ethiopia. “You always think like a white woman” is a statement I get wherever I go. It’s not the words, but the way they say it that makes it sound so positive. As if thinking like a Black woman would be a weakness.
In March 2020, while doing a training as a community organiser, I was asked to talk about something I felt was unjust. There we go, now my racial identity and the distress it was causing me was about to come out of my mouth in the open, if only I had the words. Instead, my uncontrollable tears ran down my cheeks as if someone had just stabbed me. I couldn’t, I just could not say the words. It is in that moment I realised it was all boiling inside me waiting for that one person to ask the question. And that is the question that got my head running through my whole life experience to raise the question of belongingness.
Where do I belong? Who am I? And most importantly, what am I going to teach my daughter about who we are and where we belong. All my life I have sought acceptance. Straightening my hair, keeping my voice low, denying I own an Ethiopian dress, trying to fit in among my white friends. It’s like I’m an actor who has been given the role of a white woman. Only now I realise how exhausting it was to pretend to be someone you are not just to please others. Only now I have started to question my family members who dread going out in public with their hair braided.
Some reading this might say, why don’t you go back to your country if you don’t feel you belong here? Not understanding that I don’t feel home is anywhere. It is about how valued you feel in a place you live. Although Covid-19 has brought so many heartaches to us all, it brought me joy for limited time. I had been working as a care assistant/support worker for 16 years on a zero-hours contract. During the first lockdown there was a nationwide appreciation for care workers as key workers. The anti-immigrant rhetoric paused for what seemed like a second and was replaced with “Covid-19 doesn’t discriminate” or “we’re all in this together”. That was not the reality though, with ethnic minorities suffering the brunt of the virus. Ethnic minorities have higher risk of death from Covid-19 compared to white British people. What’s more, there is a majority of people from ethnic minorities in health and social care. And most key workers were represented in the lowest-paid decile. Now tell me, how we are all in this together?
It was obvious we were out there fighting while the privileged was hiding. Only to come out and clap their hands every Thursday evening. I’m not going to lie, I enjoyed the handclapping, especially when I was out wearing my uniform. I felt happy, I was finally seen as this very important person. It was the feeling of being accepted and valued by society. The priority I had at supermarkets where I didn’t need to queue anymore, the chocolate box and wine I got from Waitrose. It didn’t matter how my hair looked or the colour of my skin. As a key worker, I was deemed necessary to the continued functioning of society during the lockdown. But then the fact is I was still getting low pay for what was considered a very important role during a national health crisis. The appreciation didn’t change the fact that I was still on a zero-hours contract, it didn’t pull me out of poverty. When will I ever be valued? When will I ever be seen as a valued member of society with equal opportunity? When will my financial wellbeing and mental wellbeing be considered a priority?
Those burning questions make my new role as Policy Officer for NSUN, the National Survivor User Network, all the more important. I no longer need to hide my struggles or hide behind a screen writing an essay only to be read by my lecturers. The struggle is not fiction but my lived experience, it’s reality. One that I have lived through, the mental distress of not feeling at home or part of the community, on top of the anxiety and fear caused by poverty, lack of job security, you name it, I have lived it.
Real change is needed, but you can only make true and lasting change with the people that have gone through the pain and those who go through it every day. My mission is to challenge inequalities through informing and influencing policy, and by amplifying the experiences and aspirations of the people affected; those who understand what it means to wake up in the morning with uncertainty, and those whose mental ill-health, trauma or distress has been caused or worsened by unfair policies.