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Migrant mothers, untold stories of struggle and uncertainty

Migrant mothers, untold stories of struggle and uncertainty

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Opinion Arab Migrants

Friday 10 March 202305:05 pm
إقرأ باللغة العربية:

ماذا تفعل الغربة بالأمهات؟


I was once uprooted, ripped away from my roots, and I wasn't even a mother at the time. As soon as I began to put down my roots in another land, alienation destroyed them time and again, and so I became a mother without roots.

My friend Zahra emigrated years ago and I still remember that day well, when I helped pack her suitcases for travel. Zahra bought shiny red bags to draw warmth from them in the country of snow. She put everything that was in her house in them, sealed them with unwarranted force – at least for me – and when she caught the questioning look in my eyes, she said, “So that the memories would not scatter in the wind”. It was at that very moment that Zahra burst into tears, and continued crying until she was completely withered as she looked at her two infant daughters.

What does alienation and living away from the homeland do to migrant mothers who are always traveling? Mothers who are torn from their roots willingly or against their will?

This type of exile and alienation shapes them again, imprinting them with the character of loneliness and sometimes aimless wandering and the feeling of being lost, no matter how supportive the husband is. Zahra's story is the story of thousands of mothers who have been crushed by alienation, estrangement and exile with their children, mothers who have been crushed by nostalgia, fatigue, the need to endure, and constant attempts to adapt and integrate.

What does alienation and living away from the homeland do to migrant mothers who are always traveling? What does it do to mothers who are torn from their roots – willingly or against their will?

Zahra has two daughters, whom she and her husband conceived and migrated from country to country in search of a living, and each time, she collects their memories and packs their lives in suitcases.

She tries to plant the seeds of other memories in a new country, and while that works once, it fails dozens of times. You cannot guarantee the fertility of the soil in order to bloom in every land you set foot on... You never can.

Endless daily battles

It fell to Zahra to cook up her children's memories just as she cooks their food every day, and it was not easy at all. Her husband had no time but to search and run behind job opportunities and earn a living.

In exile, you always fight to maintain your steady footing, so what if you do not have a real homeland to return to?!

In exile, you always fight to maintain your steady footing, so what if you do not have a real homeland to return to?!

Zahra's two girls didn’t know or understand the meaning of roots, and that was what hurt her the most. She tried time and again; she’d show them pictures, she would talk to them about distant memories, she’d tell them grandmothers' stories, and she searched for Arab communities from her same homeland, but then what? The two little girls would shake their heads and run in search of a space in the new communities to which they were moving into one by one.

When Zahra first traveled abroad, her two daughters were less than 40 days old, and as soon as the plane landed, they started crying, so she cried and looked at them, wondering: What now? What should I do? It is a feeling of helplessness and being lost.

In exile far from the homeland, there is no time for fatigue, no time for weakness, no substitute for the mother. She cannot fall because there are those who rely on her every day. She had to dredge up strength the way she dredged up memories, and so it was.

Zahra fought her daily battles so that society would accept her two daughters and integrate them – battles on parenting methods, battles with different languages, battles with identity, battles with stigma and shame, battles with rejection, battles with acceptance and openness – endless battles every day, every morning and evening.

When one is far from the homeland, there is no time for fatigue, no time for weakness, no substitute for the mother. She cannot fall because there are those who rely on her every day

Zahra once told me that she had eight arms like an octopus and has become good at acting. She laughed then sighed, and said, "A mother in exile is not only a mother but an entire family. She is a mother, a grandmother, an aunt, and a friend, and how exhausting all thi must be when it must be repeated all over again in every new exile", but she must put a rock on her heart to carry on.

Attempts at making memories

Mothers in exile are the only factory of memories. This is an inescapable fact. Zahra told me that an expatriate mother lives all the first moments alone with her child and if she does not document this moment, no one else will do it or even knew it happened! So she's obsessed with documenting every little thing about her two daughters in photo albums, diaries and small bags.

One day, Zahra woke up in a panic. She spoke to me crying about a nightmare that had haunted her for several days, in which she saw the bags of those memories were being scattered in the wind, as she breathlessly ran to catch a plane before it took off.

A few days after this conversation, Zahra fell ill and was admitted into a hospital’s intensive care unit. I did not know this until after she had partially recovered and contacted me. Tears swelled in my eyes when she told me that in exile you get sick alone and heal – if God wills it – alone, you suffer alone and rejoice alone. In exile, no one will knock on your door in the morning to ask how you’re doing, and if someone does it once, they won’t do it again.

In exile, you get sick alone and heal alone, you suffer alone and rejoice alone. In exile, no one will knock on your door in the morning to ask how you’re doing

Days and years passed and Zahra came on a quick and fleeting visit. We talked and made more memories that she will dredge up when she returns to her estranged life abroad, but she had changed a lot. There was a glow that was snuffed out and a warmth that leaked drop by drop from her heart until it froze. She didn’t cry anymore! She told me that her tear supply was completely depleted.

A surprising and painful transformation of her personality, but this is what exile and alienation does to mothers, as she told me, shaping them again into hard dough and placing stones in the place of their hearts.

Zahra whispered to me in the airport lounge that she now carries alienation wherever she went, so there was no need to cry. She got used to the coldness of the travel lounges and the smell of nostalgia no longer made her cry. She then looked with glassy eyes at her two girls and said, "Maybe it's good that they don't have real roots. Maybe they won’t suffer like I do from uprooting them day after day."


* The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author’s and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of Raseef22


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The Arab world has been a world stage for conflict, displacement, and war. Raseef22 has been covering the stories of various refugee and diaspora communities within and without the MENA region; whether it’s the story of those who left willingly or unwillingly, in search of a better future and brighter opportunities. Feel like sharing your's? Dont wait! we would love to hear it!

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