“How do we deal with things? By taking it one day at a time. And always remember that these tough experiences we pass through... we will need to be the advocates for those who deal with them in the future.”
These are the words my mother spoke when she, a refugee in Nigeria, found out that I, after six years of living and working in the UK, had just been denied a visa by the Home Office, and that I could be deported.
Moving to the UK back in 2013 heralded the beginning of my adulthood – at 27, it was the first time I would be living alone. These past few years have allowed me to start becoming the woman I always wanted to be: I’ve made two additional best friends, earned a PhD in the science of infection and immunity (and one teaching award), grown a burning desire for social justice, and received a long-needed mental illness diagnosis. There’s so much more the UK has gifted me too: a Twitter addiction, a love for California rolls, the confidence to wear red lipstick every working day, a growing collection of pineapple ornaments, and the need to purchase a new Christmas jumper every year.
I have my ‘bubbly’ personality to thank for keeping me going in times where I’ve felt like disappearing.
In the months since my visa denial, I have cycled through shame, anger, and despair. I lost a permanent job which would have seen me forge a career in academic skills consultancy, changing my career trajectory completely. It was a dream job, one which made me feel like I belonged at least in academia – but this unexpected precarity and instability has made me question if I ever really did.
That feeling of ‘belonging’ is one I’ve been chasing my whole life, due in part to my anxiety, which always made me feel just shy of ‘normal’. While my personal life has been tumultuous over the past few years – the deaths of three friends, my PhD supervisor and my father in just two years, not to mention exacerbated physical symptoms of Sickle Cell Trait, a very hard PhD, and a crumbling love life – that feeling of not belonging has been the most isolating. I have my ‘bubbly’ personality to thank for keeping me going in times where I’ve felt like disappearing.
My family background has also always given me an unsure sense of where I ‘belong’ too. Though I’ve never been there, I have always had a Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) passport. My father is from there, though he left for the USSR around the age of 22. In Moscow, he met my Armenian-Ukrainian mother. They would marry and eventually emigrate to Nigeria in 1983, and after the dissolution of the USSR her passport became invalid. I was born in 1986 in Bauchi, Nigeria, where my father would claim his final resting place in 2016. The year following his death, my now stateless mother was officially declared a refugee.
My mother is a woman with several privileges: racial, educational, employment, safety of habitation, and support systems to name a few. She is an accomplished dental surgeon, having worked in the same position as a head of dental surgery in a hospital for nearly 40 years. Burying the love of her life after he passed unexpectedly added to the storm she passed through and contributed to her being hospitalised three times within the space of a few months.
But in her spare time she volunteers, performing surgeries on children and adults with cleft palates, perfecting sculpting teeth for her patients on the porch of the house. She is a devoted mother and grandmother, a fashionista with a penchant for shoes, and an avid selfie-taker who, at 66, shows no signs of slowing down.
My mother has indeed faced her own storms, but often openly speaks about how despite everything she’s experienced she still anchors herself in happiness. “Mummy, how come you’re so content?”, I remember asking her. “’Because I know who I am,” she says back. “Yes, it hurts when sometimes you feel like you don’t belong… but contentment is continuing to do what you know how to do even when you have those painful feelings.”
I don’t need to be scared of feeling like I don’t belong, and that I need to stop waiting to 'feel' it before I start living
One of the most valuable lessons my mother has taught me, especially valuable in this precarious phase of my life, is that I don’t need to be scared of feeling like I don’t belong, and that I need to stop waiting to feel it before I start living. I’ve watched her live, thrive, and have an impact while living out this philosophy. I know I can do it too.
That’s why I’ve decided that even though I don’t know how my case will end, I’m not going out without a fight. I am living intentionally, every single day. This means I’m keeping as active and purposeful as I normally would, and volunteering twice a week at my church’s coffee shop where I take charge of the kitchen for four hours of the day. I still mentor the same Black women academics that I mentored before. I have continued to give workshops on decolonisation of the biological sciences, write about higher education and healthcare, and have recently started working with grassroots migration activists in the Leicester area.
And perhaps more importantly, I’m trying to amplify as many causes as I can along the way. I do not see my case as more worthy of resolution than that of any other migrant in the UK. The next steps will play out in my partnership with these Leicester grassroots activists, and hopefully beyond.
I feel no less pain now than I did the day I found out I could be deported. I still don’t know where I belong, or if indeed I will ever truly feel like I do. But what I do feel is a strong sense of purpose and advocacy. And that just has to be enough for me, for now.
Dr Furaha Asani is a postdoctoral researcher, teacher, mental health advocate, and writer. Follow her on Twitter at @DrFuraha_Asani
Have a compelling personal story you want to tell? Find out what we’re looking for here, and pitch us on email@example.com