When I think back on my first year living in Serbia I can remember vividly how painful it was to adjust to living here.
I honestly felt disconnected and isolated from everyone.
Almost every new person I met would ask, “Why are you here?” And while I knew they asked out of curiosity rather than antagonism, the question always reminded me, You’re an outsider. You’re an outsider. You’re an outsider.
It separated me from everyone else.
Summer 2021 was when I really started to make deep friendships. I had my go-to folks to lean on and bond with. I found my ‘crew’ – my family here.
I love living here now (except for a few things I’ve gotten used to) but that feeling of ‘outsider’ will never really go away.
I’m learning more and more Serbian but I’m far from fluent and when friends lapse into a Serbian conversation around me I see it as an opportunity to learn and practice, but it can also feel isolating – reminding me I don’t belong. I don’t blame Serbian people for speaking Serbian (lol) but it also doesn’t negate my own experience in the situation.
I visited Italy with my sister and nieces last month, and when we parted ways (they back to their homes in the US and me back to mine in Serbia) it was harder to come back to Serbia than I thought it would be.
On one hand, I was happy to come back to my cat, my apartment, my balcony, my friends, and even my work. But on the other hand, I knew that I will never really feel like I belong here. And I was sad. And homesick for the US…even though I don’t want to live there again.
Every year in October I need to renew my visa to live here, and it’s also an emotionally charged experience.
Should I Stay Or Should I Go? (to quote The Clash)
Every year I ask, “Do I want to renew the visa? Will I live here another year?”
There’s this underlying feeling that I really have no home. Anywhere. The last time I visited Portland, which I always considered to be my home, it didn’t feel like home anymore.
My friends have moved on with their lives, as I’ve moved on with mine. After traveling in multiple countries for many years, I’ve outgrown the Portland lifestyle. And yet I haven’t found the lifestyle that provides the square for my square, if you know what I mean. The lid for my pot. Or whatever metaphor we want to go with here.
From time to time I meet someone at a bar or in the street who I haven’t seen for a while, and they ask, “You’re still here in Serbia?”
And it always makes me think, “Should I be here? Should I leave?” It feels like that’s what’s expected of me. Like I need to have a plan in place to move on.
It leaves me in a position of feeling constantly in motion, even during times when I want to stay put. Yes, I’m adventurous. But I also have a very human need to feel safe. To feel like I belong. To be part of a community. A chosen family.
It’s hard to do that when everyone is constantly asking me when I’m going to get the fuck out of here. Even if it comes from a place of kind intention.
This feeling is not ever going to go away, and I’ve accepted that it’s part of the duality of life. Of being an expat. An immigrant.
As an American…I Have It Easier Than Most
As an American having emigrated to Serbia, I come from a place of extreme privilege. I have the choice to come and go as I please, I could go back to America any time, whereas many Serbians wouldn’t have the opportunity to live in my country. I don’t have to find work locally – I can work online and get American clients. And as a native English speaker, I automatically have a giant leg up in the global economy.
Yes, I’ve worked to the skin and bone, blood, sweat and tears to build my entrepreneurial corner, but it is still an undeniable fact that I am an American citizen, a native English speaker with a ‘neutral’ accent, and am white.
Even acknowledging all of that, it’s still hard to be an immigrant.
Which Leads to the Larger Conversation About Immigrants
I’ve been passionate about helping refugees ever since I worked as an English teacher for Somalian and Malaysian refugees while I was a university student.
But being in a place where, even as someone who doesn’t look different and gets a certain amount of respect in the world because of the passport I hold, it’s never easy to be the outsider. To be told (even indirectly), You don’t belong here.
So imagine what life is like for recent Afghan refugees living in Serbia. Imagine Syrians living in camps here for many years now. Imagine, even the Roma people, who have lived here for decades (maybe more?) and are still ostracized. All of the above frequently labeled as thieves, manipulators, beggars, rapists, terrorists…
Of course, it’s not just Serbia but America and literally in every country in the world. Refugees, immigrants, and people of color are constantly told, You don’t belong here. And rather than subtle social cues from the people they interact with, this is told to them through government policies, corporate policies…etc. In so many cases, violence toward them is not only tolerated but actually encouraged.
Yeah, I’m treated very well here even though many people unintentionally make me feel unwelcomed. But imagine if I was brown or black. And from a country that is not the most powerful nation on earth.
My lesson here? First, please stop asking me why I’m here or how long I’ll be here.😂
Second, fight for equality for the refugees and immigrants in your country!
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I donate 10% of my profits to refugees every month. Here are some of my favorite organizations to donate to:
COHORT: an organization helping trans people in Ukraine with healthcare, visibility, and protection of rights. (Their site is in Ukrainian so you have to use a translator but the best way to donate to them is to send money via PayPal to firstname.lastname@example.org.)
Immigrant & Refugee Community Organization: They’re a great group in Portland, OR. They help people acclimate into the community, find jobs and apartments, offer language lessons and all kinds of necessary services.