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Uprooted: Navigating Identity and Belonging as an Immigrant

Immigrating to a new country can be an exciting and disorienting experience. As someone who immigrated to Canada during my teenage years, I have experienced firsthand the difficulties that come with trying to navigate my sense of identity and belonging as an immigrant in a new culture, while also maintaining a connection to my heritage.

One of the most significant challenges that I faced as an immigrant was feeling like I didn’t fully belong in either culture. I felt like an outsider in my new home, and at the same time, I felt like I was losing touch with my heritage. It was as if I was caught between two worlds, and it was a constant struggle to reconcile my dual identity and navigate the expectations of both cultures.

The metaphor of an uprooted tree:

A metaphor that captures my experience of immigration is an uprooted tree. Just as a tree’s roots anchor it to the ground and provide it with stability, our roots anchor us to our homeland and provide us with a sense of belonging and identity. When we uproot a tree, we disrupt its stability and make it vulnerable to the elements. Similarly, when we leave our homeland, we can feel disoriented and vulnerable in a new environment. 

Just as an uprooted tree needs time and care to replant and establish new roots, so too do we as immigrants need time and support to establish ourselves in a new country. The process of adapting to a new culture, language, and way of life can be a challenging and lengthy one, much like the process of replanting and nurturing a tree until it is firmly established. 

The good news is that just as a tree can continue to grow and thrive in a new environment once it has been replanted, we too can find success and happiness in our new home. However, the process can be very painful and uncomfortable. We might feel lost about who we are and how we fit in this world. Maybe before immigration, we had a clear understanding of ourselves but now we feel confused and lost. This sense of identity crisis and lack of belonging can have a significant impact on one’s mental health. It can lead to feelings of isolation, anxiety, and depression. 

Navigating the identity crisis:

One way to navigate the identity crisis is to reflect on our core values. When we are uprooted, our stability is disrupted. We might feel like we are floating in the air, but we can use our values as a way to ground ourselves. While our environment may change, our values are quite stable. 

Here are two worksheets that can support you in your journey of self-discovery and reflection on your values:

  1. Values Checklist: Russ Harris created this brilliant values checklist which includes a list of common values. I highly recommend using this checklist to reflect on your own values and to develop a better understanding of yourself. 
  2. Bullseye Exercise: Following the values checklist, I recommend trying this exercise to further clarify your values. This exercise will help you in reflecting on how much you are living your life in accordance with your values. 
Replanting your Roots

Another important way to feel more grounded and begin replanting your roots is by rebuilding your community. For me, coming to Canada was a scary and overwhelming experience. Back home it was easy to make new friends because we had shared family, culture, and experiences. Without those shared commonalities, coming to a new country often felt very lonely and isolating.

As humans, we are social beings. We thrive when we are in social environments where we feel seen, appreciated, and understood.

Rebuilding your community takes time, but here are a few ways to get started:
  1. Finding a library in your neighborhoodLibraries often offer free events where you can meet new people. The themed events will introduce you to people who have a shared interest, making it easier to break the ice and get to know someone. 
  2. Find a community center – Most neighbourhoods have a community center that has events, a gym, and maybe even a swimming pool. These community centers also often offer classes or drop-in sessions for specific topics or hobbies. Taking a class, attending an event they offer, or even just using the facilities will give you an opportunity to build new connections. Click on the links to find a list of community centers in Vancouver & Burnaby. 
  3. Mosaic – This not-for-profit organization is specifically focused on supporting newcomers to Canada. They offer events, informational sessions, and resources to help immigrants and refugees start their new life in Canada. 
  4. Facebook groups – One of the best things to come from social media is the instant link to people with shared identities. For example, I know there are a number of Facebook groups dedicated to bringing together Iranians living in Vancouver. These pages can help you find cultural events in your area and provide you with a space to ask for recommendations or resources you are looking for. I can’t tell you the number of times I’ve had a craving for an Iranian dessert and found a place that sells them thanks to the Facebook group. I do want to remind everyone to always be cautious when interacting with people online, especially if meeting in person.
Immigration is not a linear process. 

It is important to remember that navigating the immigration experience is a journey of self-discovery and therefore not always a straightforward process. There will be times when it’s challenging to navigate the complexities of two different cultures and it is okay to take a step back to take care of your mental health. Seeking the help of a therapist who understands what you are going through can be incredibly beneficial in processing your emotions and developing coping strategies while you find your place in your new home.

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Sara Ahmadian

Coming from an immigrant family background herself, Sara specializes in working with clients through issues around identity and belonging and immigrant/racial identity. Sara offers counselling in both English and Farsi. She is also passionate about working with clients with chronic pain/illness to help them improve their quality of life. In her downtime, you can find Sara playing video games (especially RPGs) to relax!

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Searchlight Counselling provides in-person and virtual therapy for individuals and couples in Burnaby, Vancouver, and across British Columbia. Specializing in BIPOC & 2SLGBTQIA+.