What It Means to be from a Diaspora

The second entry under the Merriam-Webster definition of diaspora reads as follows: “People settled far from their ancestral homelands” and also “the movement, migration, or scattering of a people away from an established or ancestral homeland” (https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/diaspora). This is the literal definition, but it is interesting to reflect on what it means in reality.

There is, indeed, a concept of a homeland, a home base, a place from which one’s people originate. Sometimes this is a place that exists; at other times, it is a historical phenomenon that is attached in the collective memory of a culture. This group of people ended up leaving the homeland, the reasons for the diaspora vary greatly. For some, it is forced, such as the slavery that the majority of black people in the West have endured. For others, it is to escape persecution, like the Jews or Cambodians. Others voluntarily choose to leave a homeland for better opportunities elsewhere, sometimes due to economics or politics–for example, people from developing countries where there are few resources and/or corruption such as India in the 1960s, and then also people escaping wars like Syrians, or those escaping political oppression of free speech like in Eastern Europe.

Then there is the issue of settling into their new land(s). Some peoples may fit in very well and integrate. For other people, it is a struggle, an effort that must be negotiated every day. Perhaps certain elements are easier to adapt to (say, jobs and work) than others. Some peoples maintain a memory of a homeland that stretches back hundreds or thousands of years, maintain a sense of longing or nostalgia for that which was before, to that which they will eventually reunite. For others, there may be the sense that they are a people with a new identity, maybe a hyphenated American, or a new world European in Latin America. Certain traditions may linger to commemorate events in their history, such as a Passover Seder. 

People who are part of a diaspora often have a greater sense of identity and vision as to who they are and their place in the world, often have an automatic kinship with people who are of their background but living in various countries. There is a commonality of history or experience. But this may not always be the case, as we can see within the Indian diaspora. Many Indian-Americans of my generation are children of parents who came for advanced studies upon their own volition. However, there are Indians who had settled in Africa for trade, but were forced to leave due to upheaval, such as Indians in Uganda during Idi Amin’s regime who fled to Britain; Indians brought to the Caribbean as slaves; and Tibetans living in India who were forced from their homeland by the Chinese (who are now Indian citizens) who come to the United States. 

Sometimes the people of a diaspora are numerous, such as Indians and Chinese, who come from countries of a billion people and who have settled all over the world. But there are others who come from tiny countries, such as Finland or Slovakia, who may have a hard time finding others of their same background.

Human migration is nothing new; we have seen it for millennia, as is evidenced by fossils of prehistoric men and women. In our modern world, however, the rate and speed of migration has greatly increased due to the advent of rapid transportation such as cars, airplanes, and trains. Our world is truly global, but the sad truth is that just as people migrate and spread, so do diseases such as Covid, which remind us of our common humanity, regardless of our background or where we live.

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