Editor’s note: Promise of Home is a community-based research project meant to help newcomers share their stories and to create new policy recommendations for the city. As part of this project, a community conference titled Our Home Is Here took place at the Cultural Centre in Fredericton on October 20-21. The following text is a speech delivered by Joanne Owuor as part of that conference.
Greetings, friends, and fellow explorers.
It is a challenge and pleasure to be here with you to explore the idea of home.
My name is Joanne. I was born in Nairobi, Kenya. And I find myself here with you in Canada, now home. Our theme today, is “Our Home Is Here.” It is not as simple as the title proposes. It enters into the great question that bedevils our humanity wherever we find ourselves: What is home? Where is it? How do we craft it, make it, affirm it, live it? What is home?
Each one of us has their own reply to that question and sometimes the answer offered today is not the same as yesterday’s. Don’t you find?
In preparing for this presentation, I have been reflecting quite a bit on what Egyptian Nobel Prize winner, Naguib Mafouz once stated: “Home is not where you are born/home is where all your attempts to escape cease.” He gestures so poignantly to our human restlessness, our unending quest to find a place “to lay down our heads’, and do so in peace. This quest has made of our humanity something of pilgrims and seekers, hasn’t it?
My own journey from Nairobi, Kenya was sparked by my profound desire to explore the world beyond the boundaries of my comfortable haven. I am the descendant of nomads. Something in my blood and spirit needed to savour the bigger of the world. Fueled by my parents’ rich imaginations and extensive travel experiences, my older siblings’ curious explorations in all things global from flamenco to flapjacks; the world of school where my teachers offered me a vision of the world that was immense and accessible to hard workers, the world of literature and music in which I was immersed, my curiosity for this ‘bigger’ world was unlocked and was boundless.
Twenty-five years ago, I took the first steps that led me to a place I had never heard of up until I received an acceptance to St Thomas University – to Fredericton. I showed up as an international student, armed with nothing but self-assuredness and a sense of my identity, and right-of-access to the places and spaces of the world, secured and grounded by the unrelenting support of my family as my foundation. These foundations became my guiding posts because what I did not know at the time, was that the path to this unknown was daunting, fraught with fear and uncertainty, it was also sprinkled with excitement at discovery, delight, inspiration, and the call to transformation.
It is here that my own thoughts and mind became conscious that the world is a complex place made of shades of greys, and some of the greys are indeed beautiful. I was forced to reckon with aspects of identity that I had taken for granted in Kenya. I learned that home, and belonging is neither a guarantee nor a given. I encountered answers to old questions, but as you will learn, everyday presented a new question, another riddle.
Home is relationship, I learned. Not just the relationships that are familiar and have served as pillars and posts to one’s existence, but also the ones that a person has to forge, seek, and make in order to navigate the new world. The maps of our belonging are woven in the hearts of those we encounter in the places we land, and that call us into home-making.
I have come to regard home as existing in two distinct geographical locations while simultaneously comprehending it as a community rooted in genuine inclusion – and grounded in experiences that reinforce belonging and safety.
After graduation, my curiosity and quest for a future and belonging led me to the settlement sector, where I dedicated 15 years of my life before leaving to try out other horizons. It has been quite a journey, dear friends, with twists and turns, one of which has led me to a position I proudly hold today, because it is of my making-Co Founder of Uzima Network.
When we contemplate the meaning of home, it’s akin to gazing at a multifaceted jewel, each facet reflecting a different area of our lives. Home is not solely a geographical location; it transcends borders and nationalities. It’s about the connections we make, the sense of belonging we feel, and the journeys we undertake.
I repeat the words of Naguib Mahfouz, “Home is not where you were born, home is where all your attempts to escape cease.”
It’s where we are received as human beings, accepted as human beings, made to feel safe and welcomed as human beings.
Now, let’s take a moment to reflect on this idea: what does that concept of home, where we cease to escape, look like right here in Fredericton? It’s a question that carries immense weight. So, I invite you, in the sanctity of your family, your friend circle, and your colleagues, to consider: Do you find belonging? Where do you find that safety, and conversely, where do we not find it, and why?
The experience of arriving as immigrants in this community, as beautifully portrayed in the stories we’ve had the privilege of hearing today, reminds us that we are already whole. We are complete individuals with a treasure trove of knowledge, a plethora of experiences, and a life rich in profound meaning.
We are not in deficit, we are not lesser, and we don’t need to try to become someone else. Instead, we are already expansive by virtue of holding two worlds, two cultures, and two realities within us every day.
The transition can be daunting. Immigrants face many challenges, access to equitable opportunities, language barriers, navigating unfamiliar systems, and confronting biases and prejudices. It’s a journey filled with ups and downs, but through it all, there’s a profound sense of resilience, hope, and the search for a place to belong.
As newcomers embark on their journeys here in our region, it’s an opportunity for us, as a community, to be an essential part of their story. As we welcome them, we offer the possibility of truly finding that sense of home, a place where they cease to escape and feel accepted.
However, it’s not only newcomers who should embrace transformation and adaptation; the existing community must also undergo evolution and grant itself the privilege of expansion and reimagining.
While working in the settlement sector, I came to gradually understand that the predominant interpretation of multiculturalism in our region resisted anti- oppressive, anti-racist, and social justice principles in its implementation. These critical ideas were considered problematic because they posed a challenge to deeply entrenched systems, urging the adoption of inclusive policies and practices that would require new forms of engagement, resource and power redistribution and heightened accountability to address the evolving needs of our diverse demographic. It also meant telling the unvarnished stories of immigrant and refugee struggles and barriers, alongside the stories of success and triumph.
As a community, we must never tire of confronting the institutional and systemic challenges that seep into our very fabric. – we must boldly disrupt the carefully constructed and fiercely guarded narratives that seek to obscure truths and safeguard comforting tales of boundless benevolence and saviorism.
We must challenge outdated structures, legacies, and traditional ways that no longer serve the expansion of our diverse community. It’s about creating an environment where everyone can thrive, feel a true sense of belonging, and continue to shape the narrative of our evolving and inclusive home.
The concept of home is not static but dynamic, continuously shaped by the individuals who call it home – regardless of where they are from or where they are going. As we navigate the complexities of home in this diverse and evolving community, let us remember that we all have a role to play in creating equitable environments- where all of us who now inhabit this space together, find safety, belonging, and acceptance.
Finally, thank you to Gül and the organizers of this event and the participants for gifting us windows into their worlds through their stories. Together, we are invited to shape the dream of home, an idyll and ideal, a home that is hospitable and inclusive, a microcosm of the human yearning for safe and perfect rest, a destination point in the map where “our attempts to escape might cease.’ Welcome to this place, this space, this home. May the best of your dreams and selves find shelter and succour here.
Joanne Owuor is a social worker with over 15 years experience in supporting racialized communities in New Brunswick.