You Don’t Understand Citizenship


If you were born somewhere and lived there all your life, it is hard for you to understand the concept of citizenship. People in almost any country will talk a lot about defending their country, their patriotism, their sense of belonging in that place and culture – any number of ideas that are really taken for granted in addition to not being fully understood. Yes, perhaps most people are perfectly happy with their lives and do not question or think about the accident of their birth, of their citizenship. You are born with it and accept the rights (and sometimes duties and responsibilities) associated with it, but rarely know what it means because you never had to fight for it, never chose or did not choose it, never had it denied or taken away from you and, in many cases, have never lived somewhere that was truly oppressive or denied your basic human rights. When discussions arise about immigration and people from some unknown “somewhere else” wanting to come to your home country, the tendency is less openness and understanding about people wanting a different life and more wall building and protectionism.

Many argue that there are different kinds of “immigration” – and at least in the eyes of the law, this is true. Different countries’ immigration laws classify different types of immigration and immigrants into different categories. Some are skilled migrants (and most people aren’t arguing against them when complaining about hordes of immigrants – although the shortage of skilled migrant visas in the US would belie that point). Some are family reunification migrants – joining husbands, wives, immediate family. Some are refugees. The list goes on, and depending on the country, the levels of detail by which immigrant groups are classified are minute.

I don’t know what I would call myself, but my first move was to Iceland from the US. Sure, I came from the US – where a lot of people struggle to GET to – so my “struggle” is not quite the same thing as the struggle other people go through. I don’t deny that I came from a position of privilege to start with – having a cushy starting point going to something that just felt better. It makes a big difference when you have a choice in where you go and where you stay. Many immigrants do not have so many choices open to them but want to go somewhere to start over or find a better life. While I suppose that my personal choice was to “find a better life” (for me), it is entirely from a place of good fortune, independence and freedom that I could select the place that felt best for me.

Still, though, even with these undisputed advantages, the whole uphill battle of fighting against a system that always feels like it has been designed to keep you out is exhausting even in the best circumstances. The feeling that you will never quite get where you need to be to be a “permanent” resident (and eventually a citizen) never quite leaves.

Then the overwhelming relief – something like standing atop a mountain and looking at the panorama of what surrounds you after having scaled the terrifying and difficult heights to get there – when you are granted citizenship in a country after a long struggle is completely beyond words.

What is funnier still is the ease of forgetting the struggle. There used to be daily headaches before all the bureaucratic hurdles were cleared, before new passports were issued, back when bureaucrats in an immigration office somewhere held all the power, to the point that it defined my life, contributed tremendous stress to my existence. And now that all of that is a distant memory, the details of those struggles also fade. I remind myself not to let them all fade – I am reminded of them every time another friend mentions his or her own (often arbitrary) immigration woes. Understanding and appreciating citizenship, I think, requires more than just being happy that I have citizenship where I want to, and being happy that my path is free and clear. It also requires being fully aware, never forgetting the hard road that got me there.

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