Nonentity: Being a Refugee

Text Irina Poleshchuk Image Pauliina Mäkelä

As I write this text I am sitting in Migri, the Finnish immigration office, applying for Finnish Citizenship and contemplating people with different social and cultural backgrounds. Various life circumstances drive people to change countries, homes, and identities. Moving to another place under different conditions is often accompanied by a loss of the intersubjective dimension, alongside the loss in social and juridical status. What does it mean to be a refugee and what does this experience include?

The process of obtaining refugee status is a painful one, often hurting the core of a person’s cultural and national identity. It comprises a violent and involuntary misplacement, when a person is reduced to a modality of social nonentity. In this person’s eyes, the value of existence rapidly vanishes and loses its symbolic value. Reality is shaken, as if the person no longer feels solid ground underfoot. Refugees are people whose conditions, both in their homeland and places of asylum, do not allow the same meanings and practices of freedom that are available for those who voluntary move to another country. Instead, to acquire a new feeling of freedom they need to assimilate to a world which is predetermined the social and cultural systems of others.

When you are a refugee, war destroys more than your homes, lands, and towns; it also shatters your social routines and those intersubjective connections which support the transfer of vital energy between private and public spheres. When these connections are suddenly broken, you gradually become paralyzed by a growing fear of going into public places in the cities of asylum. Open squares, markets, and roads become places to fear. Police stations are frightening, as is the absence of privacy in transit camps. The freedom taken by the war gives birth to the feeling of being questioned and to a state of passivity where there is no possibility to express one’s own will. All these extreme situations are forms of social death. The experience of the refugee existence might be described as having cultural agoraphobia, where one is precariously close to being a nonentity: exposed, conspicuous, lacking personal borders, stigmatized, and often ostracized. The new system of rules in countries of asylum is disorienting for the refugee because in many cases the system tends to convey a power and facticity which cannot be negotiated. Refugees are scared to speak out and to raise their voices because they are strangers in someone else’s homeland. The social system and juridical laws of the country of origin and the country of asylum might appear similar, the sense of living in asylum implies a different and almost alien experience of one’s individual humanity.

‘‘The process of obtaining refugee status is a painful one, often hurting the core of a person’s cultural and national identity. It comprises a violent and involuntary misplacement, when a person is reduced to a modality of social nonentity. ’’

This particular experience might manifest as being dramatically disoriented by the system of rules that exist in countries of asylum and in the transit camps of refugees. This situation is different not because the juridical and social system was different in a refugee’s homeland, but rather from the beginning the rules imply a clash between the individual feeling of freedom and the opportunities to participate in private and public spaces. To feel insecure in rule-governed countries of asylum is also to register one’s sense of feeling scared and often depersonalized, of being reduced to a nonentity in various public spheres (when, for instance, communicating in one’s neighborhood, with social workers, at the police station, or in hospitals) where one no longer has the power to decide but only to adopt.

To some extent, these individuals, feeling powerless, often anticipate that their open expression of thoughts and feelings risk being rejected or questioned. This expectation might explain why refugees are so often exposed to social withdrawal and dissimulation, as they attempt to allay all the possible suspicions of the authorities and/or try to obtain small and private, often very closed, places in a seemingly hostile environment. For those people who have fled their homeland and left everything meaningful, who are lost and who always feel alien in all other places, for those who are desperate, it is almost impossible to be open and sincere in new social environments. To be open and to have a voice is a privilege of peaceful times which the refugee cannot afford. To live in new homes is to establish again a place of private feelings and of personal embodiment. The new country is primordially a world of others, and when having the status of refugee, the incomer often tends to withdraw from the public sphere and remain indoors, living in memories of the past. This situation is also caused by the tacit experience that one’s own face, look, comportment, language and gestures are not mirrored by others in the new social dimensions. People still stare at you unintentionally. We have all probably been in a situation where, opening the door to a stranger, we may feel threatened, while, at the same time, when asking for help the stranger feels they are a burden.

Moving from the lost homeland to a nowhere is a transitional process. The refugee is someone who is continuously fleeing and belongs to a nonplace – and simultaneously creates a problem for the administrative order of the countries of asylum. To arrive in the new environment means that familiar cultural and discursive habits suddenly change. The new home might welcome them, but refugees still experience confusion and fear close to a state of blind panic. As they are propelled over unfamiliar terrain, they struggle. They feel fear: of being pursued, of being tired, of never knowing if they have reached the frontiers of a safe place. To be a refugee is to travel through unintelligible landscapes, with a confused consciousness and in a state of perpetual existential crisis. When in continuous flight, our individual, intersubjective world is shattered since the images of death constantly haunt the soul, conveying a destabilized and devastated lifeworld. A person fleeing their homeland is in a panic mode. This leaves them at the mercy of randomly occurring conditions that rule the present and the future, both the living one and the one that is already dead, the immediate and the imagined. To flee is to find one’s self to be a nonentity, to be nowhere with no one.

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