Expats, Immigrants and Refugees

Over the last several years, we have seen a steady drumbeat of news stories documenting the mass human diaspora that is occurring around the globe. Over five million people have fled civil-war torn Syria, creating one of the biggest humanitarian crises of our time. An estimated seven thousand-strong “caravan” is making its way north from Central America. Two million people have fled Venezuela. These people are part of the 25 million refugees around the world who are seeking refuge from war, poverty, starvation, violence, in their own countries.

Few topics are more divisive in the toxic political landscape in the U.S. as the issue of immigration, legal and otherwise. It’s the same in many other countries, including many in the EU. Some argue that Brexit is a result of anti-immigrant sentiment. Wherever it is, the debate over immigration is one of defining (and separating) “us” versus the “other.”

A week ago I attended a dinner party with a group of five women. One from the San Francisco Bay Area. One from Brazil. One from Majorca. One from Turkey. None of us have been in Lisbon more than three months. While I don’t know the detailed background of each, I didn’t get the impression that any of them were fleeing dire circumstances back in their home country.

An expat is, technically, someone who resides temporarily in a country of which they are not a citizen. The intent is to return to the home country at some point. Being an expat is a lifestyle choice. An immigrant is someone who plans to stay.

But it seems that, in common usage, the two terms — expat and immigrant — are used to describe social circumstances or position of privilege.

Over the last few months I have had the privilege of meeting people from all over the world — Angola, Belize, the Czech Republic, to name a few — who are here for the same reason we are. We are here to explore new opportunities, to experience Portugal in a new renaissance. We are from different backgrounds, histories and cultures. But we have this shared experience.

I’m not an expat, technically, since I’m a citizen here. I’m not an immigrant, technically, because we haven’t decided to make this a permanent adventure. And, depending on how things go back in the US, I’m not a refugee fleeing dire circumstances. But searching for labels and categories is often what gets us into trouble, isn’t it? Over the last few months I have felt a deeper sense of being a global citizen.

I am taking an online course, which includes participating in an online “coaching circle.” Our group of six are from: South Africa, Spain (by way of Venezuela), Germany, England, Scotland and, of course, Portugal-US. We do a weekly video conference call. We all have difference experiences and backgrounds — and we cover a wide age range, too. Yet we are all brought together by this class and the homework and the exercises. It’s brilliant.

I can’t help but believe this is the trend forward. The ease of travel and the ubiquity of technology have the potential to unite people across natural and man-made borders. “Tribes” are no longer dependent on geography.

In the last decade or so, many people, especially those of us from emerging economies such as Nigeria and Peru, have increasingly identified as not just citizens of one nation, but also as part of a global citizenry, a BBC World Service poll found. But in richer nations, the survey found, the trend among industrialized nations “seems to be heading in the opposite direction.”

I am not so naive as to suggest that borders don’t matter. What I do believe is that using borders as a way to highlight differences and to foment fear of “the other” has been destructive and counterproductive. It has also prevented us from seriously, truly, deeply understanding the human race as one.

This compelling (19 minutes; seriously you have to have the attention span to sit through the whole thing) documentary, ‘Overview’ explores a phenomenon of through interviews with five astronauts who have experienced the Overview Effect. The film also features insights from commentators and thinkers on the wider implications and importance of this understanding for society, and our relationship to the environment.

What would happen if more of us had this deep, inner understanding?

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