A History and Celebration of Human Migration –Parama Talukder
Part 1: Mankind finds a route to unchartered lands.
Long before the time of nations and borders, before passports and visas, the human race was already carving its growth through migration. Groups of nomadic tribes ventured entire generations through vast lands, always in search of adequate shelter and provisions for each season. What began as the first movement of our early African ancestors out of the African Continent (even then a true migration event), became a human way of life for the thousands of years to follow.The human migration and settlement events are eventually what led to the creation of different cities, which overtime and with increasing regional power, developed into entire countries. Politics and tradition gave each territory its own identity, and it became important to preserve this acquired power and culture through borders. Thus, the movement of people from one space to another became more than a simple act of migrating. They were leaving one identified region (emigration), and entering the territory of another (immigration). For the conversation at hand, I will chronicle a little of the early stages in an immigrant’s life. What are the underlying motivations that push one to leave a birthplace, a life well known, and venture into the unknown? And why should a person risks losing all that exists in their present, for something much less than a promise in their future? Most importantly, what happens to the migrant once they have arrived at their unfamiliar destination? Where lies their identity then? Out of the African Continent, nearly every habitable region on Earth has been settled into. Over the course of many millennia, our ancestors-whether from innate curiosity or need-explored their natural world, and adapted themselves to new climates in new spaces they migrated to. One could speak at great lengths of the early settlers that occupied any given part of the world. But for the interest of our reader, and what may be most relatable in recent history, I will delve a little into what was once called “The New World.” I refer of course, to the Americas. Our understanding of the earliest human migration and settlement into the American Continent is shrouded in many mysteries which continue to reveal themselves with ongoing research. In the last several decades, discoveries of large material remnants from the last Ice Age have provided clearer clues to the initial steps that may have been taken at arriving in the Americas. So far, our best understanding is that, early ancestors – a most resilient, adaptable group of people, who lived through the times of the Ice Age – crossed a land mass called Beringia. A grassland that once connected northern Asia to western North America allowed people of Asian descent (I provide a broad categorization as recent data suggests even genetic diversity within the migrating group), to cross over into the new unchartered American soil. Whether this was 15, 000 years ago or even earlier remains to be clarified. But what I want to emphasize here, is that migration and identity were not static, fragmented events. Colonies of human groups arrived in flows of continuum, not out of nowhere. What began as tribes and groups of people living in Asia, found their way into America, through whatever passageway –through many little migration events over the span of centuries. This reminds us that migration events are embedded in the developing human nature, insomuch as learning to eat cooked foods, or building our own shelters to suit climates, or communicating through manmade language.
Part 2: Immigration becomes the backbone of growth in western civilization.
I have spent a great deal in musing over the very earliest humans and their courageous pursuit of new lands. It is important to understand the ancient ways of life, recognize parallels with who we are now, so as to accept that some of our most controversial aspects of the modern world are nothing but long-established practices. And in fast-forwarding thousands of years, we see that migration- namely immigration- has been a source of both progressive cultural evolution and societal unrest in our last century. Since the time of the first humans entering the Americas, there have been centuries of growth amongst the Indigenous peoples. A rich culture flourished here between tribes of many identities. Further south, entire civilizations such as the Maya and Inca came to rule and leave their imprint on human history. Then towards the end of the first millennia (AD), the earliest records of European presence was found here. That is, Norse Vikings who sailed into North American soil. True European colonization, what I would call a second wave of new immigration, began in the 1400’s. Thus, the face and shape of the Americas began to shift again. Euro-centric North America was born, changing the language spoken and the allegiance to “the Old World” out in Europe took prominent hold of the way of life. European immigrants swarmed into the Americas over the course of several centuries. And in this vast long-term exodus, we can begin to see new definitions for immigration as a part of human evolution. Those leaving Europe for the Americas were not simply making a pleasure trip to foreign lands. We see here, a large population from all across the European continent leaving their ancestral homes in search of a better life. So what defines a better life? Strikingly, for many of the same reasons we see people emigrating even now. Whether one is persecuted for religious reasons, fleeing a civil war, or desperate to climb out of poverty, these are just some of the countless dire situations which force people to immigrate out of their peril. Is it not enough to say, an immigrant often leaves a world of misfortune and hardship, to seek a life of more hope for the future? For instance, French-based Canada in the 1600’s sponsored a program for young women (les Filles du Roi, which translates to Daughters of the King) to sail to the New World and settle into marriage with men already living in here, as a way to promote increasing the population and community size. Hundreds of women participated in this over the span of only a few decades, many of whom were seeking greater life security in foreign Canadian soil than what existed for them in France. Interestingly, the women selected to be a Fille du Roi were generally of humble background specifically capable of taking on the hardships awaiting them in their new life. For, as every immigrant knows, in leaving behind the difficult life on their native land, only greater adversities lie ahead on the unpaved road. Herein lies the essence of the immigrants journey; it is never seeking a life to utter comfort, but rather an improvement from what currently is. Critically, it is a belief that immigrating to a new home will ensure the safety and continuity of ones lineage, which if is of course the unconscious and conscious basis for many of our important life decisions. Seen this way, the act of migrating is actually among our core human behaviours, not exclusive to one race or ethnicity, but rather the necessity of the present time.With this in mind, we can arrive at immigration in our modern world. We have now opened the field of migration to many forms. The movement of groups of people to new lands can be labelled as immigration, seeking asylum, or entering as refugees. But no matter what label is placed on it, the behaviour and underlying reasons have not much changed over the centuries. What has taken precedence, however, are laws and legislatures that control the movement of people from one territory to another. Countries have placed measures to regulate who can and cannot enter into their own soil, and it is no longer just about one’s life being uprooted for the unknown. As North American nations have evolved from “the New World,” to a “developed hemisphere,” it is well-established that immigrants are more likely choosing the better life, than perhaps risking a new beginning. But from a personal perspective, this argument does not hold its weight. Even now, the immigrant, the refugee, or the asylum seeker is choosing to forego all that is known for an uncertain vulnerable life ahead. Being a migrant to a new country gives greater sense of security, but does not guarantee life success or happiness. The migrant begins anew, and is expected to put in every possible effort to assimilate into a very different culture, find stability in another economy where language is among the most common barriers, and find social acceptance from what already exists there.
Part 3: An immigrant in the modern world.
An newly arrived immigrant begins a second life, which itself can take decades-perhaps the remainder of that person’s life- to feel at ease and build a home. Moreover, in recent decades, immigrants arriving in Canada are often those with higher-education backgrounds and the potential for achieving greater income in their homelands. One must remember that a vast majority of immigrants leave their birthplace due to continual instability, persecution or an oppressed way of life that is unsafe. Those that do manage to make it into a new country begin with menial jobs that are a long-distance from their true qualifications. And for several years, an immigrant may continue to live at the low-income borderline. It is a pseudo-brain drain, where educated individuals are often found in positions they are overqualified for, or in fields completed unrelated. For those migrants who have a reduced educational background, the situation can be much more dire. Often, language barriers compounded with only basic education can deter the immigrant from upward economic mobility in their new home. They can potentially live in the low-income stratosphere for their entire lives. Perhaps, this is where hope for a better future is the greatest strength an immigrant has. Those who build a new life less than their true potential in a second country are often looking to their next generation for fulfillment. This can be a double-edged sword for many immigrant families. At one end, the first generation gives everything, often sacrificing their own personal leisure and security to ensure the second generation receives the utmost education and can reap the benefits of living in a well-functioning country. What exists on the other edge of that sword, however, is misunderstanding between two generations and rifts through cultural divide. It is natural that first generation immigrants – the parents – are often holding onto values from their homeland, while the second generation – the children – are exposed primarily to a very different way of thinking and living. The second generation is raised in a household that contrasts the world they see outside. Often this leads to two sets of lives at odds with one another. The price to be paid for progress and a better life? Or the loss of cultural identity that can mean losing the connection to ones ancestral self?The only fair resolution that has worked for both ends is compromise and letting go. As an immigrant, it is absolutely crucial to adapt into a new setting with the positive aspects pre-existing culture in the new country. I emphasize, that this is not the same as losing one’s cultural heritage from their native birthplace. Rather, it is opening up to new discoveries, learning to merge the old with the new. And all generations that come thereafter, raised in a new place, it is just as critical to recognize and respect the sturdy stock of the immigrant from which they are descended. The most powerful result of this occurs when immigrants and their descendants can introduce and integrate the rich cultures from abroad. The modern world is then a melting-pot of bringing the best of the east, west, north or south to a foreign place to be called home. This is not a novel practice. The earliest migrants into the Americas brought with them all the knowledge they were already practicing in old places. Later European immigrants took over and the Americas became very much a reflection of their way of life. Change led by immigration cannot be resisted. It has been the backbone of human progress for many millennia. Canada continues to be a solid example of this, though not without faults. Acceptance of immigrants throughout the 1800-1900’s changed the profile of Canadian culture in several ways. Much of the Trans-Canada Railway and modern day West Coast (British Columbia) has been built with the labour of Chinese immigrants in the 19th century. Among the earliest Asian immigrants to arrive in North American soil, they were met with hostility and disrespect. It took generations of hard work and commitment in establishing themselves to their new country, until the Chinese-Canadian population were viewed with respect for what they had given to this land. Descendants of the those early pioneers see themselves as Canadians in every sense, but do not fail to remember their roots. And so this practice continues. In Canada, almost every country is represented through the immigrant population. Many who arrived decades ago have settled in well, while others look to find their place still. As a young first-generation Canadian, who immigrated here very early in life, and therefore grew up amongst the “Canadian way of life” (an interesting topic of its own), I can see the benefits of having a view of the world on the other side, but in also the privileges I have here. I was not exempt from going through the early immigrant assimilation process, though arriving at a young age, my progress was expedited. That is, I too, experienced language difficulties at first, and understanding myself as an individual with both Bengali and Canadian ties. I am often asked by strangers, “where do you come from?” An interesting question to ask a citizen, who does not perhaps look the part of the quintessential European-based North American we have engraved in our minds. Perhaps in a few generations, when the ethnic mixture will be further still, it will change to, “what ethnic background are you originally from?” It is not disrespectful to ask these questions if addressed with care. In fact, I am always curious to know the heritage someone carries in their genes. It can be room for great, intellectual conversation in a country as diverse as Canada. Most strikingly, perhaps unsurprisingly, it is a wondrous thing to see the evolution of social culture with different waves of migration. I hark back to the beginning. The earliest settlers who withstood the difficulties of an Ice Age and made roots here. Thus began the dawn of man on the American continents. Years passed before necessity drove masses of Europeans out of their ancestral homeland and into a new era in both North and South America. Since that time, we have had the arrival of African peoples, more Europeans, Asians from every part of the continent, and anyone else looking for refuge or an improvement in life. All this has been necessary to make this part of the western hemisphere a generally open-minded and progressive society. We needed the whole world to arrive here at different timepoints to create a mosaic so unique. We see then that society based on immigration is far from stagnant. It flourishes with new knowledge, as mixing of different cultures gives birth to more original cultures, and it shapes the possibility of an even better future for all.
27. July. 2020