Belonging is tricky to define and hard to measure. It’s the product of the stories we construct and the ways we orientate ourselves socially. It involves interactions, both intimate and public, and the evolution of shared habits and perspectives. Unlike the rights of citizenship, belonging cannot be forced nor can it be legally denied or restricted to those who deserve it.
As the writer Salman Rushdie observed while still under the shadow of religious censorship, free societies are “societies in motion”. Their ingredients are varied, their populations are mobile and their ways of belonging are many.
This yardstick of cosmopolitanism has been thrown out by the current politics of barriers and security. For Rushdie and the many cosmopolitan literary figures who wish Brexit was just bad fiction, cultural friction ignites freedom, not the other way around.
But in this world of closing borders, the state’s new freedom is the ability to keep outsiders out. That way, belonging may be restricted to those who are already inside – and the frequently heralded English enjoyment in feeling persecuted can be indulged.
It’s not hard to see why the notion of belonging has fallen out of favour in debates on migration. On the political right, this is because it makes “British values” appear parochial and nostalgic for empire. On the left, a local sense of belonging distracts from efforts to address displacement and solidarity that require either large-scale humanitarian responses or wholesale revolutionary tactics.
The result is that in actively plural communities, where belonging really matters to people, it is given scant political attention and minimal cultural representation.
Making sense of migration
In Material Stories of Migration, a creative community project in Sheffield begun in 2015, we have been exploring the complex connotations of belonging. We have found that belonging remains an essential but versatile idea, both for migrants in the UK and the communities in which they arrive. It is often defined as the opposite to the precarious state in which new migrants often find themselves, a feeling of existing “in limbo” even when no longer travelling, as one participant put it.
During our workshops we explore and document the responses of migrants to common themes including home, maps, journeys and memory. Around half of our participants are refugees or are seeking asylum. Through writing, painting, performance and craft, narratives of exclusion and inclusion emerge, opening up a dialogue with the city of Sheffield and its citizens.
These have included the way it feels for a qualified teacher to struggle to find even a low-skilled job. Or how sensations of loneliness are warded off – through walking, voluntary work, cooking, writing, singing – and how to tell when it’s ok to share distress and difficulty. The loss of home is often as much about linguistic and cultural dislocation as it is about physical separation. The frustration of being “caught between alphabets”, to quote one participant, is also the struggle to inhabit a new language.
A city of new arrivals
In spring 2016, the words “I want to belong” were stitched in five languages by as many hands onto a piece of cloth and displayed in a public exhibition. In the post-Brexit moment these benign words appear to spell resistance. They also form the final lines of a poem, “Grapes in My Father’s Yard”, written, performed and illustrated by a group of eight participants, who met weekly for ten sessions. They worked with local artists, academics and students in an open format where there was no planned outcome except the making and unmaking of narratives about living in a new place.
Some made maps of Sheffield as they see it on which they drew places they remembered, imagined, or would like to find in the city. A refugee from Sudan designed his own luxury hotel, complete with Arabic architecture and football pitch, not far from Hillsborough stadium.
Sheffield is a city criss-crossed with the trajectories of new arrivals, from the Chilean community given sanctuary during the Pinochet years to the Roma who are often mobile between Eastern Europe and the UK, and the well-established South Asian communities. Some of the newcomers to Sheffield have been sent by the Home Office, which has a policy of dispersing asylum seekers across the UK. Compared to bigger urban hubs, however, Sheffield’s cultural diversity has been rather belatedly recognised through the success of Sunjeev Sahota’s novel The Year of the Runaways and the vitality of local creative collectives.
The aim of our project, which is running again in 2017, is to develop a fuller understanding of the challenges migrants face in adjusting to life in the UK – learning English, studying or training and finding paid or voluntary work. We have found that creative work such as this helps to convey the multi-layered narratives of migration more effectively than just conducting interviews and collecting data can. Creative collaborations such as these promise to develop more productive ways of working with the frictions in our society, promoting belonging as the weaving together of new social patterns.