Syrian, Scottish, British: how I came to belong before I became a UK citizen

Lina Fadel and her son in Edinburgh. The Syrian academic first came to the UK as a student. Donna Green, Author provided (No reuse)

I woke up early that day feeling anxious, with one thought ricocheting around my head: at 10.30am this morning, I shall become a British citizen. Then another thought muscled in: but I am a citizen already. I have always felt a strong sense of belonging to Scotland, to Britain, despite the fact my passport is Syrian. It felt strange and conflicting.

There were 51 of us attending the citizenship ceremony. We stood in a room overlooking Edinburgh’s Princes Street and swore allegiance to queen and country. Shona, the friendly Scottish lady in charge, welcomed us all and briefed us on what was involved.

As I began to repeat the affirmation, I thought of my time in Britain, my journey to Scotland as a student 12 years ago, my mother, my Syria and those I left behind. After finishing my studies I could not return due to the war that devastated my beautiful country. I thought of people fleeing in tiny boats, the bodies washed ashore, my wee boy, his Syrian eyes and his Scottish accent. The room smelled of Damask roses and Scottish thistles.

What made that day I became a citizen different? Nothing. I was as British that day as I was the day before and the year before. I became British over the past 12 years. I became British a few laughs, tears, hopes, dreams, struggles, shortbreads, sausage rolls and pints ago. But that particular day I was being legitimised by the state; the certificate that read “I shall be a British citizen from the date of this certificate” bore an insinuation that shed my 12 years of “belonging work” like a dandelion head disperses in the wind.

I am a Syrian woman, mother and academic, and Britain has been my home for more than a decade. Not once did I consider myself to be a non-citizen, despite the fact that every time I left the country and returned I was constantly reminded of my status by the “othering” I experienced in the non-British line at airport security. But my belonging did not begin at 10.30am on the day of my citizenship ceremony in 2018.

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Sociological literature recognises belonging as an emotionally loaded term, meaning an “emotional affiliation”. Despite its centrality to human experience, belonging remains an understudied notion, especially in relation to the individual.

What seems to be missing in the literature is how individuals negotiate their sense of belonging and what belonging feels like to them. With belonging being recognised as a basic human need, the focus on what helps someone to achieve this state is surprisingly often on elements beyond themselves, such as other people and places.

This approach turns belonging into something a person has no control over. The truth, however, is that people are not passive recipients of the “gift” of belonging; it does not begin with others’ acceptance, but with people’s acceptance of themselves.

The type of belonging I mean is an active belonging that is performed and lived. It is a choice a person has and makes, a claim to one’s right to become and be. It is also a right to negotiate responsibility, one’s place and new people and experiences.

The belonging I am talking about is a pure form of self-acceptance – a concept to me that seems to have been overlooked in sociology – and a safe space which allows for a little combining of my Syrian and British selves. It is a reconciling.

Doing the belonging work

I “did my Britishness” until I became it, but I did not do it alone. All the memories I have knitted with friends, neighbours and colleagues that have kept me warm over the years, make Britain home. The fact that not once in all those years have I been made to feel any less myself – as an individual – makes Britain home. I belong every time a stranger smiles at me on the street; I belong every time British people choose love and compassion over prejudice and xenophobia.

The rocky coastline of Latakia, Lina Fadel’s home town in Syria. Taras Kalapun/Flickr, CC BY-SA

I knew I was a citizen when I lost sleep over Brexit, full of regret at not being able to vote. I knew I belonged when I held my baby boy for the first time in a maternity ward in Edinburgh, and when he said his first English word.

I belonged when a woman called Maeve embraced me on a street in Belfast after I said I was from Syria – she not only helped me find my way to the bus station but also brought me back to myself, and transformed herself from a stranger to someone forever rooted in my memory. I became British on a rainy train journey when I met Joyce, an eloquent 80-year-old from Montrose in the north-east of Scotland who never asked where I was from “originally”, but talked to me about politics and golf and fancy hats. I knew I belonged when Vivienne, my best friend, refused to queue in the UK line and leave me standing alone in the non-British line at Edinburgh Airport. I knew this land became home when I fell in love.

I pledge my allegiance

At the ceremony, I swore allegiance to the kindness and generosity of this country and its people who let me be my Syrian version of a British citizen long before I was accorded naturalisation. I swore allegiance to tolerance and diversity, to great music and literature, to David Bowie and the Rolling Stones, to Vera Brittain, Anne Devlin, George Orwell and Alexander McCall Smith.

I swore allegiance to Vivienne, Maeve, Joyce, and all those great women and men of Britain who opened their arms and hearts to Syrians, understood what it is like to live between two worlds and loved us, unconditionally, wholeheartedly. They jumped right in and did the belonging work with us and never gave up on us even when war and pain tempted us to give up on ourselves.

Shona’s voice came back. I opened my eyes. And I thought: I am Syrian. I am Scottish. I am British. I am home.