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Diaspora: Making a Home Away from Home

Have You Ever?

Have you ever moved from your hometown and then revisited it months or even years later? While you were away, you probably kept fond memories of the place. After returning though, you may have felt like you outgrew your hometown or that you didn’t belong, similar to how you felt when you first moved to a new place. 

Explanation

While the scenario above refers to voluntarily moving to a new place, it still captures a glimpse of what it feels like to not belong anywhere. Individuals who are part of a diaspora have been dispersed to places outside of their homeland. They may have complicated feelings surrounding their identity and cultural heritage, depending on the circumstances that led them and their families to become part of a diaspora.

Definition

A diaspora is a group of people who have been involuntarily displaced from their homeland. 

What Is It?

The term “diaspora” comes from the Greek word meaning “to scatter” or “to disperse.” The reasons why people are displaced from their homeland are often traumatic, such as genocide, war, stolen land, or other conflict-related reasons. However, some groups self-identify as a diaspora and see it positively as “strength in numbers.” For example, many Armenians were dispersed during the Armenian genocide in 1915. Today, there are more Armenians living outside of their homeland than in Armenia.  Some scholars also consider people who migrate to another country in search of job opportunities a part of a diaspora if they are leaving in masses for a similar purpose, such as economic or political dysfunction. 

Members of a diaspora usually carry a collective memory of their homeland and why they were displaced, which are passed down from generation to generation. They can feel alienated by or purposefully isolate themselves from the host country population, which in both scenarios is called “boundary maintenance.” In some instances, this can result in an idealization of their homeland and a desire to return in the future. 

However, the above characteristics of diasporas are seen as normative typologies, or typical behavior of these groups. They are very limited and based on groups that have been studied more than others. Therefore, more research is needed to understand the uniqueness of all diaspora populations, as well as how policies from their homeland and host countries can affect them.

Why Care?

As of the 21st century, at least 10 percent of the world population has lived in a diasporic situation. The causes that result in a diaspora are often human rights violations. For example, there are about 11 million Armenians in the world, but only 3 million live in the actual country. This large diaspora community is a direct result of the Armenian genocide that happened in 1915. Worse still, the Armenian genocide is not recognized by all States within the international community. This is a huge part of the Armenian collective memory, especially in the diaspora. We must acknowledge the past in order to prevent displacement resulting genocide, war, economic and political strife, and other causes. We must also acknowledge the past to help communities heal from traumatic events that are constantly relieved from generation to generation. Plus, learning about diaspora populations is beneficial to ensure policies do not negatively impact these groups. 

Not to mention, diaspora communities can sometimes face xenophobia and discrimination, which can be isolating as well as unhelpful, especially in crises, when large groups of people are fleeing a dire situation in their country. For example, many Armenians living in Turkey are often ostracized for speaking their native language and for practicing their culture. Many have to assimilate and alter their identities by learning to speak Turkish to try to blend in and avoid xenophobia. Armenians living and working in Russia are negatively stereotyped as taking advantage of the country’s job market, safety nets, and other cash incentives. 

Another diaspora that faces present-day discrimination are people who are a part of the African diaspora, specifically those who were brought over from Sub-Saharan Africa to the Americas. These individuals were dispersed through the Transatlantic Slave Trade from the 1500s to the 1800s. In the U.S., they are often racially profiled as well as targets of mass incarceration and police brutality.

Furthermore, diaspora communities have a significant impact on their homelands, even if it is from afar. They often send money, or remittances, to their families from abroad. If allowed to return, they usually contribute to the economy by opening a business, becoming politically involved, and transferring new knowledge and skills. In fact, diaspora communities play an important political role in their homeland even if it is from afar by returning to protest or endorsing a political candidate. There are considerations up for debate about whether or not people from diasporas should be allowed to vote in their homeland’s elections and participate in other political activities. In conclusion, this will be an important topic to monitor, along with other future immigration policies.

Think Further

  1. Should groups be able to self-identify as part of a diaspora? Why or why not?
  2. Why do diaspora communities tend to isolate themselves from their host country population? 
  3. Should diaspora communities be allowed to vote in their homeland’s elections? Why or why not?

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Learn More

  1. “Diaspora,” Elena Fiddian-Qasmiyeh, https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/pdf/10.1002/9780470670590.wbeog148.
  2. Evolution of the Concept of Diaspora, Encyclopedia Britannica, https://www.britannica.com/topic/diaspora-social-science. 
  3. “Diaspora Communities as a Driving Force for Development: Is there a ‘Business Case’”? Zenebe B. Uraguchi et al., https://www.helvetas.org/en/switzerland/how-you-can-help/follow-us/blog/inclusive-systems/Diaspora-communities-as-a-driving-force-for-development.