I recently attended a seminar devoted to the current immigration crises here in Europe. After a series of rather conventional presentations, the audience was invited to ask questions which a panel of experts was supposed to answer.
A black woman stood up. She said she was born in Nigeria, but had lived here for 30 years, learned the local languages, was fully employed and was active as a politician in this city. “I have a question regarding terminology. What am I: an immigrant, a migrant, a foreigner, a refugee, or what? I am as integrated as one can be, so what do you call me?”
She directed this question to a manager at a reception centre for newly arrived asylum seekers. The manager was silent for a while and then he said: “For me, you are a fellow citizen”. Then he continued and explained that people from other countries living and working in the city normally were called “foreigners”.
This reply angered the woman and also several other persons in the audience. The grim implication is that if you or your parents have a non-European ethnic background, then you will always remain a foreigner no matter how integrated you are. His response revealed an essential deficiency in our great European community. We do not have an inclusive term for us all. We do not have a European identity immigrants and “foreigners” can join with us as equals.
I have been an immigrant myself. For almost a decade I lived in the United States. Of the many things that I learned in the USA, one lesson is directly related to the black woman’s question. People living in the USA identify themselves as “Americans”. They are in general proud of being “American” and everyone knows that being American has nothing to do with your country of origin or your ethnic background. If you talk to these Americans they often mention their “home country”, which may be Poland, Iran, Bolivia, Russia, Nigeria, anything. The term “American” is completely neutral and devoid of any reference to where you, your parents or your grandparents once lived. Even second and third generation Americans who have never been abroad, still refer to their “home country”. In his famous speech, Martin Luther King said: I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the colour of their skin but by the content of their character.
The term “American”, unites and defines identity and belonging. Of course, the term, and the identity it refers to have been born through a long and often painful process. But having gained general acceptance is an invaluable asset, a must for a nation. To be able to use the term “I am American” is an essential element of the America dream.
In Europe, it was Jean Monnet who had a dream. A dream that one day all Europeans would live together as one great nation. In his own words “We are not forming coalitions of states, we are uniting men”. Sadly, more than half a century later we are still only halfway to achieving that goal. We do not have an integrating term for us all. In Europe, if an Indonesian woman comes up to you and says “I am Finnish” or “I am Swedish” she will probably get a strange look. If someone from, say, Iraq comes and says “I am European”, that too sounds a little odd. In Europe, we urgently need an inclusive term totally free from ethnic prejudice; a term that conveys pride and membership in our multicultural European community.
So what should we tell that black woman in the seminar? My dream is that one day she will be able to proudly say: I am European and my home country is Nigeria!