"What do you think when I say diaspora?" Our lecturer asks first.
Answers: Businessfolk looking for better business. African slavery. People running from war. Having a nigh-mythic connection to home, a narrative of return. An idea of your country of origin as it was before whatever made you leave made you leave. Making your kids study languages they don't see as relevant. Supporting your relatives over there.
Sometimes, our lecturer says, it's a matter of life or death. She started as an anthropologist and researched Kenyan refugee camps, and got really interested in the dynamics of their relationships to family abroad. In said camps, sometimes there isn't enough food and one needs remittances from relatives working in other countries in order to have enough food.
Diaspora, she says: transnational community. You be from there and also here, and you being from here too but with roots over there, maybe two passports, maybe you get involved in politics, maybe you try just to get on with your life. There isn't only one diaspora: one country, depending on the waves and when people left, have very different images of home and goals as a community. Then of course there's the differences in class, politics or religion.
Considering who and who isn't part of a diaspora is also complicated – are you still a member if you receive a new citizenship, or give up your old one? Are your kids part of the diaspora? Then you think about what's acceptable in the community, or if one can be metaphorically excommunicated. Thinking about what interests are shared or just presented as being shared.
For our lecturer, a core concept is multi-embeddedness – think of being embedded as much there as here, or complicatedly in each, not so much just in a box of one or the other. And she sees questions that complicated the narratives above as good things because they help us to get to know the real fault-lines of various communities, how they really live.
There's something in particular about refugee diasporas, meaning the ones who fled because of a conflict. Sometimes their remittances (the money they send back to the homeland, usually to family) is a matter of personal or national survival. If the conflict is ongoing this is going to impact how you relate to your country – this has led to some communities to be seen in their country of settlement as being overly politicized.
A number of organizations have been recognizing the power of diaspora communities in helping with development back home, and so they've been tapping into those resources. But the political element is seen by some to be problematic – aid, for it to be real aid, should be neutral (so goes the line). And so when people come from a very partisan angle, it can be seen to be a bit awkward. But, our speaker says, is someone's running for their life, and from something very specific, can/should you really expect them to be nonpartisan? Is that even fair?
That's not to say that the political activities of diaspora members aren't problematic, or don't deserve a question or two. The Tamil Tigers, insurgents in a bloody civil conflict in Sri Lanka, were supported in great part by money from abroad. Also, when you're outside your home country you can often have more access to resources or media, and so you can control the narrative more powerfully than other people back home. Diaspora members don't always feel the consequences of their activities – they can do things from afar and don't have to live with the street level fallout.
But, our lecturer reminds us, some are more protected than others. Many have relatives back home, or face other consequences. I think of Chinese workers and students pressured by the gov't to show up at protests in the States. Or the ways I've been protected from certain kinds of scrutiny while living abroad. Or wondering what would happen if a foreigner got caught at a Russian protest – a fine, deportation? Thinking of people who migrate to authoritarian regimes – Tajik workers in Moscow, Yemeni workers in Dubai. The narrative presented above is the one where people arrive in the West – that's not always what happens.
There's the thought of social remittances as well as financial ones – if you live in a democratized country, maybe you start exporting your values back to where you came from. Or maybe they dislocate you socially, so you don't feel at home in either place. Not completely.
One community our lecturer studied quite a bit is the Somali diaspora in Norway – a large part of the country is trying to separate and form a country called Somaliland, and some parts of the community here identify as Somali and some as Somalilandi. Even classifying the diaspora places you right in the middle of the discourse. But when Ethiopia was invited by the transitional gov't to invade and 'stabilize' the country, everyone here kinda erupted. They have a lobby, and our lecturer suggests that they had enough clout to get Norway to raise international complaints against Ethiopian presence in Somalia.
Making the transnational bit more complicated: a Norwegian-Somali is now Prime Minister over there after working here for Norwegian Refugee Aid for a long time. And the Norwegian speaker of the house is of Somali origin – are they Norwegian or Somali? Are people wondering about their loyalties? What did they have to do to be considered sound for their positions? And how much do they have to prove themselves to nationalists who say, no, never, you're not one of us. I don't recognize you. I don't recognize my country anymore.