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  • Writer's pictureSarah Zawacki

Home is a flexible concept

In every bedroom I’ve had since I was 18, I would hang postcards on the walls. Through three college dorm rooms, three student apartments, a studio in San Francisco, a house in the North East of England and five flats in London, my postcard collection came with me. I didn’t consider myself fully moved in until the postcards went up. After nearly six months of living in New York, the walls of my room are still bare.

Home used to be the location of my permanent address (or, in times of despair, my parents’ house back in Michigan). I’ve lived in places I’ve loved and places I didn’t, but all of them were home. Since UK immigration policies exiled me back to my apparent “home” country, it’s been harder to say where I actually live. I can rattle off an address in Brooklyn—even feel a glimmer of pride that I’ve at last realized my fourteen-year-old self’s fantasies of living in New York—yet I’m struggling to find that sense of belonging.

For most of the past decade, home was in London, and I never much questioned my belonging. London was where I lived and where I had a purpose, simple as that. Since I was forced out under the Conservative government’s “hostile environment” immigration policy, I’ve returned for two visits. Each time I’ve been astounded by how easily I snap back into the rhythm of the city, how effortlessly I breeze through life in London, in a way that I haven’t yet achieved in New York City.

At home in London

On my first day back after five months away, it rained intermittently, but heavily, and my boyfriend and I got caught in a downpour during a walk to Greenwich. I knew a good pub nearby—set me down just about anywhere in North or East London, and I’ll know a good pub nearby—so we threw our coats over our heads and ran for shelter. It felt like going home. I got a beer, draped my wet coat over a bar stool, and watched out the window as the planes swooped low beneath the clouds, headed to Gatwick.

I dreaded my own return through Gatwick in just a few days’ time, back to the onslaught of questions and fears that is my life in New York. With three university degrees heavily oriented towards European public policy, I’ve thus far been unable to find work in my field. As it turns out, there’s not much transatlantic equalities policy development going on. Instead, I take on odd bits of editing and research work. Some months I cover my rent; other months I need to dip further into my ever-dwindling savings.

I’m ashamed to admit to these realities. But I feel more strongly that I need to talk about them, that society more generally needs to talk about them, that it’s time to roll back the fallacy that education exempts you from financial precarity. I may have walked through Durham Cathedral earlier this month in a red robe signifying that I’m a doctor now, yet I’m returning to a life that is financially unsustainable. I suppose I can take partial blame (after all, my subjects of study have always been well-intentioned but less-than-lucrative), but the real responsibility for my situation lies with the UK government’s failure to provide paths into employment for the international students bankrolling its university system.

I’m not just telling the story of a downwardly mobile millennial; I’m also telling the story of a cruel immigration policy that lures foreign students in and then forces them out. True to Theresa May’s famous assertion that “if you believe you are a citizen of the world, you are a citizen of nowhere,” I’ve been left with no sense of home, an ocean away from my friends and colleagues and professional networks. I bounce back and forth between London and New York, trying to keep a long-distance relationship afloat. I think of moving to Brussels and consulting for the EU. Sometimes I consider calling the PhD a write-off and going to teach English in Eastern Europe.

People think there’s glamour in this modern-day nomadism, yet no one talks about the darker side of this jet-setting and country-hopping. I made the decision to move abroad twice in my life—first in 2012 and again in 2014—when the world was a very different place. Being an immigrant wasn't yet synonymous with being a second-class citizen. Over time, though, I learned about income thresholds and monthly quotas on UK work visas, and it gradually became clear that my life in the UK would not continue. I accepted a life of forced mobility because I had no other choice.

There are many of us who have been forced into fragmentation as a lifestyle, who have stopped hanging photos on our walls because we won’t be there very long anyway, who are having daily Skype calls with partners living an ocean away. I can only hope that we’ll be the ones to develop the immigration policies of the future, that we’ll vote in leaders with a more humane understanding of global mobility and that we’ll be able to channel the pain of displacement into concrete changes in the way that governments treat those who choose to live in another country.

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