"My current home is in Geneva, where I am a traveller, photographer and intern at UNFPA. I moved here from Russia at 22. Before that, my first independent international travel was to the USA at the age of 18 — I was a part of a Work & Travel programme and worked in a beachwear shop in South Carolina, struggling with my very poor English. Afterwards, I realized that I had the sense of belonging that is so present in the Russian cultural code but somehow in a different way than what was expected of me. Russian proverbs, historical anecdotes, and the current political discourse all promote the sense of belonging to your home country, region, town. For better or worse, this is not the case for me.
I strongly believe that neither nationalities nor geographical borders are defining in life: what you really get attached to are the people, what you really belong to is the whole world. Thus the decision to leave the geographical borders of my country did not cost me much; when your home is the world, you never actually 'leave.' However, what I did want to leave behind were the preconceptions that many people have to live through. Preconceptions held by your close family and friends about other nations, races, religions, and sexual orientations. Preconceptions of the immigration and passport control services about you, a 'young unmarried Russian girl who’s probably going to try and settle in Europe through fake marriage,' every time you apply for a visa or cross the EU border. Living in Europe allows you at least to some extent to forget about the borders – internal or external – that people build around themselves. And if you belong to the world without borders, and are attached to people without limits, somehow putting into practice the Russian proverb «где родился, там и пригодился» (roughly: 'one is needed/should be useful where one was born') becomes a much more fulfilling process.
Life in Geneva is a puzzle of cultures, languages, and traditions. Switzerland has 4 national languages; when I moved here in 2013, more than 40% of the population in Geneva was foreign. When I go to the closest supermarket I see passers-by in colourful ethnic African clothes, I hear students speaking in Spanish, and I notice Russian-speaking moms talking to their kids (who might actually answer in French). It is life at its fullest, and it is beautiful.
Still, being a migrant is a struggle. You gain freedom, but you often lose support. Your loved ones feel that you are abandoning them, your parents are frightened that your life will never be stable, the people you knew for years suddenly feel that you do not love your country as much as you should anymore. You learn to think in a new language, play by new rules and calm down the inner voice that tells you: 'you will never be accepted here; you will always be alien; you will never belong’. You begin to seek support regardless of family or national ties; if you are lucky, you find it. If not, you learn to seek support from within. In the end, it is not leaving your country that frightens; it is the possibility that one day there might not be a country you can call yours."
This story is brought to you in partnership with The Refugee Cultural Festival, 2017 edition. The festival was launched to encourage small, local actions to embrace diversity and support those forced to leave their homes due to war, famine and climate change. Learn more about the festival and donate by clicking here.