Amidst the mounting stress brought on by studying for finals and coping with burnout, the light at the end of the tunnel for most international students is being able to go home for the summer. During the few hours they devote to packing their suitcases, cleaning out their dorms, and saying their goodbyes, they feel their exhaustion transform into elation. Yet, the fast-paced walks across airport terminals and heeding final calls to board is an experience several international students will have to forego this summer, involuntarily. The reality is, they’re not coming home.
They’re not coming home and if they choose to, there’s a chance they won’t be able to return. This is the case for hundreds of international students across the globe from countries such as Afghanistan, Myanmar, Syria, Palestine, Lebanon, and recently, Ukraine. They aren’t numbers or statistics we read in headlines, they aren’t distant figures seen only through our screens. They are individuals we walk past every day, sit next to during lectures, and share tender conversations with in the hallways. They are sons and daughters that will not wake up to their names being called in the perfect way only one’s family knows how to. They will rest their heads against pillows but let their eyes dart anxiously, reading article after article reporting on their homelands’ troubles. They are safe where they sleep, observing cautiously from a distance. But what does safety mean if it’s a word whose definition you can’t extend to your loved ones? What does safety feel like when you grow too consumed by the guilt of comparative suffering to feel it at all?
It’s quite easy to fall into the abyss of self-inflicted guilt when you compare your situation to that of people your age, to people who speak the language you do, and who walked the same streets growing up that they continue to walk today under completely different circumstances. Whether these circumstances were brought on by civil war, forceful takeover, decades-long invasion, or extreme poverty and instability, they make coming home —in the worst-case scenario— a rendezvous with death. As liberating as opportunities to flee may be, the guilt and uncertainty that clouds one’s mind blurs the true nature of such opportunities. The plan is always to return, however, no one plans for conflict. Four years turn into eight, then ten, until you can only talk of memories from the homeland in the past tense.
Such realities are not unique to those who specifically leave their homelands for their higher education. The guilt of living in the diaspora is not subject to a timeline; it does not have a solid beginning or end. For many of us immigrants, being born and raised on safer grounds as a result of our family’s well-calculated decisions often feels like we struck a pot of gold that we were unfairly led to. It is as though we have ‘cheated’ fate without having to take any action and simply reaped the benefits of our parents’ tireless work. So we stand indebted to our parents and occasionally envied by our relatives back home, repeatedly reminded of how much our gratitude must weigh on the scale of life. The dilemma continues as we depart from academia and begin building our careers, laying down roots in the process. Where should these roots be planted? How far can we let them grow?
Loving your land is one thing, living there is another. It is a physical presence many long to have without the emotional burden that eats away at their well-being. No matter how loud they play their ethnic music, no matter the intensity of the traditional scents they diffuse around them, they’re not coming home. They will persevere through this summer and perhaps the next, they will withstand their harsh realities for as long as the forces outside their control dictate. They will return to their status as students, a title they are infinitely grateful for, and sharpen the weapon that is their education. They will sacrifice parts of themselves so that the futures of the people they had to leave behind are greater for it.
Where mindfulness flows, they will be recalled by their friends, peers, and teachers thousands of miles away in tugs of sympathy and hope. We will be reminded of the passions that drive us to learn, to help, to truly be women and men for others. We will pray for them, appreciate the blessings they could not, and reaffirm our moral responsibilities to the world. We will not rest in our own homes, not entirely, not until it can be said: they are coming home.