Becoming who I am

By Wany Shabantu

Facebook: Wany Nadia

Growing up, I had a hard time understanding who I was. Being a dark-skinned girl in a small white village in the Netherlands came with the dose of awkwardness that one could imagine. You see, my mum, my two sisters, and I arrived in the Netherlands in 1998 after fleeing the war in Congo. I was 6 years old at that time. We had left the largest part of our family behind, and my mum and my two younger sisters became my entire family. I soon realised the world I was now living in did not resemble me. As a matter of fact, there were only three people in this new world that looked like me and spoke my language: my mum and my sisters.

Other than that one time a classmate bullied me at the age of 7 - which I believe had to do with my appearance - I have no memory of ever being treated differently because of the colour of my skin.

Yet, it was a strong desire to belong, which pushed me to set a new goal for myself; I was going to do my best to blend in as much as possible. Standing out in any way was to be avoided at all costs. I wanted to be like everyone else so that I wouldn’t be looked at differently. From an early age, I understood that language has the power to connect or differentiate. Therefore, I reasoned with myself that the first thing that had to change was my language. I quickly acted on this and told my mum she could no longer speak in Swahili with us in public. All the while, my siblings and I only spoke in Dutch. The renunciation of my mother tongue and the adoption of this language was only reinforced when mum fell in love with a Dutchman. They got married, and we gladly accepted him as our dad. As you could imagine, this was the beginning of a complicated intersection of identities.

Who I was and where I belonged became tough questions that I couldn’t quite answer. The first struggles started when my parents’ convictions would clash because of their cultural differences. My dad would allow me to go out, drink, and was very open about having a boyfriend at a young age. My mum, on the other hand, was absolutely against all of these things. I understood that I was living in a different world than that of my friends. I was constantly being pulled back and forth between two cultures while trying my best to blend in. At the same time, I was repeatedly being reminded of the fact that I was different. I came to the conclusion that these two cultures could not coexist. My teenage mind translated this battle into having to choose between the Dutch culture, which, in my opinion, represented freedom and the Congolese culture, which felt like a life of restrictions. At the time, the Democratic Republic of Congo, to me, was a distant place that I had no memories of. It was my mother’s country, not mine. It was a place where people thought differently. They had different desires, different hopes, and different dreams. I knew that Congo had given birth to me, but I had come to the conclusion that we did not understand each other. The Netherlands, on the other hand, was the country that raised me. The place where my earliest childhood memories were formed. It’s the place where we met our dad, where I had my first crush, my first small job, and where I dreamt about my future. This was my home. The only home I had ever known. After carefully weighing these things against each other, the benefits of Dutch culture clearly outweighed those of the Congolese and, I, therefore, decided that I had to be Dutch.

"At that time, I thought belonging meant I had to fully adapt to the Dutch culture surrounding me. And in the process, I found myself on the verge of losing an important part of who I am."

This Dutch identity I had adopted pushed me to be at the top of my class. It put me in law school and even helped me to become a government official at the age of 19. It wasn’t until my final year of law school when it all suddenly felt pointless. I could no longer find any reason for choosing this particular discipline, other than that this was another goal I had set for myself. This realisation led me to drop out at the age of 23. Having no backup plan at all, a friend who was working at a refugee centre at that time persuaded me to register at the centre as a volunteer. At this point, I hadn’t been anywhere near a refugee centre since I had left the one I was living in at the age of 8.

The first time setting foot at the refugee centre in 2015 felt like entering a magical garden. I was amazed by all the different sounds I heard, the flow of the different languages that were being spoken. The many beautiful colours around me represented nationalities reaching all the way from the far east to the deepest parts of the African continent. I was astonished to find out that this fascinating place of mixtures had been there all along, within a five-minute drive from where I lived. It was a different world than the one I had been living in. It was a world where time stood still, and nothing outside of the fences seemed to matter, a world that was once my home in the form of hope. Standing there, I felt at ease. In Dutch, we say, “Ik voelde mij als een vis in het water”, which literally means: I felt like a fish in the ocean. Everything within me told me that this was where I belonged. Even though I was meant to be volunteering as a legal assistant, I found the most joy in spending my days going from one house to another. At times I would start my day by drinking Somali coffee in one house, then learn how to prepare a Syrian meal in another and then end up reading bedtime stories wherever needed. This magical garden took me back to my childhood, wherein, as a refugee, I had neighbours from all over the world.

"As for me, I learnt that belonging to God determined who I was before any other aspect would. As a child of God, I believe that my life has purpose and meaning."

I didn’t realise it back then, but now I understand that stepping foot into that centre allowed a part of me, that I had tried to suffocate for so long, to finally breathe. This is why I felt at home instantly. Growing up, ‘to belong’, and being a refugee were two different things. I was convinced that I had to pick either one, and I decided that I wanted to belong. At that time, I thought belonging meant I had to fully adapt to the Dutch culture surrounding me. And in the process, I found myself on the verge of losing an important part of who I am. Being born in Congo, having survived the civil war and eventually fleeing to safety, is what helps me to identify with refugees worldwide. It’s the strong desire that I have to understand and acknowledge the different stories behind the refugees, that opened the door to working in different camps in Europe and the Middle East. Having worked and lived among these world travellers constantly in search of safety, gave me a new purpose. I eventually decided that I had to understand how the world’s protection mechanisms work. This led me back to law school, where I gladly earned a Bachelor of Laws and a Master of Laws degree with a specialisation in Human Rights, Conflict, and Justice.

My personal perspective on identity, being, and belonging completely shifted when I met Jesus. I began to understand that who we are as individuals consist of two things: the facts and what we believe about ourselves. The facts are e.g. our DNA, place of birth, parents, the environment we grew up in, appearance and so forth. What we believe about ourselves determines how we view ourselves and this eventually leads to how we position ourselves in different circumstances. As for me, I learnt that belonging to God determined who I was before any other aspect would. As a child of God, I believe that my life has purpose and meaning. I believe that he is the one writing my story, that it is a unique one and that together with everyone else’s distinctive story it contributes to the world in which we live. I have witnessed him turn the things I considered weaknesses into elements of strength. Today I can say that I am my Congolese DNA and I am my Dutch values. I am my skin colour with all of its history and I am my skin tone irrespective of the prejudice anyone holds. I can proudly identify myself with refugees because I too am one. But rather than fleeing to safe places, I now use everything I have and all that I have become to run to conflict zones and sit with mothers and fathers, brothers and sisters that have not yet had the privilege of finding safety. I can identify with those rejected by their biological father and I can stand with those who have been courageously chosen by their adoptive father. I stand on the shoulders of my mother, who selflessly sacrificed her own dreams to give me a whole new world. So as my cousin once told me, “Today, I challenge you. Be who you are, be the person you want to become. Don’t mute a single thing about yourself. Be your true, authentic, self. The world will adjust”.

This disclaimer informs readers that the views, thoughts, and opinions expressed in the text belong solely to the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of Identity International.

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