Belonging is a two-way, complicated dimension of our existence. Who, really, is the agent of belonging? Are we, as individuals, ever in control of what we belong to? Are we part of a space, or merely contained by it? Is language a road to our soul, or another form of territory? These questions grow more urgent, as some of us find ourselves far from the motherland.

The Mohamadi family of 52-years-old watchmaker Radjab and his 43-years-old wife, hairdresser Masume, is from Bamiyan, Afghanistan. They arrived in Bulgaria with their two daughters Khadije, 16-years-old, and Narges, 15-years-old, in 2012, forced by the unstable situation in their home country.

The Mohamadi family of 52-years-old watchmaker Radjab and his 43-years-old wife, hairdresser Masume, is from Bamiyan, Afghanistan. They arrived in Bulgaria with their two daughters Khadije, 16-years-old, and Narges, 15-years-old, in 2012, forced by the unstable situation in their home country.

Migrants and travellers who are far from their own language are far from themselves. Their journey is often concluded in linguistic displacement, making them strangers in an even stranger land. Their native tongue, the channel that carries the living memory of childhood, family, past and heritage is more distant as days go by. It’s through this language that they love and hate for the first time, and it is through this language that they formed first thoughts and ideas, about themselves and their world.

Johanna Alcantara is 36-years-old and moved from the Dominican Republic to Sofia six years ago.

Johanna Alcantara is 36-years-old and moved from the Dominican Republic to Sofia six years ago.

Nora Obando is from Nicaragua. She arrived in Bulgaria in 2008.

Nora Obando is from Nicaragua. She arrived in Bulgaria in 2008.

The mother tongue is not just a part of national identity or of social conditioning, but is also a part of one's soul. Words, grammar, inflections – they all construct a world, shattered as immigrants are immersed into the new culture, speaking a new language, living in another world. Displacement, especially when forced, brings struggle: belonging to the new space and vital assimilation rest on a fast replacement of the old language with the new, a process that underlines incompatibilities – of thinking and feeling. The immigrant understands he needs to gradually abandon his language, while thinking of it with nostalgia and silently celebrating words that have no translation in the new tongue.

Behrokh Sabounchi, 30-years-old, and Mahdi Mosadegpur, 33-years-old, are from Iran. She emigrated to Bulgaria three years ago, and he came 10 years ago.

Behrokh Sabounchi, 30-years-old, and Mahdi Mosadegpur, 33-years-old, are from Iran. She emigrated to Bulgaria three years ago, and he came 10 years ago.

Saif-ur Rehman, is 40-years-old and was born in Pakistan, where he graduated electrical engineering. He arrived in Bulgaria in 1994.

Saif-ur Rehman, is 40-years-old and was born in Pakistan, where he graduated electrical engineering. He arrived in Bulgaria in 1994.

He misses the beauty of his own language, but he convinces himself that the best way to learn a new culture is to forget his own. He might even be happy and satisfied when he doesn’t remember the name of an object in his own language. But the process of losing a language and acquiring a new one is painful and disrupting. As Eva Hoffman describes in her memoir, Lost in Translation: Linguistic dispossession is a sufficient motive for violence, for it is close to the dispossession of one’s self. Blind rage, helpless rage is the rage that has no words, rage that overwhelms someone with darkness. And if one is perpetually without words, if one exists in an entropy of inarticulateness, that condition is bound to be in an enraging frustration."

30-years-old car mechanic Kone Yaku arrived in Bulgaria from Abidjan, Côte d'Ivoire, in 2012.

30-years-old car mechanic Kone Yaku arrived in Bulgaria from Abidjan, Côte d'Ivoire, in 2012.

Alienation occurs, when the new language cannot describe his past, and the mother tongue cannot express new experiences. A personal crisis is affecting the expatriate, who is wandering between two cultures. This crisis, however, ends when opposite cultural forces unexpectedly become a trigger for change. A new identity emerges, more complex, mature and critically and culturally independent. The migrant resembles a mythic hero, who has left his language and motherland, but traces of their beauty will always inform his identity.

Migrants and travellers are heading towards new inner worlds, emerging at contact with new outer ones. Every migrant, however, is himself a brand new world.

Words: Veronica Mafolino

Copy edited by: Elena Stanciu

Image source: The UnBulgarians, 2015 project by Anthony Georgieff