How Will I Belong? (by Afrouz Tavakoli)

The guest blogger who opens our regular blogging for 2018-19, Afrouz Tavakoli, is a second year Educational Studies PhD student in the Department of Integrated Studies at McGill University. She completed a degree in Women’s Studies at Concordia University and has a BA in International Relations from Webster University of Geneva, Switzerland. Afrouz is interested in the process of identity formation and belonging as relational and social phenomena. Her inspiration in writing a graphic novel, excerpted here (illustrations by M. Ali Ziaie), was to deconstruct how the interplay of social and power dynamics influences the sense of self and belonging of migrants. Through the graphic novel form she has examined the additional challenges for those immigrants who are categorized as Muslim and Middle Eastern in the current Islamophobia era. In her doctoral dissertation, by drawing on critical pedagogy, Afrouz will be studying how educational institutions in Canada can facilitate self-conscious awareness raising of Middle Eastern Muslim women so that they can autonomously craft and integrate their dual identity as Canadian-Muslim women.

 The world is currently witnessing an unprecedented migration westward from the countries of the South.  Similar to the early 19th century, the twenty-first century is “a moment of division, universal differentiation and identity seeking” as migrants navigate the world with the hope of redefining and repositioning themselves in diverse and new locations as well as within social hierarchies of power (Mbembe, 2017, p. 24). Although the conditions of migration and the displacement stories of migrants vary, the quest for identity and longing for belonging remains a common phenomenon amongst migrants, regardless of their education, class, gender, and ethnicity. Longing for identity and belonging implies the uncertainty, alienation, invisibility and Otherness that migrants experience (Anthias, 2006).

Moreover, in the present day, race and racism  has become a complex phenomenon that involves a wide range of exclusion, categorization and stigmatization (Anthias, 2006).  Thus, it is important to think of identity and belonging as a multidimensional phenomenon that does not only refer to formal citizenship but to a “social location that resonates with feelings of acceptance and stability”; in which migrants feel as though they are part of a greater whole, and where their differences are recognized (Anthias, 2006, p. 496).

In public discourse in Canada, more attention has been given to the measurable economic and political aspects of integration of immigrants, whilst little attention has been paid to the formation of identity and sense of belonging in the process of acculturation and resettlement. By drawing on my journey of immigration from Iran to Montreal with my husband and two sons in 2008, through my graphic novel, How Will I Belong? I have strived to illustrate how arbitrary power relations function in order to legitimize and normalize the maintenance of power by those of dominant groups. By illustrating my daily interactions as a Middle Eastern woman in Montreal, I have examined how cultural and power inequalities function and conceal themselves in a series of curious and polite “how come” questions posed to the Other. Moreover, by accentuating cultural inequalities, I have sought to highlight how misrecognition of the history and experiences of migrants affects the development of a sense of belonging to the host country and ultimately their acculturation trajectory.

My story begins in March of 2003, the year the US invaded Iraq, the country neighbouring Iran. George W. Bush had declared Iran as being next door to America’s war and as part of an “axis of evil”; thus, accusations meant surveillance and restriction of movement of those who were perceived as “Others” in America’s war against terror.

With my husband, I had created a stable and charming life in Tehran, surrounded by family and friends; however, this was the year that I started to think of the prospects that the country of Iran would endure if dragged into another war or turmoil.

This was not the life that I had anticipated for myself and my children. I knew that I wanted to live and raise my children as global citizens, with hybrid identities beyond politics of identity. Canada represented hope, a multi-cultural country.

 In the fall of 2006, with folders full of supporting documents to prove our eligibility for immigration to Quebec, we travelled to Damascus. After a lengthy procedure, we were “selected” as “skilled worker” immigrants

(terms used by Canadian immigration authorities) and were approved eligible to “land” in Quebec on the basis of our age, academic backgrounds, and language competence. In my story, I have sought to illustrate the power dynamics encoded and exercised by institutions. From the first step of applying for immigration to Canada, these institutions not only position the migrant in a power dynamic but also render the migrant to an object of “selection” and “grant”.

Finally, after months of preparation, in the summer of 2008, we arrived in Montreal.  Despite our willingness to emigrate, it was surprising to find myself overwhelmed with feelings of alienation and estrangement once I “landed” in Montreal as an “immigrant”.

It felt as if I had parachuted into a wonderland, where I didn’t belong, and worse, did not know how to belong.

As a matter of fact, I was no stranger to foreign living. I had previously lived in Geneva as an international student and I spoke French and English. Yet somehow, becoming an immigrant was different. I felt that this new identity involved a complex and silent system of social exclusion. Therefore, my story examines the ever-shifting racial boundaries and essentialization of ethnicity and differences with humour and a simple language.

Furthermore, through the main characters of my story, Avril, a French immigrant, and myself, I have questioned our own capacity to develop hybrid identities and a sense of belonging whilst striving to understand what Canadian multiculturalism means through our daily interactions with society. As time passes, Avril and Afrouz’s friendship evolves, the two women realize how often identities are attached to stereotypical categorizations of individuals, framed in collective narration of identity that overshadows the individual’s subjectivity in the dynamic and complex process formation of identity (Ghosh & Abdi, 2013).

Finally, at the end of a long and arduous process of integration, Avril and Afrouz both become eligible for Canadian citizenship. Avril and her husband are called for their last interview where they are immediately granted citizenship, while Afrouz and her husband run into unforeseen problems.

The judge expresses skepticism about their eligibility despite all their efforts to integrate. The conclusion of the biographic novel focuses on how the similar experiences of these two women “create unity” with a better understanding of differences that intersect with their location in society and history (Ghosh & Abdi, 2013, p. 71). Their premeditated identities that continue to stigmatize and categorize the non-Western immigrant, as well as their individual predicament amid all socio-political power struggles, in turn affect the non-Western immigrant’s sense of self, belonging, and venues of integration.


Anthias, F, Yuval-Davis, N., Kannabirān, K, & Vieten, U. (2006). The situated politics of belonging. Belongings in a globalising and unequal world. Rethinking translocations. London: SAGE, 17-31.

Bredo, E., & Feinberg, W. (1979). Meaning, Power and Pedagogy: Pierre Bourdieu and Jean‐      Claude Passeron, Reproduction in Education, Society and Culture. Journal of Curriculum Studies, 11 (4), 315-332.

Ghosh, R., & Abdi, A. (2013). Education and the Politics of Difference: Select Canadian Perspectives. 2nd edition. Toronto: Canadian Scholars’ Press.

Mbembe, A. (2017). The Subject of Race (L. Dubois, translated) Critique of Black Reason. Duke.

Photograph of the author used with permission

One thought on “How Will I Belong? (by Afrouz Tavakoli)

  1. Very interesting post, indeed. Curious to reach the graphic novel and see how the author has used immigrants’ narratives and stories to show identity formation in diaspora. I think Ingrid Piller’s (2017) book “Linguistic Diversity and Social Justice” can also be a good source for the interested readers to explore how linguistic diversity (knowing the minority or official language) can exclude/include individuals at workplace, school, or…

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