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A Bicontinental Life: Finding Belonging in People and Purpose

Bonne Année 2022!

As we start this new year filled with hope and endless horizons of opportunities, I wanted to connect and reflect with a community builder who has called the FM area her home for over a decade.

Ms. Amena Chaudhry is a globetrotter, DEIB Strategist and Equity Coach whose wisdom and ability to put acquired knowledge into practice to better the community is truly inspiring.

I feel fortunate to have learned from her and collaborated with her in many community projects.

Next time you run into her, ask her which community projects she is currently working on!

Skol! – Cyusa

Where do you feel at home? Where do you call home?

I struggle with how exactly to answer this, even to myself. This is one of those deceptively simple questions. Home… is such a complex idea for me. I grew up kind of like a nomad—my family moved homes and cities quite a bit around the Toronto (Canada) area in addition to the several attempts my parents made to resettle back in Gujranwala, Pakistan, their “home.”

When I fantasize about the idea of home, I think of it as a place where, over time, my individual self is weaved into a larger whole—the gift of being nested in a multigenerational family and community, a multitude of friends and community members, who are keepers of all of your yesterdays, todays, and tomorrows. People who know your joys and sorrows. A place and people that hold all your memories and you hold thiers. This is the kind of belonging that you’re born into, that you receive as a gift, without having to work for it.

Outside of the fantasy world, life has felt for me more like being in exile. I’ve learned that home is not so much a place but an experience, or, as James Baldwin said, “an irrevocable condition.”

Growing up in Canada, I saw my parents and other immigrant families around me working hard to recapture or recreate an experience of the kind of home and belonging they had to leave behind, the belonging that could not be packed in a suitcase and carried across the oceans.

As for myself, I’ve had to work really hard to create a sense of belonging. Creating home from the inside out has been a learning process of trial and error. In an odd way, the nomadic life presented a fresh reset with each move, to start all over again.

And while that was definitely difficult, and often still is, the life given to me has taught me a lot about how I related to myself and to others around me. On the one hand, I had few opportunities to develop lasting and deep connections with people…but on the flip side, I got to experience different environments. I was able to pay attention to how people learn to belong to themselves, to their cultures, to their communities, and maybe most notability to belong to something greater than all of us. That something that often feels so out of reach yet connects people to their purpose and to each other.

I learned from my observations as well as my own experiences. Life as a nomad, in exile from a geographical home, taught me to be deeply curious, to ask questions, to ask “why?”, and most importantly, to center story-telling as a way to discover and accelerate belonging for myself and others.

I’ve learned that home can be a combination of geography, people, and purpose—true belonging for me happens in time-bound moments where I get to present my full and true authentic self to the world. Every now and then, I’ll get a taste of that, in a sound or a smell of a particular food, or a conversation that surfaces a childhood memory. Sometimes this happens in moments where, despite the vast distance between our lived experiences, I am honored to witness and hold space for someone to share a part of who they are, a part that they feel they must hide from society in order to belong.

“We think sometimes we’re only drawn to the good, but we’re actually drawn to the authentic. We like people who are real more than those who hide their true selves under layers of artificial niceties.” ~ Elisabeth Kübler-Ross

These I-am-yours-to-care-for moments might just be one of my most favorite experiences of belonging. They are so rich and so densely packed with belonging, that they last beyond an interaction or two, and ripple out into interaction with others.

Still, I do have deep yearnings for a life that could have been. Had my parents not migrated. I think that those of us who grow up and live between worlds, we never lose the longing for that deeper kind of belonging, the privilege of being born with deep-set roots.

“We often cause ourselves suffering by wanting only to live in a world of valleys, a world without struggle and difficulty, a world that is flat, plain, consistent.” ~ Bell Hooks

And while I find myself longing for that kind of belonging, I am very grateful for the very unique and rich lived experiences that the Universe lined up for me.

What is something that has delighted you about the FMWF area? Is there a specific hobby or activity you’ve pursued during your time here?

Yes! The FMWF area is the first place in my life that I’ve lived in one place, one house even, for longer than a year. My family and I moved to the FMWF area in the summer of 2007. So, yes, while we’re currently experiencing a relatively mild winter, I know the punch that the midwest winters can pack!

FMWF is also the first town where owning a home became a possibility for us. We ended up buying a small home within a few weeks of moving here that just happened to have a decent property.

Growing up, living in apartments and rentals, I remember hearing my parents yearning to farm and homestead. They missed their connection to their land and farm animals back home, and the ability to self-sustain most of their basic needs.

With zero gardening experience and a terrible track record with indoor plants, one of the first things I did when we moved into our home was start uprooting our backyard grass and planning for a garden. I started experimenting with growing and preserving the food I grew. I got connected with a few of the local gardens, started volunteering with a really kind and gentle gardener up at the Probstfield Community gardens, and joined a few local home gardeners’ groups. One of the greatest joys of gardening has been to grow produce I grew up eating but couldn’t get in the local grocery stores here. This year, my biggest success was an extremely successful okra crop and 400 garlic bulbs. Next year’s garlic crop is already in the ground: 1300 cloves in all!

Another cool advantage of the FMWF area is the size of the region—it’s big enough to contain a variety of opportunities, but small enough to get properly connected with people and experts in pretty much anything you want to learn about.

Before the pandemic, I used to connect with local knitters and got pretty nifty with knitting gloves, socks, scarves, and hats. My next goal is to connect with some local potters and try my hand on a potter’s wheel!

What has it been like living in the FM area? How do you find meaning in this culture/community?

When I first moved to the FMWF area, I have to admit, it felt like I had stepped into a portal and time travelled back to the 1970s, to when I was still in elementary school in Toronto, Canada.

So many of my own encounters and experiences in this region, and stories that I’ve been lucky and honored to receive from my extended melaninated family, felt like deja vu moments from my past.

In a way, this is one of the more ineffable experiences of growing up in various contexts and between two very different continents: you experience pasts and presents that would be beyond reach had you lived a life deeply rooted in one geographical and cultural context. Living between worlds is an experience that can often feel like a rewind and fast forward—while students in Canada were using ball point pens and paper to learn their time tables, my classmates and I in Gujranwala were using a “takhti aur kalam”, a wooden plank and a pen fashioned from a reed stalk.

In my formative years, I grew up watching and experiencing my local community going through similar demographic changes as FMWF has experienced this past decade.

And now as an adult, I serendipitously have settled in a very similar environment where I can lend my support and life experience. Instead of being just impacted, I can actively contribute to the growth of my now-community.

The opportunity to make this quality of contribution, my personal purpose, has perhaps been the reason I’ve set my roots here. Growing up, there were definitely times where life would feel random and chaotic. I didn’t know this growing up, but if we are patient and curious, our wait can often be rewarded by the Universe’s longer plan to connect us to where we are needed the most.

I saw this very unique need and fit very early on after moving to this community. So I intentionally immersed myself in professional development opportunities, relationship building, and volunteering experiences that would support a career trajectory to where I could be of service to my new home. Recently that has led me to launch my own DEIAB consulting business—Zarafa Consulting LLC.

How has your journey and life experiences thus far impacted the way you relate with the world around you?

Journeying as a nomad, you learn to identify what possessions are carry-able and what are not. You learn to notice and name loss, grief, and practice non-attachment. Much like a skilled backpacker, I’ve learned to carry just the essentials!

Don’t get me wrong. I am not perfect and certainly didn’t start where I am today. There have been lots of heartaches and failures. But I’ve learned to value and cherish those, too.

I am the product of someone who’s lived all her life in between multiple worlds: whether that be between between Toronto, Canada and Gujranwala, Pakistan; between school life and home life; between Christian and Muslim contexts; between rich and poor neighborhoods; between male and female-segregated spaces; between Urdu/Punjabi and Urdu/English…and a few more in-between spaces that are harder to name.

I grew up in a rigid and disciplined home environment, learning two of the most beautifully poetic languages, Arabic and Urdu—oscillating between sermons steeped in very literal interpretations of my religion and the deeply nuanced, poetic, and metaphorical verses of the Qur’an.

I can’t really think of any part of my life where I wasn’t moving through time at multiple intersections of living in-between. This living in-between has been like sitting at the center of a very busy intersection— lots of traffic visits an intersection, often pauses, but it all leaves. This exposure to a large volume of experiences has formed who I am today and how I relate to the human and non-human world around me. Living in-between informs my approach to life, to difference, and very much flavors the Diversity, Equity, Inclusion, Access, and Belonging (DEIAB) work that I do.

I have learned to pay attention to and notice human behavior. And to question it. To challenge our assumptions and beliefs when reality contradicts them. And in understanding why we do what we do, I’ve learned that we can unlearn what isn’t useful and learn new ways of being.

I have learned to challenge myself. I’ve learned that to do so successfully, I have to love and accept who I am. This has taught me to ensure that people who interact with me, who partner with me, feel held by compassion while being challenged to become better versions of themselves.

I would attribute my disposition towards genuine curiosity, ability to foster deep connections in spite of differences, my honesty and no-nonsense approach to equity work, my unrelenting focus on centering the needs and experiences of those most disadvantaged by society, my moral compass, my humor and wit…I would attribute all of this to having lived life at the margins.

There were a few autobiographies I was introduced to in my formative years and a few later that opened up my imaginings for a just and more equitable world.

In the stories I read of Helen Keller, Charles Darwin, Gandhi, Martin Luther King Jr., Malcom X, Victor Frankl, and in the stories my mother would share from her own childhood, I noticed the limitations of self-improvement and personal development. There is no “me” without a “we”.

Watching my parents and so many other families around me work tirelessly, often holding 3 to 4 jobs, I learned that equal opportunity isn’t actualized at the individual level.

My relationship with gardening the past decade has shed even more clarity for me. If a seed doesn’t grow, or a plant doesn’t perform to its full potential, I didn’t “fix” the seed or plant—I paid attention to the soil ingredients, the water, the lighting…I found ways to alter its environment, ways to adjust the system in which it was growing.

Living at the margins, I’ve learned to see inequity and exclusion as the intended outcomes of systems (vs. individual people’s efforts), and to then design solutions at both the individual and systemic level.

Right? Of course we need food pantries to reduce hunger for those facing hunger and starvation right now. But, we also need to name what system(s) food insecurity is an outcome of, and then what changes need to be made to those systems, so that we can eliminate the need for food pantries.

That is how I orient myself in all of my work—I bring awareness to healing our systemsIn my work as a DEI Strategist, I see my role as a building inspector. It is my job to help identify the structures that are out of code and hazardous, to recommend fixes so that the building is safe. As a homeowner, I know too well how annoying that is, right? It doesn’t feel the greatest when I have to pour in my money into fixing a building I didn’t build! But I also know that investing in a sound foundation and building structure are needed for my renovations to be worth the investment.

What is a wish you have for the FM community?

Ooooh, this is a delicious question! I have so many wishes. If I had a magic wand, I’d definitely add a few mountains and a lot more trees! I really would!

One wish. Let’s see.

A few years before the pandemic, I had the opportunity to visit my hometown in Canada. And the place is nothing like I remembered it. I was in awe of how integrated and rich and vibrant life there is now. At least by measures of demographics and visible culture, I couldn’t identify a dominant culture.

When I think about it, this transformation took 40-some years to achieve and a lot of it was accidental.

I guess, my wish and hope for the FMWF area is that it doesn’t take us 40 years to get to a place of deep, authentic belonging for everyone. We have access to so much more information, communication, innovation, and history today than what Toronto had back in the 60s and 70s.

I hope that the dominant community and culture in our region finds ways to accelerate integrating itself with the changing demographics and leveraging its access to difference to achieve a culture of inclusion and belonging.

What is one gift of knowledge or understanding you’ve gathered over your lifetime that would be willing to share with the readers of this article?

We all hold basic assumptions about the nature of human beings and about difference. And they’re not just ideas— these assumptions show up in how we act, what we say, who we engage with, and how we impact human and nonhuman life.

One of the understandings that I came to much later in my life, in the past two decades, that I wish was intentionally introduced to me as a child, is one of the seven core assumptions of The Circle Process (indigenous teachings and practice).

The assumption is: All human beings have a deep desire to be in good relationship with each other.

Developing the skills to see the systems operating behind human behaviors in combination with this assumption has helped me give so much more grace and space for my relationships to evolve and grow. And to direct blame and frustration towards systems instead.

I am one of my worst critics. This assumption has taught me to pay attention to what I have control over as well as where my accountability lies in not reproducing systemic harms.

There’s also an Islamic practice that goes hand-in-hand with this assumption. I mentioned that I had to learn nonattachment earlier on. In my earlier years, a lot of that practice was related to loss of material things, people, and relationships. But as I’ve grown to align myself with my personal purpose, I have had to learn— and am frankly still learning—to practice this non-attachment from status and from social acceptance.

“To be rooted is perhaps the most important and least recognized need of the human soul”. ~Simone Weil

Learning to not need or want social acceptance goes against the need to belong and to be accepted. But in the line of work that I do, this is a crucial, non-negotiable skill: to not be attached to what people say about me. Crucial not just for the integrity of the work, but for me to ensure that I respond and act from a place where I hold this core assumption to be true—that all humans have a deep desire to be in community. I can’t get so hurt that I’m not willing to give people space to grow. I can’t let myself be so impacted that I give up on people. I have to remind myself that the work I invite people into is the work of transformation and change. And this work is hard for people and systems. If I’m attached to being liked, I won’t have the courage and drive to invite people into transformative change.

Written by Alexandre Cyusa

Alexandre Cyusa came to the FM area in the fall of 2010 to attend Concordia College. Originally from Kigali, Rwanda, Cyusa has lived in Switzerland, Ethiopia, Guinea and France. His traveling experiences have helped him in making this world a smaller and simpler place to live in. He currently works for Folkways and is interested in community development and nurturing global citizenship.

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