A month ago I reluctantly boarded my flight from Toronto back to Brussels. I had spent the winter holidays visiting friends in the city I once was a student. Going back, more than a decade later, gave me the same feeling I had then as now. A sense of belonging to the city, regardless if I was visiting for a week, a year, or whether I happened to be born there.
I still remember my first day as a student in Toronto. I was out walking when a stranger approached me and asked about the directions, I answered in my Swedish accent, “I am sorry, I am not from here”, whereas the stranger replied “so what, no one is from Toronto” and repeated his question if I knew the street he was looking for. At that moment, I knew I would feel at home in my new city.
Toronto is the fourth largest city in North America, with 2.8 million inhabitants of more than 200 ethnic origins, speaking more than 160 different languages. Diversity is visible all around. It is the people sitting next to you on the subway. The variety of images and advertisements on billboards and in stores that represent all of us. It is the rainbow flag painted on the asphalt outside the entrance of each of the University buildings that welcomed me as a student more than a decade ago. The flag that indicates to its students and teachers that it is a safe space for minority groups, including lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people. It is the many small places of worship that peacefully co-exist among houses on residential streets in the city centre. We often pass by without noticing them, but if looking carefully we can see for example a tiny Hindu temple or a little synagogue hidden between the trees and house porches.
Belonging is what I felt as a student in 2003 and this is what I felt during my holidays in 2016.
Talking to my friends one evening, I explained that in Europe in general, and in Brussels in particular, people tended to ask where you are from. If you happen to for example answer what neighbourhood you live in and not what might be your country of origin, they will repeat their question by asking “but where are you really from?”. My friends looked surprised and explained that it would never cross their mind to ask such a question, it would be considered offending. On the contrary, as a rule most people in Toronto always assumes that people are from the city, regardless of their ethnicity, religion or other characteristics. The city does not try to assimilate people or make them give up their culture or religion. Toronto is not a melting pot. On the contrary, diversity is its building block.
Anyone that ever felt socially excluded knows that belonging is a feeling not to be taken for granted, especially not now. The United Kingdom has not yet formally left the European Union, although the consequences of the “Brexit” vote is already felt by the many people that are being told to ‘go home’ and that are no longer considered belonging to the country they live in. The United States President Trump is deliberately and in fast-pace dismantling the feeling of belonging, making countless of Americans and their families experience otherness and fear exclusion. Banning Muslims from entering the USA is just one (incomprehensible) example. Even in a comparably progressive European country as Sweden, migrants – whether first, second and third generations – can feel unwelcome and excluded from their local community. Regardless if they learn the language, get a job and contributing to society, they are still repeatedly being questioned “where are you really from?”. (Read also my post “Expat and Migrants: Same but Different?“)
This is not a meant as a travelogue. Toronto taught me about belonging (however, I understand the city is not flawless). I write to remind myself and readers to recall what belonging feels like, and to ask: what can I do to make others feel welcomed and included? Needless to say, even more important in times when border fences are being guarded, walls being built and barriers being raised.