• Olivia Melkonian

Our Responsibility in Shaping Our Region’s Future

The imagined community that combines diasporas from the SWANA region (South West Asia & North Africa) creates a new invisible, borderless nation outside of our respective homelands. This is an opportunity for those with roots in the region to both reclaim and diversify their identity, while also re-writing history with their own voices. Whether it be for the Armenians, like myself, who have been forcibly driven out of their land, or for those from nations that offer them no better alternative than leaving and re-starting elsewhere, our diaspora transcends modern borders and creates a new definition of identity.


Members of the SWANA community both in the homeland and diaspora have adapted to today’s political times and are engaging heavily in both the responsibility and desire to reform their futures in the region. We discover ourselves as activists out of necessity. Living in the diaspora does not entitle us to forget who and where we came from. Today, our work relies on mobilising mutual aid to transform our region into what we want. Engaging in and supporting community efforts to increase the quality of life for our people are often at the core of our work today - as they should be. But what future are we really fighting for?


Diaspora theorists enjoy using the SWANA region as the basis of their research and use it to inform their work despite the fact that the majority of them are not from there. So why is the topic of our diaspora so compelling to outsiders? And why are our regions the basis for diasporic research when it doesn’t actually aid any of us living within the diaspora or the homeland? It’s normal for people from our regions to be displaced — this is simply accepted without the acknowledgment of the cultural, mental, or social implications it brings upon us. Extremely prevalent today, we can see our communities coming together to re-define the region and those from it. Instagram hosts a number of these communities, who form collectives that empower, give a voice to, and bring together members of the SWANA diaspora. Full Potential, a group of Iranian-American women, bring uncovered news stories from the region to the forefront of our news feeds through digestible and informed posts. We are both defending and educating, branching away from the media-constructed communities, and tainted perceptions.


At the hands of the British and the French in the early 1900s, the SWANA region was divided. Borders were created that did not translate to their landscapes, and populations were displaced from their indigenous regions. Those who were already minorities faced extinction, and those who were never before considered minorities are now forced to identify with this term daily.


We need to reclaim the term “minority” and restructure our personal narrative to one of defiance, strength, and resilience rather than the conventional meaning of being tossed to the side, of knowingly living in the outskirts of society. Perhaps if we self-identify rather than accepting this given identity, we can change how our narrative is perceived. For many of us, our ancestral histories inform our modern reactions and relationships. It is not a fault that we come from highly political regions, nor is it a fault to understand our lineage and adapt it to navigate our modern world within the diaspora. Rather than allowing it to hold us back, it must set us free. But we must ask ourselves if we are, in fact, breaking boundaries or if we are creating new ones that are inclusive only of like-minded individuals. And must we be mindful of how these actions are perceived by those unfamiliar to our region and our history?


We hold responsibility as members of the diaspora in mobilising aid to our regions and for fighting for accurate depictions of our nations, our region, and our people. But is this our responsibility any more than our brothers and sisters in the homeland? SWANA youth, particularly women, are currently at the forefront of mobilising mutual aid for our region. In the last month, we’ve seen artists such as Nourie Flayhan offer commissioned illustrations and donate 100% of profits to support Lebanon as well as highlighting and empowering other active Lebanese artists and organisations in a time of crisis. Kooyrigs, an Armenian-led initiative to empower and provide resources for women worldwide, raised $20,000 in four days following the Beirut explosion to administer 5,000 period kits for young women in affected areas. This year has seen a huge influx in political activism and the accessibility of social media has fuelled this even more. Unfortunately, we have also seen how some people are undoubtedly out for personal gain and social capital over genuinely supporting vulnerable communities, but these figures are often easy to pick out.


So why is it that our diasporic youth feel such a strong urge to re-define our communities, and change them from imagined to integrated? It is likely that too many people are fed up with inaccuracies and underrepresentation, and the time has come for us to take control in constructing the new narrative. Are we, the diaspora, guilty of our privileges that don’t exist in our homelands and subconsciously find ourselves trying to defend where and who we come from? As we come together to inform and educate, we begin to understand that these actions are less for other people’s understanding and eventual acceptance, and more for our own: for who we are and where we come from.


Through research and open dialogues, we are raising awareness of what really goes on in our region, both the known and the unknown. But awareness only goes so far. Today we see a lot of people from our region using their voices and platforms to implement support systems in vulnerable communities. We are tackling taboos head-on and opening up conversations that we were too ashamed of when we were growing up. This year, we have seen many fundraising efforts to support our region, namely abolishing the Kafala system, supplying medical aid to Gaza and Yemen, and now rebuilding the city of Beirut following the recent devastating explosion, just to name a few. We are humanising our people for those who have been reluctant to see us as more than faceless members of far-away communities. Perhaps, we hope, if more people are aware of not just the bad but the good too — including the efforts we make — then maybe they too will care as we do and assist in supporting mutual aid. But do we need to rely on consumption to engage others in this modern age? I find myself struggling to balance the need to earn from the physical work I create with the need to provide financial support to my communities, but the latter always seems to prevail as my priority. Is the process of purchasing from independent artists, who themselves donate a portion (if not all) of the profits to a cause close to their hearts the only successful way in encouraging outsiders to invest in our causes?


While it’s clear that consumerism is a beneficial tool in mutual aid, I wonder if this is our only option. How, in the future, can we care and mobilise for mutual aid that comes with no reward, and how efficient will this be? Can we assemble in ways that will successfully incur socio-political change, or are only those who assume roles of educators, politicians, and organisers able to re-shape our future? Our diaspora has become one imagined community tied not to one nation but to each other, relying on reciprocated support and guidance. Together we can mobilise and provide necessary aid for our region to thrive once again, and perhaps, in the coming generations, lessen the number of us forced to live outside of our homeland.


Originally published in Unootha Journal: https://www.unootha.com/unoothas-journal/shaping-our-regions-future

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