Shirin Herman, who works with Houston Independent Services’ Refugee Program, talks about her personal journey:
At this point in my life, Houston is home; being with my husband at home is home.
I’m from Kenya and Tanzania where there was perpetual strife. And then political strife followed me to Bangladesh in 1969. And then, after coming to the US, meeting my husband, marrying him at age 19. I assimilated in the US quickly. I changed my accent, adapted to the food, clothing. It took me a lot longer to get back to my own culture and roots.
I’m not from here. And I was being asked constantly: Where are you from?
And my answer: Indian born in Africa with a detour in Bangladesh and Italy.
That’s why I wanted my daughter to be born in the US, so she could have just one home. That’s the one factor that brought the point of “home” in my face – this is home, but I’m not from here. And I’m okay with that.
Now I’m in my sixties and have worked with Houston’s immigrant communities for more than ten years. They are refugees, and that could have been my story except my parents were well-to-do and believed in education.
For refugees, the transition is almost insurmountable. I’ve been to their funerals, taken them to hospitals and to schools. Working my field gives me an appreciation of how different my experience was because I came to the US as a student.
Today my daughter is family. My brother and sister live 90 miles away. We visit regularly and that does it for me.
I still yearn to look at my old school in Dar-es-Salaam in Tanzania – I left at age 16 without saying goodbye. The closest I can go to a place that I lived in the past is Detroit. When my husband and I visit there, we drive back down the street to our old house. I can’t go back any further than that. I can’t go to Dhaka. Too expensive, and it would be silly to go back for that reason. And there’s no one there. I guess I could go to Dar-es-Salaam, but I don’t know if the buildings exist. And again, no one is there.
It’s taken time for me to be okay, and to be comfortable with being in-between – I’m in between cultures, religion, languages. But I connect with people from all over the globe, and at the same time I have no problems connecting with mainstream Americans because my husband is from Ohio – and Catholic to boot! – Shirin Herman
This conversation is part of my What Is Home? project that is funded in part by Mid-America Art Alliance’s Artistic Innovations grant.