The Privileged Immigrant

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By Sarah Ager | Twitter: @saritaagerman

O_Sara

As a British Muslim convert living in Italy, I tick quite a few boxes in the “other” category. That being said, I felt a twinge of embarrassment after I was asked to write a piece for this series. Despite being a minority in terms of nationality, faith, and language, I’m not really the right person to be asking about what it’s like to be “other.”

Before I moved abroad five years ago and later converted, I’d spent two decades completely oblivious to what it’s like being considered different from the rest of society. There are many stories I could share about feeling foreign or out of place, but the truth is, the more I experience being “other” as a foreign hijabi in Italy, the more aware I become of what it means to have privilege. 

I came to Italy as a student. It wasn’t long before I fell in love with the city (and my future husband) and decided to make Bologna my adopted home. In the beginning, I tried to blend in with the locals but my scruffy shoes, pasty skin, and inability to pronounce basic Italian pronouns thwarted me in every attempt. Then the hijab came along and I gave up trying all together. I resigned myself to a life of permanent foreignness and, by doing so, began to enjoy it.

I embraced being an immigrant. Or so I thought.

Up until recently, I would never have used the word “immigrant” to describe myself, preferring instead to dress it up with the more fashionable term “expat.” This linguistic choice is very telling of how Westerners who move abroad tend to view themselves, whether consciously or not. After all, “immigrant” is a dirty word in the media and public debate. An “expat,” on the other hand, is part of the jetsetting elite—or so we like to think. But no matter how I try to bend the language to my advantage, I’m still an immigrant.

However, my experience is vastly different to other immigrants, even in my own city. It would be disingenuous to ignore the fact that some things are indeed skewed in my favour. For one, I speak English and teach it as a foreign language. Since English is the current status symbol language for Italian children, this makes me a valuable commodity.

On one occasion in the classroom, a student of mine began to reflect on how he thought immigrants were the cause of many of the current problems in Italy. Thinking it might soften his views, I reminded him that I was an immigrant too.

“Yes, but you are different,” he replied.

“How so?” I asked.

“Simple. You’re English.”

Sadly, I realized there was some disturbing truth in that. Thanks to my mother tongue, I’m fortunate enough to hold a secure job and financially support my household during Italy’s economic crisis. I can afford to stand out as a foreigner, specifically as a Brit, because it is my very Britishness that puts bread on the table. That’s a whole lot of privilege right there.

Yes, Italians may occasionally tease me about my country’s negative stereotypes: our cuisine (“what cuisine?”), our inability to learn languages (“you really should be fluent by now”), and our drinking habits, but it’s embarrassing when you put those tame experiences in the same boat as the hardships faced by many immigrants living and arriving in Italy today.

After having always belonged to a majority group, finding myself “othered” for the first time was certainly disorientating and unsettling. As unpleasant as being “othered” for my faith and nationality can be at times, it has shown me just how much privilege I have as a white British woman.

Even though I may feel “othered” for my faith and nationality, I need to be aware that my privilege feeds into my experience as a Muslim woman and immigrant in Italy. Once I’ve acknowledged it, I have a responsibility to act accordingly.

This includes amplifying overlooked voices within those communities and sharing their stories in their own words, rather than presuming to speak for anyone else based on my own limited experiences of being “othered.”

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About Sarah:

2 Sarah

Sarah Ager is an English teacher living in Italy. She describes herself as an “Anglo-Muslim hybrid” having converted to Islam in 2011. She loves writing about interfaith dialogue, religion, and Italian culture. She also runs Interfaith Ramadan, an intiative bringing together writers and contributors from different faiths and backgrounds during the month of Ramadan. You can read her blog at saritaagerman.blogspot.it

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Image credit: Haifeez

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