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Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 18 October 2018

Home is not just bricks and mortar – it's crucial to our sense of who we are

With a record number of people forcibly displaced, it's time to remember a sense of belonging is central to our social identity and mental wellbeing, writes Justin Thomas

French Foreign Minister Jean Yves Le Drian visiting Syrian refugees at Azraq camp in Jordan. They are taking part in the Oasis for Women and Girls, a project launched by a UN Women project for gender equality and women's empowerment. Khalil Mazraawi / AFP
French Foreign Minister Jean Yves Le Drian visiting Syrian refugees at Azraq camp in Jordan. They are taking part in the Oasis for Women and Girls, a project launched by a UN Women project for gender equality and women's empowerment. Khalil Mazraawi / AFP

This week marks the 71st anniversary of Partition, when India was divided to create Pakistan and an estimated 15 million people were displaced. In crisis after crisis since, the number of displaced people around the world continues to rise. The Syrian conflict, which began more than seven years ago, has seen more than 13 million Syrians displaced either inside or outside the country. The latest UNHCR figures show the number of people forcibly displaced has now reached an unprecedented high of 68.5 million worldwide.

The term displaced is, of course, a rather cold and unemotional euphemism. The emotive reality of the situation is that more people than ever before have been forced to abandon places they considered home. Beyond the obvious traumatic effects of living through famine, natural disasters and violent conflicts, the long-term displaced might also eventually have to grapple with questions of social identity and the question of where home really is.

For some displaced people, "home" will always be the place they left behind. They live life as though in a melancholic limbo, awaiting the day that they can be reunited with their beloved homeland. The tragedy here is that sometimes people return after many years to find that the homeland they left behind now exists only in their rose-tinted recollections. They arrive home to find that the people have changed, things have moved on and they no longer feel they truly belong.

Other displaced people, however, might slowly start to view their new location as a “second home”, developing new friendships, sharing experiences and making meaningful contributions to the society. The displaced might eventually come to think of this new place not as a home away from home, but as a permanent base.

At the heart of our concept of home is a sense of belonging, a connection to people. Home is where we feel we belong, not necessarily where our belongings are.

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Read more from Justin Thomas:

Sticks and stones can hurt your bones but so can the words of playground bullies

Thanks to social media, the pandemics of the future could be psychological

Forget the decade of deceit – we are heading for a millennium of mistrust

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This idea of belonging is central to our social identity, our sense of who we are based on our group memberships, whether that be family, community or national interests. It turns out that strong social identities are good for our physical and mental health too. Conversely feeling, or being made to feel, like we don’t belong has negative health implications.

Alexander Haslam, professor of psychology, celebrated for his work on social identity, writes: “Social identities - and the notions of ‘us-ness’ that they embody and help create - are central to health and wellbeing”.

A rapidly growing body of scientific research strongly supports these ideas. It appears that the more profound our sense of belonging, the better the outcome for chronic health conditions such as depression, heart disease and stroke. The evidence of this belonging effect is now so strong that clinicians are beginning to talk about a “social cure”, the idea that strengthening social identity can accelerate recovery, promote resilience and reduce relapse in the context of some health problems.

Some of our own research, published last year in the Journal of Behaviour Therapy and Experimental Psychiatry, has confirmed this effect among the Emirati college students tested. In this particular study, a weaker sense of belonging was associated with significantly higher levels of symptoms such as paranoia.

In short, having a sense that we belong, that we are indeed at home, is health-promoting. Conversely, feeling rejected or only half-accepted and living on the fringes of society can lead to problems.

The record numbers of displaced people around the world need to feel a sense of belonging and to feel at home. Unfortunately in some parts of the world right now, attitudes towards the displaced are increasingly hostile.

Much of what has been written here about the forcibly displaced can also apply, on some level, to foreign settlers, even where they have made a choice to live away from their homeland. Individuals who leave their native countries in search of overseas employment opportunities can also develop an unsettling sense of uncertainty about where home is.

Developing a sense of connection and belonging, wherever we find ourselves, is vital. The UAE government’s new 10-year visa, available to qualified professionals, will undoubtedly help many expatriates foster a greater sense of belonging to UAE society, providing them with the stability required to establish and maintain happy homes.

Dr Justin Thomas is professor of psychology at Zayed University