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Back To Your Roots: How to Prepare for a Journey to A Home You've Never Known

by Arwa Ahmed Sep 21, 2009
Going on a search for one’s roots can be an overwhelming and emotionally jarring experience. The following are some ways to help you make the most of the journey.

For those of us who grow up in a country not completely our own, visiting ‘home’ is a daunting task we set for ourselves.

It is something we want to do (eventually) but there is a certain fear that it won’t live up to our expectations or that we may not be prepared for what it has in store for us. Nevertheless, you get to a certain stage in your life when your curiosity gets the better of you and you just have to visit the country which has formed the basis of so many bedtime stories and family re-union fantasies.

This April, I made the journey back to Israel/Palestine after my Palestinian family left as refugees back in 1948. I was the first family member ever to go back, so there was a certain apprehension over whether I would be allowed in and how I would be received considering the fact that the conflict between the two people rages on.

Putting certain issues aside, such as Israeli security, it was the most positive and life-affirming experience of my 23 years on earth so far. Here, I offer some advice to ensure your heritage-hunting trail doesn’t turn into nightmarish.

Go with an open mind

If your family left under difficult circumstances such as wars, discrimination or economic turmoil, try to remember this is only one part of the story. Be prepared to listen and consider all aspects of the conflict. After all, you are here to learn and are by no means the expert. It doesn’t help anybody to go shooting your mouth off about what your grandmother told you happened and insisting that everyone else is simply wrong.

Try to be understanding and if possible disconnect yourself from the situation as this will stop you from taking people’s opinions personally. It’s also a good idea to find out what the accepted political talk is to avoid getting into serious trouble for indiscreet comments about a party/event/government.

Draw emotional boundaries

Visiting your ‘ancestral home’ can be an emotionally draining experience so learn to draw boundaries between what you actively want to explore and what is off-limits. While many trace back family that still live in the country and meet up, you may want to think carefully about this and whether you can handle the implications that come with it.

If you do decide to do this, make sure that you have some means of venting your emotions safely. Talk to someone you trust and who understands the meaning of your journey, also leave time in your itinerary to just relax and reflect on neutral ground.

Share the journey

Traveling somewhere which has such personal meaning can seriously hit you. Hard. It could be anything from visiting the town your parents are from, a monument or just haggling for strawberries with a women who looks uncannily like your granny. I am not saying that you’ll be an emotional wreck but it’s a pretty life-changing experience.

So share it. Especially with your family who will be keen to hear about every little detail of your travel.

Take pictures and not just of the usual sites but the of the quirky details that you noticed (horrendous English spellings is one I love), the people you met along the way, the things that made you laugh/cry/smile. It may be momentarily cringe-inducing but it will be worth it, trust me.

I think I will always regret not taking a picture of an old lady I met on the bus, who told me her entire life story in the space of 5 minutes and then invited me over for dinner.

Also pick up a small, unique present for everyone, like a native flower, a book, a pebble or even a shell. Try to include them in your journey in different ways such as sending a postcard from each city you visit, addressed to someone different. Ultimately, nothing can prepare for this journey so just take time to savor it and hopefully the first time you visit home will be the first of many journeys into self-discovery.

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