Searching for Home, Understanding, and Identity

An interview with Nisan Nabeel, BA '16

“Too foreign for home, too foreign for here – never enough for both” is how 23-year old Nisan Nabeel describes herself, speaking with solemn eyes and a thoughtful smile. Though the line is poetic, her meaning is not: Nabeel has lived in over 20 cities, fluently speaks six languages, and has cultivated the defence mechanism of cracking impromptu jokes in the middle of conversations. Experiencing life in a state of constant switching – between homes, languages, relationships, and cultures – has  left Nabeel, a graduate in Political Science and Management (majors) and International Development (minor), grateful for her "nomadic life" while also yearning for a familiar – and familial – place to call home.

“Not being held to a certain place makes you open to everywhere. But I can see that it does affect other facets of your life,” says Nabeel. “I think the best thing is that you become adaptable: you can throw me anywhere and I’ll survive. And the bad thing is a constant need to shift without having any roots – no  place where you are settled, because you always think there is more to discover."

Though Nabeel is quick to call hers a privileged life, there is a somber tone to her voice. While she has gained much from exploration, discovery and adaptation, Nabeel notes that the constant reminder of inherent 'foreignness' has been an unpleasant side-effect of her worldly upbringing.

Pinpointing a clear sense of identity has also been a struggle. While her experiences of racism as a child may have made her tougher, she has also had to work extra hard to “prove her worth” to those who see her as Other.

"No matter where you go, people will always try to categorize you, and you have to find your own ways of affirming yourself and your identity while also reminding others of your experiences, and learning and sharing them with other people," Nabeel says.

As a Yemeni-Kenyan Muslim who moved to Italy at the age of nine, Nabeel is especially cognizant of the way exclusion and prejudice tainted her experiences as a child with the otherwise lucky opportunity to grow up exploring the world.

"As I tried to blend in, learning the language and how to speak it with the same mannerisms, it became easier. It changed the way people perceived me and my family. But I also found myself at that young age trying fit with their stereotypes,” she explains.

“For example, as a kid I would laugh along with the ‘jokes’ my peers made about Arabs, because I thought this is what’s funny for them, so I need to fit in. But over time I realized how oppressive that is, especially when you’re in a minority situation. "

It was only after starting at McGill that Nabeel found her assumptions about Arab culture and her own identity challenged, scrutinized, and in many ways transformed. For the first time, she was not the only 'foreigner' trying to navigate a new social sphere. She met other students who were willing to share their experiences, thus informing Nabeel’s perspective on herself.

“At McGill, I joined associations like the McGill Arab Students Association and the McGill African Students Society, where I found so much to be thankful for. You need these associations and groups to critically question the culture and traditions we come from, but also to be a welcoming spot for both people who know the culture, [and for those] who don’t. I have also realized there’s a danger of a single story: thinking only of yours as important and not thinking of anyone else’s.”

This has been a significant aspect of her identity-formation – a shift from an individualistic view, to a more inclusive, empathetic one.

“I’ve changed what I prioritize, or value,” Nabeel says. “Before, I had a very individualistic view of how I needed to impact the world. I was never looking for fame, but now I’m looking for impact. Although I thought I was not individualistic then, I was selfish in what I wanted to accomplish. Now, I’m less selfish, but I’m more me.”

Having gained both education and insight from her time in Montreal, Nabeel aspires to return to Kenya where she wants to start a company involving trade and education.

“I really want people to have the opportunity to have the same experiences as me, socially, economically…and there’s this privilege we have here, that we do not realize, which is the privilege of knowledge. McGill was a very big milestone. It was the people and the connections I made that really opened my mind to the world, and to myself. That’s the best gift. If education can give anything, it’s experience, critical thinking, and the awareness to not take everything at face value. That really is something that I want to bring to people back in Kenya, young and old."