When You No Longer Recognize Your Home Country

People who left homelands that have since undergone severe political changes are grieving the demise of a place as they knew it.

A weeping eye with a crowd of people emerging from it
Getty; The Atlantic

Yevhenii Monastyrskyi was an undergraduate at the University of Luhansk, in the Donbas region of eastern Ukraine, when war broke out in 2014. One day, on his way home from a coffee shop with friends, he says, they were approached by Russian soldiers in an SUV. Without much explanation, Monastyrskyi told me, he and his friends were detained in the basement of a local government building. They were all released days later; Monastyrskyi had convinced his captors that he was no threat as a student, even though he had collaborated with Ukrainian authorities. A few months later, he left for western Ukraine, to begin his graduate studies at a different university.

Monastyrskyi hasn’t returned home ever since. Later that year, Ukraine granted limited self-rule to Russian-backed separatists in Luhansk, and Monastyrskyi’s activist history protesting the occupation made any return to the city he grew up in feel too risky to fathom. His home had fundamentally changed. “After 2014, I felt I lost the ground under my feet,” Monastyrskyi, now a graduate student in history at Yale, told me. His emotions were akin to mourning, putting him in a constant state of longing. He couldn’t even go back when his grandmothers died in 2015 and 2019, respectively. Shortly before the recent Russian invasion of Ukraine, Luhansk was one of two separatist territories whose independence was recognized by Vladimir Putin. Monastyrskyi’s sorrow has morphed into anger.

Some psychologists might say that Monastyrskyi is experiencing migratory grief. Every person who leaves their country of origin—exiles, refugees, international students, migrant workers—experiences loss. Many have to memorialize family gatherings, languages spoken without self-consciousness, positions of respect in a community—essentially, an emotional belonging. Grief is a natural response.

But not all migratory grief is exactly alike. People like Monastyrskyi who emigrate from countries that have undergone severe political changes can feel that their home has irreversibly transformed. They grieve not merely their severance from a homeland, but the demise of a place as they knew it. Natalie Cruz, a psychologist at Children’s Hospital Los Angeles who regularly works with migrant families, told me that the mourning is qualitatively different for those who uproot their life for asylum or due to political upheaval. “We’re entering the space of traumatic grief,” Cruz said. “There’s more of a fear, versus the sadness, the yearning.”

I spoke with people from Ukraine, Afghanistan, and Hong Kong—all places whose recent political upheavals, in different ways, have rendered them almost unrecognizable. I wanted to know: How does it feel to know that you can’t go home?

Few of my interviewees had heard of the term migratory grief, but the notion seemed to strike a chord. It was as if a label had finally been put on a constellation of ghoulish emotions each has felt. Yet I heard a wide array of reactions to the loss, from acceptance of a national fate to frustration with a country’s aggressors, from fear of going back to eagerness of someday returning.

Justin Cheung works in San Francisco’s tech industry but grew up in Hong Kong, coming to the United States for college. He always saw himself returning one day—the Bay Area was a temporary location. “I’m just here to get work experience,” he told me. “My soul is happier back in Hong Kong or in Asia.” However, a draconian national-security law was passed in mid-2020, press freedoms have been curtailed, and political figures have been imprisoned, causing a mass exodus from the city. ​After bouts of denial and anger, Cheung’s acute pain has ossified into resignation. “It feels like a point where you can’t turn back,” Cheung said. If he were to go back to Hong Kong—which he still might—he doesn’t think that his day-to-day life would feel too different from how it was when he previously lived there. But he’d notice the loss of the city’s former values and its sense of “intellectual safety,” Cheung told me by email. Even while abroad, he said, he feels less free to speak what’s on his mind.

Cheung’s story in some way speaks to the uniqueness of migratory grief. Some psychologists argue that many of its feelings have parallels in the aftermath of a loved one’s death: a sense of helplessness, displaced anger, and an idealization of what one has lost. But Joseba Achotegui, a psychiatrist and professor at the University of Barcelona, told me that unlike grieving a person, the loss of one’s country can feel more symbolic and ill-defined—the intangible disappearance of language, culture, social status. It’s partially similar to other ambiguous losses, such as a kidnapped child or a missing soldier. The process of separation is recurring, Achotegui said, because the country of origin still exists, constantly reminding the migrant of their loss. Migratory grief can also be a disenfranchised grief, one in which the griever’s feelings might be dismissed because society doesn’t understand them.

For some people, the barriers to ever returning home are significant. The Afghan music scholar and educator Ahmad Naser Sarmast—who spoke with me from Lisbon, Portugal—has lived in exile twice. In 1994, when Afghanistan was going through a civil war, he was granted asylum in Australia, where he received a doctoral degree in music. After the ousting of the Taliban, he returned home in 2008 to found the Afghanistan National Institute of Music, a coed school teaching both Afghan and Western music. After last year’s takeover by the Taliban, he fled again, with many of his staff and students, fearing for their lives. (At one point, he was targeted in a suicide bombing that killed one person and injured more than 10.) “We lost a generation,” Sarmast told me. “There was a generation dreaming about a better Afghanistan … With the return of the Taliban, it’s again the loss of dreams, the loss of opportunities, the loss of hope.” In exile, Sarmast and his students hope to spread Afghan music to a larger community outside the country. Their grief is ever present. But “the past is the past,” Sarmast said. “I’m always focusing on the future.”

Hope, too, is part of the grieving process. It stems not from clinging to a lost past or shedding its significance completely, but from fusing who you once were with gratitude for a new chapter in life. Sarmast repeatedly told me how his exile, though painful, has been an opportunity to reinvent himself. By choosing to pursue a Ph.D. in Australia, he connected his home country’s musical tradition with new credentials that helped him establish his institute.

Sarmast’s hopefulness was echoed by Olesya Pokorna, a psychiatrist in San Francisco who was born and raised in Odesa, Ukraine. Pokorna moved to California with her family about two decades ago and hasn’t visited Ukraine since. Initially, she thought it would be too hard to visit home and then return to the U.S., a place where she can’t effortlessly speak the native language and has to be hypervigilant so as not to commit a cultural faux pas. In recent years, she finally felt ready to return to Ukraine, but then the pandemic hit, and then the war.

The physical destruction of her country has intensified Pokorna’s grief. The places where she spent her youth might no longer exist, she told me. But if anything, the conflict has emboldened her Ukrainian identity. “Bearing witness to all this suffering but also unparalleled unity and self-sacrifice helped integrate my ‘Ukrainian self’ and my ‘American self,’” Pokorna said in an email. “I feel a renewed and deeper connection to my roots.” She has become progressively more comfortable expressing this hybrid identity. For example, she recently started wearing her vyshyvankas—traditional embroidered shirts—at social occasions. “In the not so distant past, displaying this vulnerable part of my identity so openly would cause me a lot of discomfort about looking ‘too foreign’ and ‘out of place,’” Pokorna said. “These days, I’m feeling proud and somehow more at peace with myself.” Rather than the end of her country as she knows it, she feels like she is witnessing the beginning of a new national consciousness among Ukrainians.

Extinguishing the memory of losing one’s country is nearly impossible. But that is not the point of grieving. As we grieve, we learn to define our new emotional equilibrium in terms of gains as well as losses: the end of a dear way of life, but also the growth of new facets of oneself. Joan Didion once wrote, “I think we are well advised to keep on nodding terms with the people we used to be, whether we find them attractive company or not.” Perhaps this is what eventually awaits those who experience migratory grief: the ability to see one’s former life not as a pentimento, crudely painted over by the present, but as part of a diptych, in which a past self sits more comfortably beside the new.