A virtual home – the digital diaspora

Migrants are in a constant state of readjustment in their host countries. Forging a new life for themselves far from home, there is often a need for connection and community.  Many migrants find it difficult to assimilate within a new country and seek out other migrants from their home country or try to remain connected to friends and family back home.

The term ‘diaspora’ originally referred to the dispersal of Jewish people from their homeland and their settlement in other countries. It is now taken to mean any ethnic group of people who have migrated elsewhere but have a sense of identity shaped by their migrant experience and their home country. Following the end of colonial rule, migration became a key feature of Western society, and in a globalised world, many migrant communities now exist in Europe and the United States. People from the diaspora might decide to visit their home countries regularly, watch television channels broadcast from their home countries or attend events organised by other migrants in their host country to stay connected.

The internet enables migrants to connect within a cultural collective and express themselves in a way that might not be possible where they live. Through online communities a form of ‘digital diaspora’ has emerged, a virtual life transcending national borders that many displaced migrants yearn for. The internet is a fitting platform for migrants, its relative anonymity and global reach providing a sanctuary for those who have left war-torn or economically challenged countries but have yet to forge an identity in their new environment. Online networks and platforms for migrant communities have proliferated in recent years.

Tamil migrants have fought for self-determination and they have congregated in virtual forums and websites, forging a sense of solidarity. According to researcher Priya Kumar, ‘the web has expanded the opportunities and motivations of Tamil activists and diaspora community members, who use the platform to invite wider audiences to engage in online-offline mobilisation activities’. Websites frequented by Tamil migrants include news sites, human rights websites and community websites.

http://www.tyo.ch/ is a German website that commemorates losses during the Sri Lankan civil war. It commemorates Tamil fighters such as Suppayya Paramu Thamilselvan. The website includes an apt quote from him: “Dear Tamils ​​from the diaspora, speak to the media, politicians and fellow citizens in the countries where you live and tell them the truth, the truth about the atrocities in our country,” it reads. A call to arms, the website encourages activism amongst its readership.

tamilnation.org describes itself as being ‘concerned to tell a story…it is a story about a nation without a state, a trans state nation of more than 80 million Tamils living today in many lands and across distant seas’. The site is very much aware of the diaspora community, stating that ‘the digital revolution in which we live is helping to advance Tamil togetherness. Globalisation and localisation are taking place at the same time. Tamils living in many lands and across distant seas are communicating with one another through internet newsgroups and mailing lists.’ 

Many migrants leave Eritrea for Europe or North America, but their cultural ties to Eritrea are strong, and, following the war of independence, there is a sense of belonging that remains with Eritreans wherever they are located. Academic Victoria Bernal from the University of California looked at the website www.dehai.org, a community for the Eritrean diaspora that allowed them to discuss political issues and stay virtually connected to the country. Bernal describes the website as ‘a virtual Eritrea’ and a ‘transnational Eritrean public sphere’, a public space giving Eritreans abroad a sense of identity and a voice that they might not otherwise have.

In the US alone there are some 1.5 million Armenians, who have strong political ties due to their political struggle for independence. This has manifested in the form of activism, and researcher Monique Bolsajian notes that ‘Armenians in the diaspora focus on advancing the “Armenian Cause” and preserving their ideal homeland.’ The Armenian migrant community is soon to have its own online platform called “Highconnect”, to be launched by Reddit founder Alexis Ohanian (himself a second generation Armenian). The aim of the online platform is to connect Armenians globally. It will also allow Armenian entrepreneurs to pitch business ideas to Silicon Valley investors. The Armenian Weekly is a news site staffed by Armenians. Commentators for the news site promote activism amongst the Armenian migrant community. Armenian Weekly writer Stepan Piligian talks to this community: ‘the diaspora has its own set of questions that are laced with anger and tell a story of wounded trust,’ he writes. 

Kurdish people abroad have also found an online community to assert their identity. Researcher Jowan Mahmod notes that ‘Young Kurds turn to the online forums to test and contest certain ideas and norms’. Mahmod describes the digital diaspora as an imagined community, a sense of belonging that exists primarily in the mind. The internet facilitates this imagined collective identity, particularly as Kurdish people are effectively stateless. In online spaces Kurds from the diaspora converse with each other, questioning what it means to be Kurdish and discussing political agendas. They are multi-lingual, Westernised and torn between their Kurdish and Western identities. They discuss this identity crisis online, expressing their conflicted sense of selves and sometimes accusing online members of being too Westernised or, conversely, of not fitting in with Western society. Mahmod’s research indicates that the Kurdish members of online communities became more socially and politically engaged with respect to Kurdish issues, attending demonstrations and connecting with the other members of the community offline as a result.

This is just a snapshot of online migrant life. The e-Diasporas Atlas project, http://www.e-diasporas.fr/, researches and maps websites and online forums that are relevant to different migrant groups. An ambitious project coordinated by Dana Diminescu, it collates websites and forums that focus on migrants from the Jewish diaspora to Tunisian groups. The websites are vast and varied, as well as being truly global.

A strand of commonality between these different diasporas is political activism. These groups are marginalised, often from ethnic groups in a struggle for self-determination or fleeing persecution in their homelands. Their identities are fragmented, they are scattered geographically and they are often emotional and passionate about the causes that they are interested in. The internet is a tool for them to further their activism and to associate. Migration in the digital era will produce reverberations online for as long as these issues continue.

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