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Why Are So Many Arabs In The West Moving Back Home?

yeah, we’re done.

It’s been three years now since I decided to never spend another winter in Europe. Born under Manchester’s grey skies and brought up in the cold country of the Francs, at the age of 22, I decided to call it quits with the Old Continent and move to the region my parents call home— The Middle East and North Africa. After a few stints spent in Cairo, Beirut, and then Tunis, I began to realize that many young Arabs, like me, had left the comfort of their own homes in the West to reconnect with the places of their roots. Although I’m yet to have made the leap over to my native Morocco—apart from summer vacations with my parents and siblings— I have managed to find a deep sense of belonging in each city I lived in.

Egypt was my first destination, and regardless of how chaotic Cairo was, I remember my time there as an eye-opening experience. Until my extended stay in the Land of the Pharaohs, my identity as an Arab was not something I was necessarily proud of. It was a part of me, but I had never fully embraced or understood its depth until then. For the first time in probably forever, I tapped into a side of myself that was considered cool and made me feel part of a much bigger community. For once, I was no longer an “ethnic minority.” Instead, I belonged to a majority I could blend into and from which no one could single me out from.

Then came Beirut, which offered a different kind of charm compared to Cairo. Aside from the city’s bustling nightlife and eclectic art scene, its blend of Mediterranean cultures and Arab hospitality did paint a different picture of the Middle East in my mind. That said, it still felt familiar enough, as the emphasis was put on the elements of identity that were shared rather than those that made me different.

A stark example of such a shared sense of community, for me at least, came in the weeks following the 2022 FIFA World Cup in Qatar. As trivial as it may sound, Morocco’s stellar run to the semi-finals of the quadrennial tournament— which was a first in our region’s history— was celebrated as a victory of Lebanon’s own. Streets crammed with cheering crowds and filled with pride as they saw their own hopes and dreams reflected through my, or should I now say our, success. I remember being at the receiving end of so many congratulatory messages, gestures, and expressions of euphoria from people I barely knew, or even strangers. Looking back, it really felt like I was part of one big extended family, even though I was hundreds of miles away from my uncles and aunties.

And then came Tunis. I don’t remember ever feeling so comfortable and at ease in a place so quickly. With a similar culture, dialect, and lifestyle to the one I am used to when in Morocco, Tunisia immediately felt like a home away from home.  Put it this way, the transition to life in Tunis was so seamless that it felt like I had simply moved to a different neighborhood in a city I already knew intimately—except I didn’t.

When speaking to my parents about my travels, they couldn’t help but look at my vicissitudes with a certain level of confusion. They, who had forcibly left their home countries in search of a better life in Europe, or more broadly speaking the West, found it difficult to understand my voluntary relocation to the region they once bid farewell to. And though I thought that I was an exception for so long, I came to realize that many others like me had also sought out these lands for similar motives. After two or three generations spent living abroad, trying our best to be part of the fabric of our new countries in vain, can you really blame anyone for trying to build a nest where we might truly belong? It’s at least worth trying even if yes, our tongues may stumble over a few grammar mistakes and a broken accent, but ultimately, we feel more comfortable here than where we were brought up.

@maisvault #lookatmehabibi #movingtodubaiwithfamily ♬ Look At Me Habibi – Rakhim

Historical factors that initially prompted Arabs to migrate to the West have largely become obsolete. Economic opportunities, advancements in education, and improved healthcare systems in many Arab countries compared to the time of our parents have reduced the need for migration. Additionally, the increase in pervasive racism, Islamophobia, and discrimination in Western countries have also tarnished the once-appealing image of life abroad. That said, it’s still crucial to acknowledge the privilege that individuals, like myself, possess when making a return. We come back with recession-proof currencies, globally recognized degrees, and can speak more languages than one. All of this means we can often enjoy a more comfortable lifestyle that may not be accessible to many locals.

For them—particularly those from less privileged backgrounds— the pull factors of better living conditions, safety, and prospects for a brighter future abroad still exist. Factors such as unemployment, political instability, limited access to education, and poor healthcare options continue to drive migration. Basically, the experience on the ground will largely differ depending on one’s original socioeconomic status.

Another pattern I’ve noticed is that  many of my Arab friends, born and raised in one Arab country, often move to another instead of heading to the West. This is often for education at prestigious schools like the American University in Cairo, for instance, for job opportunities, or simply out of sheer curiosity to visit other parts of the region.

Recently, I had a conversation with Syrian DJ Noise Diva, who expressed that “any country that can speak even just one word of Arabic is home,” While this claim might sound essentialist, there’s some truth to it. Being back in the Arab World, no matter where you are, you’re often seen as a native. I’ve experienced this firsthand during my travels to Egypt, Lebanon, and Tunisia. In contrast, elsewhere, you face the stress of adapting to a whole new way of life—often individualistic—new languages, and cultures.

Like the word “Arab,” the word “home” carries different meanings for different people, sometimes leading to conflicts. However, through each journey and experience, it evolves into something more positive and meaningful—at least that’s how it has been for me. Without romanticizing the Arab world and its challenges, I still hold confidence in our region’s future. Here, I see a brighter path that includes me, unlike Europe, where there seems to be a wish for people like me, people with my background, to simply leave. I’ve made my choice, and I’m more than happy with it.

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