Our ‘Mygration Story’ series tracks the family histories of staff and fellows at UNU. The aim is to show that many of us owe our lives and careers to the courage of migrant ancestors. People who left their homes to build safer or better lives — for themselves and for their children. With this monthly series we want to show that migration is not an historical aberration, but a surprisingly common element in family histories worldwide.
When people ask me where I come from, my thoughts inevitably take me way back in time to the early 1930s and to a place on the other side of the globe, the Japanese city of Hiroshima. This is where my story starts. During those years of economic crisis, tens of thousands of Japanese people, including both my mother’s grandparents, decided to emigrate to Brazil, in the genuine belief that they would soon be back home, having made a fortune after a few years of hard labour in the coffee bean plantations near São Paulo. Unfortunately their dream didn’t come true, and when the Second World War broke out, they lost contact with their families back in Japan. After the atomic bomb fell on Hiroshima, my grandparents were convinced that all their relatives had vanished together with the entire city.
Although born in France, my father grew up in New York, where his own father had founded the Free French University and played an active role in the cultural life of the French community. After spending many years travelling around the world, including one year in Japan studying the language and exploring the country, my father arrived in Brazil where he had been appointed director of the Alliance Française in Rio de Janeiro. Keen to improve his proficiency in Japanese, he visited the Brazil–Japan cultural institute across the street, and this is where he met my mother, who happened to be the secretary to the director’s office. I was born in 1966 in the picturesque neighbourhood of Laranjeiras in Rio de Janeiro, at the time when Bossa Nova music was conquering the world. I often heard my parents say that Vinicius de Moraes and Antonio Carlos Jobim composed their famous song ‘The Girl from Ipanema’ in a bar very close to where we used to live.
In 1969, a year after my sister was born, we moved to Islamabad, Pakistan, where my father became the new cultural attaché at the French embassy. I started going to the British nursery school and learned my first nursery rhymes in English. My brother was born in the neighbouring town of Rawalpindi. During the Indo-Pakistani War of 1971 that eventually resulted in East Pakistan’s independence as Bangladesh, the entire French community living in Islamabad, including my family, sought refuge in Kabul, Afghanistan. I still remember helping my father cover our white car with mud in order to camouflage it, setting off with the embassy personnel in a long convoy of cars and trucks, and attending a small French school in Kabul until the end of the conflict.
The year 1972 saw us relocate again, this time to Tokyo, Japan, where we were to spend four unforgettable years. As soon as we arrived, my mother started off an official procedure to search for her long lost relatives in Hiroshima. My grandmother from Brazil came to live with us and was present when an official from the Ministry of Home Affairs phoned to inform us that our family in Hiroshima had been found. After 40 years of silence and separation, my grandmother was finally reunited with her aunts, uncles and cousins, who miraculously enough, had not perished during the war. As the eldest daughter, I accompanied my parents when they too travelled to Hiroshima to meet our relatives. It was an emotional encounter: my grandmother’s cousin kept hugging me, my mother’s eyes were filled with tears and my father kept repeating: “This is a historic moment in our family, Sueli, engrave it in your memory.”
Our stay in Japan came to an end in the summer of 1976. My father was appointed director of a secondary school in the east of France and this final move marked the end of our travels abroad as a family. This is also when instead of speaking a variety of languages at home (Portuguese, French, Japanese, English), we all switched to French, including my mother. After three years in the Vosges region, six years in Tours in the Loire valley and one year in Paris, I completed my studies in English Literature and won a one-year scholarship at Rutgers University in New Jersey, USA. My year abroad gave me the chance to spend time with my grandparents in New York and to work as volunteer at the headquarters of the United Nations.
Back in France, I found a job in the international development department of the French women’s magazine ELLE in Paris. But my feet felt restless and a year later, I was backpacking across Europe on my own. I had decided that my final destination would be Israel, where I wanted to learn Hebrew and work as a volunteer on a kibbutz. One of the other volunteers at the kibbutz was a young Dutch man from Dordrecht. We worked together at the cowshed and enjoyed the safe lifestyle of the kibbutz community. We were both there during the First Gulf War and had to put on our gas masks every time Saddam Hussein sent a Scud rocket towards Tel Aviv. We married in 1992.
We have now been living for the past 24 years in the Netherlands, and 22 years out of those in the Maastricht Region, just outside the city of Maastricht. I’ve never lived this long anywhere before and I deeply enjoy the feeling of finally having found myself a home. Our three children were born here and speak Dutch with the soft Limburg accent. When people ask me what brought us here, I always answer that it is the Treaty of Maastricht, which set the city on the European map and also made it known to me. I feel like a global citizen and my communications job at United Nations University-MERIT really puts me at the centre of the world.
Flickr / N.Mendez