Vancouver won’t stop growing: expanding outward and spiraling back in, rebranding old neighbourhoods and finding names and spaces for new ones. New people are the overlooked catalyst for all this outward change. While a fresh condo development shoots up into our field of vision, a new city dweller slips easily into the periphery.
Zakir Jamal Suleman, director of The Belonging Project, is attempting to bring the experience of Vancouver immigrants to the foreground. Through a series of six video interviews, posted weekly to The Belonging Project’s website, Suleman and his collaborators address the question of what it takes to belong in our notoriously antisocial city.
Suleman, a philosophy honours student at UBC, was inspired both by his own experience as a Second Generation Khoja Ismaili Canadian and by a 2012 report published by The Vancouver Foundation. The report claimed that one third of survey participants struggled to make friends in Vancouver, and fifty percent of recent immigrants felt the same feeling of social isolation. These results resonated with Suleman, who describes his own process of belonging in Vancouver as a complex one: “You are born here, but there are still questions–where is your culture and the culture you are living in, how do they mix, where is home for me, is it here or is it there…”
He conceived of The Belonging Project as a means to help Vancouverites combat this isolation and connect with one another. Video interviews are a uniquely immediate way to break through what Suleman calls “barriers to entry,” allowing website users to hear a stranger’s story in the physical space of their daily life. Whether you are watching on your laptop or your phone, the project website creates a virtual space for immediate intimacy. Suleman hopes that these online interviews can be more than an “abstracted story,” the goal is that “those connections be something real and something that…people can gravitate to just like a real conversation.”
The interviews are certainly real. The brave participants share a lot in their interviews: stories of depression and illness, as well as revelations about the joyfulness of finding connection. All the videos are six minutes long, a challenging timeframe to try to convey something “true to the complexity of the people we were talking about.” Despite the time constraints, everyone who worked on the project does an admirable job of covering as wide a range of experience as possible.
As important as the voices of newcomers are to the project, the experience of First Nations people in Vancouver is something the project is also intent on exploring. As Suleman says in the website’s video introduction, “Vancouver is built on the traditional lands of the Coast Salish people, so that means we are all from somewhere else.”
Ultimately, The Belonging Project aims to create a point of connection based on disconnection. Suleman explains that “we were trying to explore something that is, I think, common to everybody.” The irony of dissatisfaction is that it compels you to speak up: something Suleman has noted himself. “Think about complaining about the weather, something that people in Vancouver are champions at…I think that it is actually really great that people are dissatisfied, because you can use that dissatisfaction to motivate you [sic] to do something about it…One thing you can count on is that everyone is dissatisfied in some way.”
The Belonging Project is a model for turning discontent into connection, one that Suleman hopes will continue beyond the initial six video outline. A community gathering is planned for September 19th, a way of gauging the success of the project and attempting the tricky work of translating an online platform into real space. “We want to get people together, people who have been watching… all these stories, and get them into a room,” he explains.
As quickly as Vancouver is growing, it is still small enough for the idea of a community gathering to feel apt. By asking Vancouverites to “take a moment, grab a coffee, and meet a new neighbour,” The Belonging Project reminds us how close we really are to the people who share our city.
The Belonging Project will be hosting a community art show at Untitled Art Space (436 Columbia Street) on Saturday September 19th. The event runs from 6 – 11 pm. To find out more, follow The Belonging Project on Facebook or visit their website.