Building a new home: Challenges and opportunities in immigrant integration

Moving to a new country comes with adventures, and also challenges. On the surface, the move can be presented as something that is simple and easy. If you’ve moved to Portugal and are building a new place to call home, then you know this is not necessarily true. The reality is that no matter how many positive reasons you have for the move, there are still challenges. It can feel isolating if you find that the move presents adversity you had not anticipated. There is a large community of immigrants all along the Silver Coast with a variety of different experiences and feelings regarding their big move. The more the challenges faced during the transition are normalized, the more people making their homes in Portugal can support one another and make integration easier.
Each experience is unique, and the difficulties faced can vary depending on factors such as the destination country, personal circumstances, and support systems that are in place. Through talking to multiple immigrants from different countries, there are some major themes that run true for most newcomers. “The language, different cultural norms, and lack of community were among our greatest challenges and in some ways continue to be. I naively thought that we could overcome these things in a couple of months, but I quickly realized that my capacity to learn was much smaller than the amount of things that I needed to learn and/or relearn.  A simple trip to the grocery store had so many new systems to navigate that I found myself just wanting to stay home.” (Melissa)
The most frequently reported challenges
Language barrier: Overcoming language differences and learning a new language.
Cultural differences: Developing cultural sensitivity and avoiding cultural misunderstandings.
Legal and bureaucratic challenges: Understanding and complying with the different entities, tax systems, paperwork requirements, and laws.
Social integration: Feeling lonely and isolated in a new community without friends or extended family and social connections.
Accessing services: Figuring out how to navigate various systems such as healthcare to receive necessary services.
School and family adjustment: Finding a school that is the right fit for each individual child and their unique needs, especially when they do not speak Portuguese.
Making a smoother transition
While there will always be challenges, there are also typically solutions and ways to try and mitigate the hardships. Here are some of the major themes that respondents suggested for making a transition that feels a little less difficult.
Ask for help – One thing that many agreed upon was that most Portuguese people are very gracious and willing to help. “We have always, always had Portuguese people come to our aid without having to ask for help. In all cases, we have experienced the understanding and empathy of some Portuguese people and we would certainly never have managed to negotiate them successfully without their kind and patient assistance.” (George)
Get involved – It’s important to keep pushing outside your comfort zone and make connections with supportive people and systems. “We study Portuguese and have gotten involved in a co-working community and several nonprofits to try to connect. We just keep at it.” (Cordelia)
Remember your why – Stay centered on why you made the move in the first place. It can be easy to forget the original reason you came to Portugal when there is stress is involved. Most immigrants have a strong “why” that was originally very motivating. Try not to lose sight of it.
Be aware of your mindset – “It’s important to approach the move with patience, resilience, and a willingness to learn.” (Flavia) The mindset that is adopted while making a new home in Portugal makes all the difference. “I feel that as immigrants, instead of seeking improvements that would be helpful to us, we should focus on celebrating the Portuguese for their kind and accommodating attitudes to immigrants.” (George)
Places to find resources
Local organizations – There are many local organizations like the OICV, MVC, and Silver Coast Volunteers that do activities in the community and focus on helping with integration.
Social media groups – Many people have a love-hate relationship with social media, but one thing is for sure, it can be a valuable source of information about international groups and activities, as well as local happenings and cultural events. It can also be a great place to connect with a core group of people to lean on to ask questions and start building your social support network.
Relocation services – There are quite a few companies nearby where their main focus is on how to help those who are building a new home in Portugal. From finding housing to navigating the healthcare system, some entities have been specifically formed to help.
Making the move to Portugal can create a roller coaster of emotion as you navigate the process.  It is important to be patient with yourself. “It’s not Portugal and the culture that makes it hard, it’s my lack of understanding of the country and its people. I think this kind of learning takes years. Transition is a process and the biggest gift I have given myself to navigate this is time.” (Melissa) May your journey of settling in Portugal be met with support, connection, and a lot of compassion for yourself and the new community you call home. ▪
Acknowledgments: Artwork by Robert Hanson
Contributions from Flavia L. Lamattina, Cordelia Blake, Melissa Lefort, George Alan
Sarah Monares