We all want to belong

Guys, let’s move along the line, place your orders, please, a woman calls from the barbecue stand.
It’s election day and there is a market on the school yard. In Australia it is mandatory to vote and if you don’t, you get fined. Australians don’t seem to mind and they figure they might as well make a fun day of it. So there is a market with second-hand clothes, candy-stands, and a live band playing on the schoolyard, where the voting takes place in one of the buildings.

What can I get you, mate?
The person serving the queue at the barbecue stand is my husband. Equipped with an apron and latex gloves, he is one of the parents who have volunteered to man the stand where all gains go the school’s extra activities. He says “mate” and “snag” (the Austrailan for sausage) and behaves like any other participant of the activities at the stand. When he finally has a brake, he hangs around with the other parents talking about school, the election, and “footy”. The latter is the Australian football game with which all three children are already familiar. And yes, we have an egg-shaped ball to play it with.

We need to belong in order to thrive as human beings. The term in medical sociology is social support. Having it helps us keep happy and healthy, lacking it leaves us frail. Social support has a buffering effect when a person or family is faced with disease or major life events. Moving from one side of the globe to another is such an event. Although the family is a strong source of social support, it is like a cargo ship out at sea: it needs a harbour to anchor in from while to while to function well.

Anchorage support is a specific subtype of social support. The other subtypes are emotional, tangible, and informational support (Cohen, 1985). Anchorage support means being invited to become part of a context and receive overt and covert messages of belonging there. It happens when Joel gets invited to soccer practice or play dates, when Fanny is urged to come along with her friend to do what teenage girls do downtown, or when Robert is seen as any parent at the school, invited to volunteer at the barbecue.

Anyone can offer anchorage support, but you need an environment conducive to such support. As a wise social worker in Sweden once told me: people coming here need real contacts to become anchored in society. Not ones offered professionally by us and not those offered by charity. They need contacts that mean something – both to them and to those the contact is with. In a research project in a rural part of Sweden we evaluated a project that did just that. Social workers facilitated joint activities for immigrants and locals and gradually pulled out. Phone numbers were exchanged, foods were shared, and friendships emerged (Abbasian & Sarkadi, 2012). But why does it take an enthusiastic social worker and a whole project in Sweden, while it just happens naturally in Australia? Is it the fact that a nation that had to build itself from nothing has internalised the worth of every single hand willing to contribute?

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