That probably would have been the first word I used to describe myself only two or three years ago. Isolated, because the people I spent most of my time with were fully immersed in a culture I was just beginning to discover. Isolated, because the people I had grown up with understood me so little, and were so hostile to the person I was becoming, the person I had always been deep down. Isolated, because I had been hurt in ways that few of the people I knew understood.
It wasn’t so bad, of course; I had made it most of the way out. I was studying mathematics, which I love with a passion, at UCL, one of London’s top universities. I had mostly come out of my shell, had made fast friendships and built up the emotional support system that empowered me to finally leave my parents’ house, and the ultraorthodox community I’d grown up in. I was tasting real freedom for the first time.What I didn’t realise was that my journey was just beginning.
I had to deal with a severe emotional fallout from what I had been through and done. And while my friends were sweet and supportive, few of them could really relate to the kind of place I had just left, the kind of painful experiences that passed for perfectly normal when I was growing up. Try explaining to someone who’s calling you upper middle class because you went to a private school that you actually grew up hungry and had to pay for your own clothes! I had similar experiences when trying to heal psychologically, having to explain my background and upbringing to every therapist I spoke to. I was starting to ache for some normal friends who would, to use the common phrase, get it. I wanted people who would understand without my having to explain. I just didn’t think there were any such people. What I had done was difficult enough, and I had several advantages I knew others would lack.Despite the remaining niggling feeling of isolation that stemmed from my unusual background, I continued to get stronger. I engaged more actively in university social life. I sang in several concerts and took part in an opera, something I could only have dreamed about when I was still living in the community. I increased my volunteering hours. I was going from strength to strength, as they say back home. Everything was going well. That is, until I ran out of money. Freedom, it turns out, is expensive. Especially in London.
It shouldn’t have been the big deal it was – I was entitled to quite a bit of student funding. But being estranged from my parents made getting that funding really difficult. After a few weeks of wryly thinking to myself that rent and food were covered in prison, and trying to come up with a suitably petty crime to get there, I decided that there must be some form of support out there for people in my odd situation, and I began searching online. I found GesherEU, and the rest, as they say, is history.
Yes, they did tide me over until my funding arrived, and for that I am eternally grateful. They enabled me to maintain that freedom that has been so precious to me ever since I left. But GesherEU, for me, is about so much more than that. It’s support. It’s friendship. It’s a place where people understand where I’ve come from. It’s a place where I don’t have to explain what I’ve been through, because everyone knows.
It’s a place where I don’t feel isolated. Not even slightly.
Not having to pretend or explain – socially, that’s the biggest freedom of all.
I’m about to embark on the next leg of my journey. I’m going to do my PhD in mathematics at Stanford University, which is a huge achievement considering where I come from. I’m really looking forward, but I’m genuinely sad about having to leave all the wonderful folks at GesherEU behind. I will miss you all more than I can say.
Footnote. GesherEU helped financially in the move to Stanford. We look forward to welcoming our first PhD back to the UK in a few years’ time. – Editor