The Belonging Project: out of a virtual world and into real space

“The people that I liked and had not met went to the big cafes because they were lost in them and no one noticed them and they could be alone in them and be together.” So says Ernest Hemingway in A Moveable Feast.

If you counted how many new people you spoke to today, you’d probably be able to do it on one hand. Even though Canada is notably one of the world’s friendliest countries, our daily conversations never seem to go past greetings and small talk. Belonging in Vancouver, or any big city, is not easy.

Student Zakir Jamal Suleman, director of The Belonging Project, hopes it will introduce Vancouverites to their neighbours -- introducing six Vancouverites of first- or second-generation immigrant families through a series of short videos released online.

In 2012, the Vancouver Foundation conducted a series of surveys to investigate how widespread the feeling of social disconnection is in our city. They found that 31 per cent of those surveyed had a difficult time making friends in Metro Vancouver, a figure that almost doubled among people who had recently arrived in Vancouver.

“When you live in a city there’s all this hustle and bustle,” said Suleman. “You run by each other and around each other and it can be kind of disorienting, and kind of alienating.”

Highlighting just six people in the whole city is only the smallest of slivers, but the Belonging Project’s aim is to honour everybody as individuals while establishing a deep connection to the community.

The first video focuses on jewellery maker and performer Tien, a first generation immigrant from Singapore. Moving to Vancouver allowed his gender identity to evolve, and through the video, he reveals his strategy for belonging. He was 18 when he came to Canada, but prior to his move felt discontented and unhappy with his life. In the video, Meet Tien, he refers to himself as “a unique being that didn’t seem to fit into what [his parents] wanted their child to be.”

“When people are only interested in knowing what gender you are, you could be saying the most amazing things but they’re not present with you,” Tien continues in the voiceover. “For me, I find that so sad and lonely knowing that they aren’t even listening.”

Like many students, Suleman has worked in the service industry for many years to support his degree.

“When you work in a service job there’s that same kind of alienation,” he said. “I find the moments that pull me out of that are the moments when people share something with me, and I do try to have face-to-face conversations every day.”

The Belonging Project aims to provide intimate connections between thousands of people via their social media campaign.

Tien said in his video that coming to Vancouver allowed him to truly accept and flourish with who he is. “I’m not a master of one thing; I’m a master of hundreds of things,” he said. “Being seen and acknowledged really is a part of belonging.”

And being seen he is. The videos, which are released online every week, will celebrate their completion with a final event to celebrate people coming out of their virtual worlds and into the real space, starting to make connections.

“If somebody wants to share something with me, that’s really personal and I’ve learned a lot about people by just being able to sit down in those circumstances,” said Suleman on the Belonging Project’s goals.

When asked about the inevitable comparisons he will face with the immensely popular Humans of New York photo series, Suleman acknowledged that the comparisons are expected, but takes it as a compliment.

“I think they’re similar in some ways and different in others,” he said. “They both seek to highlight people from the city. What I really like about Humans of New York and what I think that the Belonging Project does is try to take all the hustle and bustle right back to a very human connection, face-to-face.”

The Belonging Project isn’t just purposed towards the first- and second-generation immigrants that it focuses on, however.

“Everybody has these lives that they lead around each other and they’re really busy and everyone has their own struggle,” he said.” The advantage of being in Vancouver is that ... everybody is doing the same thing because all of our histories come from elsewhere -- that’s what I’m trying to tap into.”