Amalia Pascal, Amy North, Claudia Lapping, Hanna Retallack, Iman Azzi, Rachel Benchekroun, Rachel Rosen, Raphaela Armbruster, Sara Joiko Mujica, Tabitha Millett (as part of Refuge in a Moving World, an interdisciplinary UCL network focused on displacement, forced migration, exile and conflict).
We may think we know about the experience of migrants. We see images of camps, beach landings, tragic losses at sea, the Calais Jungle, targeted racist aggression, disturbing rhetoric about crime and security. We also hear stories of settlement, friendship and educational success. What is our specific responsibility to contribute to this picture?
A starting point must be to recognise the limits of our own understanding, and to develop initiatives in collaboration with those we aim to teach or understand. Two projects we have been working on in the last year illustrate the complexity of trying to describe the distinctive migration experiences of diverse individuals. They also demonstrate how important it is to have a participatory, collaborative approach.
Our first project, Social justice for women migrants and refugees: engaging, communicating and improving access to higher education (Pathways to Education) involved developing a pilot course in collaboration with the Helen Bamber Foundation and Lewisham Refugee and Migrant Network. When we held planning meetings with potential participants from these two organisations many of our initial ideas about the course were overturned.
Our discussions with women uncertain of the outcome of asylum applications alerted us to the pain of waiting, to the poverty and childcare responsibilities that limited these women’s ability to travel around London, and to how lack of access to computers restricted engagement in their current studies. Our initial narrow focus on academic skills expanded, and we developed a course including trips around London, a children’s programme and use of IOE computer rooms to develop group projects.
In addition, our initial concern that talking directly about migration might be too sensitive was challenged. Women shared experiences of the impact of UK policies, and debated a sense of hurt at being categorised as ‘immigrant’. Together we discussed: Is this a neutral term or does it exclude and other? What is the difference between an ‘immigrant’ and an ‘ex-pat’? These were urgent questions for many of the participants.
We Are Movers, our second project, aims to produce and disseminate knowledge about gender, settlement and migration in collaboration with women from the course. We ran three sessions using participatory arts-based approaches to facilitate discussion on three themes:
‘Belonging’: We shared objects that might symbolise ‘belonging’ and questioned whether its meaning could be captured by any one image. At times belonging is tied to a passport or a suitcase. Sometimes a sense of belonging is sustained though associations with the past: a gift, a photograph, a family recipe. The image of a pestle and mortar was offered as representative of a sense of belonging and family. It also represents transformation through combination and mingling to produce new aromas and understandings of home.
‘Categories’: Responding to media images and political rhetoric that categorise migrants as the source of social and economic problems, we discussed the way these images flatten and simplify complex lives. To challenge the categories of ‘immigrant’ or ‘illegal’ someone suggested “We are movers”. This was taken up as a more comfortable naming, signalling agency and change.
‘Integration’: In preparation for this session participants had carried out interviews about ‘integration’. One interviewee had said ‘When in Rome, do as the Romans’. While understanding this position, we wanted to challenge the lack of understanding of migrants’ experiences of poverty and coercion that we felt it implied. We used Forum Theatre to explore possibilities of transforming experiences of hostility, suspicion, depression and loneliness.
We Are Movers will be exhibited at the Migration Museum [07/02/19 – 03/03/19] and the UCL cloisters [17/06/19 – 12/0719]. Artefacts produced in the sessions were developed into three images intended to challenge reductive stereotypes of ‘the migrant’. We debated the potential productivity of more literal images to communicate key issues and experiences, versus more abstract or conceptual representations that allow space for new meanings to begin to be thought. The final exhibit combines ‘wall texts’ explaining key ideas, and more open, abstract images that create space for imagination and difference. Through these, We Are Movers highlights the importance of collaborative politics in a hostile environment; and that whether we label people ‘immigrant’, ‘migrant’, ‘citizen’ or ‘mover’, there is always far more to each person than we can possibly know. This is why welcoming spaces for participation and collaboration are vital to create meaningful possibilities for understanding and education.
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