Above, behind and beyond the fences

Last month I flew to Morocco to speak at a conference organised by the Global Forum on Migration and Development in Skhirat near Rabat. The flight took me from Turin in Northern Italy across the Alps and down the Spanish coastline before crossing the Strait of Gibraltar. It was a spectacularly clear day and I spent most of the flight glued to the window taking photos of snow capped mountains, deep turquoise pools, precise geometric fields and striking coastal landforms,  including this one of the tiny Spanish enclave of Ceuta on the shoreline of North Africa.

The Spanish enclave of Ceuta on the North Moroccan coast

Ceuta, and another Spanish enclave, Melilla just down the Moroccan coast, are Europe’s only land borders with Africa. I’ve long known of them both. They are (in)famous, in my world at least, for the vast imposing fences that have been built to prevent refugees and other migrants from crossing onto European territory and claiming their rights as human beings, including the right to be protected under international refugee law.  Images of young black (usually) African men ‘storming’ the fences or sitting atop them whilst golfers enjoy a game below appear in my timelines periodically. They serve the same purpose as images of people attempting to board lorries at Calais, a topic about which I’ve written previously, reinforcing ideas of threat and border control and national identity in ways that go way well beyond their role in controlling the movement of people.

But Ceuta from the air was something else. It’s beauty was striking but so too the bizarreness of seeing a small chunk of Morocco owned by Spain sitting 25km away across the sea.

Fast forward a few weeks and I’m sitting in a small cinema at the TIFF Bell Lighthouse in downtown Toronto for a screening of Les Sauteurs (Those Who Jump) hosted by the Centre for Refugee Studies with whom I’m here on a Visiting Fellowship.

The film is set on Mount Gurugu near Melilla behind the very fences that I’ve heard so much about. Rather than shooting a typical documentary, the film’s directors Moritz Siebert and Estephan Wagner handed a camera to Abou Bakar Sidibe, a Malian who had spent more than a year trying to get over the fence. The resulting footage exposes the everyday lives of those seeking protection and a better life in Europe and the brutality of the Moroccan police who patrol the camps on the EU’s behalf, periodically setting fire to the few possessions owned by those who live there – blankets, food, a handmade checkers board. These are abuses which have been well-documented for years.

Les Sauteurs is gritty, raw and moving: shaky footage of young men running to escape the batons and fists; grainy CCTV images scanning the horizon hunting down those on the move; the loss of a friend, Mohammed, killed on a failed attempt to scale the fence and the voice message left on the phone of his parents. And in between, scenes of tenderness, and joy: a game of football; the sounds of singing and laughter; a cardboard tray of eggs gently retrieved from the detritus of a broken home.

If the film sets out to remind us of the humanity of those trapped and living in limbo behind the fence at Melilla it certainly meets this goal – and some.

In the discussion led by Jennifer Hyndman that followed, Idil Atak, Pablo Idahosa and Christopher Kyriakides reflected on the film’s power and the questions it raises about the eligibility of refugees and migrants to exist – as well as their authority to act – on anything other than the terms determined by the EU. This despite a long history of colonialism and, more recently, globalisation that has systematically undermined the economies of the (mainly West and Central African) countries from which people come – Mali, Côte d’Ivoire, Senegal, Nigeria, the Gambia. The film powerfully brings into focus the agency of those waiting for an opportunity to cross into a new life, in turn challenging the victim/perpetrator dichotomy that dominates so much representation of the Europe’s ‘migration crisis’ in the media and popular culture.

But for me, as well as several of the panellists and some of the audience, Les Sauteurs raised more questions than it answered.

It can only be assumed, for example, that Abou shot literally hundreds of hours of footage, persuaded to hold onto his camera not just by his growing love of film as a medium to express his identity and “be alive” but by the cash given to him by the film’s directors. We have no sense, however, of the relationship between the three, of the processes by which decisions were made about about what to include and what to leave out, who drove the overarching structure of the narrative, or who wrote the words that are spoken (powerfully) over the top.

Stories, particularly stories around migration, are never straightforward reflections of ‘reality’. At every turn they reflect, reinforce, challenge or play to the audience’s existing knowledge, assumptions, stereotypes and understandings about the world with which they seek to engage. One particularly clear example comes to mind. Whilst the non-material and spiritual factors that shape migration decision making are almost completely ignored by academics and policy makers, they are repeatedly alluded to in the film providing new insights not often seen. Yet the decision to include a ritual involving the slaughter of a cockerel – which interestingly drew more gasps of horror from the audience than the injuries inflicted on the young men themselves – serves as reminder that whilst we think we understand the pain and fear of those trapped in Melilla as fellow human beings, they are somehow ‘not like us’. Some fences go up even whilst others come down.

And whilst Les Sauteurs is certainly more nuanced than some other contemporary portrayals of migration to Europe which fetishise and generalise, there is much that is left out. We don’t see any women for example, and whilst the film’s central ‘cast’ is small, the CCTV footage reveals the dark silhouettes of hundreds, perhaps thousands of people, marching on the fence, a ‘threat’ beyond those with whose lives we feel we have become familiar. Moreover there is no sense of the social and political context within which these events are situated – the fact that 10% of Morocco’s population is itself working in Europe or that Morocco’s ‘mule’ women eke out a living by walking loads of merchandise from Melilla into the northern Moroccan province of Nador a few kilometres from where our protagonists are camped out. The border exploits them all.

That said, Les Sauteurs is absolutely worth watching providing that you do so with an eye to the broader political and policy context within which it is located and the audience to which the it speaks. The film is a great teaching resource both for those working on issues of EU migration policy as well as those interested in issues of narrative and representation. But it also serves as a powerful reminder of the brutality of what’s taking place, in plain sight, on the borders of Europe. Copies can be purchased here.

Today we created a monster…and built solidarity

‘It is not a monster…it is an illusion’. Our creation.

Today was the first day of a five day annual summer course on refugees and forced migration organised by the Centre for Refugee Studies at York University.  It’s one of the main perks of my visit to Toronto. An opportunity to engage with academics, policy makers and practitioners working mainly, though as it turned out not exclusively, in Canada where narratives and political responses to the growing number of people forced to leave their homes and seek international protection are vastly different from those in Europe. On paper at least.  And a chance to talk about the findings of my latest book exploring the journeys of refugees and other migrants who crossed the Mediterranean in 2015 looking for safety and an opportunity to build a new life for themselves and their families.

What I wasn’t expecting was the chance to create a monster – or how that would make me feel.

I’ve used visual and creative methods in my own work in the past. I’ve also worked with artists and musicians who have engaged people from a wide range of backgrounds and communities to better understand migration issues – and one another. I adore the work of my good friend Ricky Romain whose powerful figurative images portray the deep sense of the pain and injustice felt by many refugees without mention of the 1951 Refugee Convention or international human rights law. Music in Detention provides immigration detainees a powerful way to voice their feelings, concerns and hopes, at the same time creating opportunities to help break down barriers of prejudice. I’ve never doubted the power of the arts and creative processes to engage people in a way that the written and spoken word cannot.

What I hadn’t realised until today was how powerful that process can be in creating a sense of solidarity and shared ownership.

Paola Gomez is a writer, a human rights lawyer and a humanitarian who also happens to be a refugee: “Canada is my adopted mum…Colombia is my birth mum” she told us, “but she couldn’t protect me”. Together with her partner in life and love Alex Usquiano, a visual artist, photographer and teacher,  Paolo established Sick Muse Art Projects which uses the arts to build and inspire communities based on anti-oppression principles.

As Paola told us the story of how she came to be in Toronto and the work in which she and Alex are so intensely involved, we were invited to ‘create a monster’ by adding our own mark to a small blank canvas circulating around the room. My contribution – a partially shaded oval – felt small, insignificant and meaningless. An hour later when it returned it had taken on entirely new meaning and form. Our collective effort had indeed created a monster, every line influenced by the one before it and shaping the one that followed. Our monster had hair and wore earrings. S/he was by the sea, with flowers and an artists palette. S/he was not the most beautiful monster and this was not a piece of work that any one of us would have wanted to take home or put on display, at least not as far as I am aware. But we had created it together and that very process of co-creation had created a sense of solidarity, of shared ownership. Whilst none of our contributions had been significant individually, they added up to something much greater than the sum of its parts.

And that’s when the penny dropped.

Whilst there is a lot of talk about the important of co-creation and co-production,  this only works in practice when everyone in the room is on an entirely equal footing,  is willing to participate, engage and contribute to the process regardless of the outcome, and has no expectations about what the final product might look like. In the end I struggled even to identify my own personal contribution to the whole. But my small, seemingly insignificant oval became our monster’s right eye. And it helped me to see.

Monster_2Eyes to see


What does it mean ‘to belong’?

Street art in the car park of the No Frills supermarket off St Clair Ave W, Toronto

Yesterday morning I squeezed myself onto a busy bus and headed to an immigration symposium hosted by York University in downtown Toronto.

Wherever I am in the world I find public transport fascinating. All those people with whom you share a (sometimes rather too intimate) space and about whom you know absolutely nothing but into whose worlds you sometimes have a fleeting glance…a young Russian woman standing on the subway platform talking to a grainy image of an elderly woman (her mother?), another angrily typing messages into her phone to a man (her partner, brother, son?). On a bus or a train everyone is heading in the same direction with a collective sense of purpose but people’s motivations,  aspirations and experiences of the journey are rarely the same.

For some reason this particular journey made me think about what it means ‘to belong’ and it was less to do with the event to which I was heading than the context in which the journey was taking place.

Toronto is the most linguistically diverse city with around 200 different languages spoken: a babbling brook of Cantonese, Italian, Spanish, Tagalog, Tamil, Mandarin and Portuguese. Yet the fact that I can communicate in my native (and, typically for a Brit, only) language means that although I only arrived in Toronto on Tuesday night I’ve very quickly felt ‘at home’.  For anyone familiar with migration and integration research this will come as no surprise: language is generally accepted to be a critical part of the process of integrating into a new society.

But integration is more than language and language is only one form of communication.

I live my life between the UK, Italy and various other countries where I travel for work, and, occasionally, play. People like David Goodhart, whose work I despise so intensely I refuse to even provide a link to it,  would describe me as an ‘anywhere’…footloose, often urban, socially liberal and university educated. He would also assume that as an ‘anywhere’ I don’t feel a need to belong, to feel connected to the place in which I live and/or work.

He couldn’t be more wrong.

The need ‘to belong’ is a fundamental characteristic of what it means to be human – forming social bonds, connecting with other human beings,  provides us with security but is also a mirror to understanding who we are. But forming social bonds does not rely upon language alone. My Italian is still poor and yet I feel intimately connected to my friends in Piedmonte.  I travel to places in which I am completely unable to communicate verbally but with which I still feel an intimate sense of connection, sometimes as a result of the kindness of strangers, sometimes through the food, the landscape, the music, or for reasons I can’t explain. Not being able to communicate linguistically sharpens the senses in other ways, forces different forms of communication and connection, some of which can be more meaningful and more intense than words alone.

But ‘belonging’ is a two-way process. In order ‘to belong’ others have to want to form relationships with you. This is where it gets complicated.  I am white and highly privileged.  I’m also pretty outgoing, sociable, if you like. It’s not the same for everyone. Plenty of people are not welcomed in the way that I am.

And it wasn’t always the same for me.

I grew up in the remote hills of North Wales the daughter of a hippy family from England at a time when Welsh nationalism was rife.  As a teenager during the 1980s, Meibion Glyndwr carried out 228 arson attacks on English-owned homes in and around the area where I lived. I vividly remember seeing graffiti telling me to ‘go home’ on the way to school. Things weren’t much better when I arrived in the classroom – my unconventional upbringing, poverty and unusual name meant that I was regularly called a ‘pikey’, a ‘gypo’ and worse.

Whilst the idea of ‘belonging’ has undoubtedly become more complex, my point is that is was never easy or straightforward. Different people, categorized in different ways, have always been excluded or ostracized or told that they don’t belong. Society’s need to construct what Stanley Cohen has famously, and wonderfully, written about as folk devils in his book of the same name, was as true in the 1970s as it is now.

The difference now is that people like David Goodhart play to an anti-immigration audience in ways that imply that those who are interested, through choice or otherwise, in finding ways ‘to belong’ that go beyond nationality, or ethnicity, or language are somehow ‘letting the side down’ or undermining a sense of ‘belonging’ rooted primarily in specific and particular geographical place.

But there are other ways ‘to belong’.

Because relationships and social bonds are central to what it means ‘to belong’, my own personal sense of ‘belonging’ changes depending on the context in which I am living/staying and the people that I am with. That is because, like everyone else on the planet, I cannot be reduced to a single aspect of my identity – I am many things, some of which I choose to foreground at particular times or in particular places, some of which are foregrounded by others to include or exclude me in different ways. Does that make me an ‘anywhere’? No. It means I am always ‘somewhere’ because the very thing that makes us human – our desire to connect – travels with me.

“Maybe your country is only a place you make up in your own mind. Something you dream about and sing about. Maybe it’s not a place on the map at all, but just a story full of people you meet and places you visit, full of books and films you’ve been to. I’m not afraid of being homesick and having no language to live in. I don’t have to be like anyone else. I’m walking on the wall and nobody can stop me.”
 Hugo Hamilton, The Speckled People: A Memoir of a Half-Irish Childhood

Putting down roots

“There isn’t anything particularly radical about saying people want to connect and they want to belong but how that happens is pretty important”

So today was a nothing kind of day, a combination of exhaustion and jet lag. Only it wasn’t.

A short walk in search of food brought me to Wychwood Barns Park, a small area of greenery where a selection of people had gathered to make the most of the early morning sunshine a…man gently stretching his limbs in the warmth, a woman whose smiley dog insisted on licking her face as she tried to reach her toes.  And in amongst it all a small area of raised beds, freshly cultivated but not yet planted which, it turned out, are part of eight Global Roots plots, each devoted to particular ethnic communities with large populations in Toronto – Chinese, Tibetan, South Asian, Somalian, Italian, Latin American, Polish, and Filipino.

In Toronto it appears that the kinds of narratives and messages that we have been trying to develop in the UK and across Europe about the importance of bringing people together and of creating connections between different groups are part of the every day. In this particular project, gardeners meet once a week to tend the plots, socialize, and cook food. Bringing together older people, many of whom were food producers in their countries of origin, with young people who don’t necessarily have any experience gardening, creates opportunities for building social solidarity and shared learning.

Which is not to say of course that things like this don’t exist in the UK. The media and political focus on ‘the problem’ of migration conceals a wealth of projects and initiatives which try to improve understanding of the lives, and contribution, of different migrants to British society  – RefugTEA, for example brings people together over tea and cake (always a good bet in the British context), Refugee Week highlights the contribution of refugees to British culture and society more generally. I’ve been actively involved with both for many years.

But the problem with these kinds of approaches is that they take huge amounts of organisation, are often time-limited and focus on one specific group of people (usually refugees) in ways that are not necessarily conducive to building wider networks of social solidarity and support.

And you don’t just stumble across them when you are on the hunt for breakfast!

The longer that European – and especially British – politicians and the media continue to peddle their toxic politics of hate, exclusion and division, the more convinced I am that change will never come from the top nor from projects organised from within the ‘refugee sector’ but from the small, and cumulatively significant, actions of people who don’t work directly with refugees and other migrants but are willing to stand up for change and prepared to act collectively to make that happen, in their own communities at least. These initiatives – which are often framed in terms of social justice rather than tackling ‘the problem’ of migration – may not be prominently placed in mainstream media and political debate but they are there, quietly – and sometimes noisily – challenging the dominant narratives that can feel all-powerful and resistant to change. They offer hope that it is possible to mobilise people power and create a new narrative on migration and diversity that moves beyond fear and hate. It’s the reason why I’m such a fan of the #MoreInCommon campaign and others like it.

To be clear, I don’t think for one minute that there aren’t also deep seated issues of structural inequality and marginalisation in cities like Toronto, just as there are in every single city. But having a different political narrative and being prepared to understand migration as intrinsically related to wider issues of social (in)justice and global (as well as local) inequality opens up fundamentally different ways of starting to respond that address the needs of the many and not the few.

Any if you still need some inspiration to get out and do things differently, take 3 minutes out of your life to watch this!

More at http://thestop.org/programs/fight-hunger/urban-agriculture/global-roots-garden/

An addendum – a dear friend and colleague has pointed out that similar initiatives exist in the UK, for example Living Under One Sun actively creates welcoming places to share stories, ideas and skills for people to become “can do” communities, embracing and leading positive change to include and benefit all cultures, abilities, ages and Nature – in neighbourhoods and globally. I have no doubt that 100s more of these kinds of projects exist up and down the country. We need to hear much, much more about the work they do, it would be a powerful counter-narrative to the one that currently dominates British politics and the media.

The journey begins…

It was never my intention to start writing a blog today.

In fact when I left home in the darkness at 3.30 this morning it was absolutely the last thing on my mind. For months I’ve been working flat out on a huge funding proposal (of which more another time).  It was the best I could do to throw some clothes in a suitcase with a random assortment of adapters and print off my boarding pass for a long-planned but ill-prepared trip to Toronto.

I travel a lot and journeys are normally a great adventure (beautiful views, interesting people, time to sit and think) but this trip was grim – a 7 hour stopover in Paris with no power to get on with the aforementioned proposal (the random assortment of adapters didn’t stretch to a European one), an 8 hour hour flight squeezed into a window seat surrounded by boisterous 12 year-old boys from a Hungarian ice hockey team, endless lines of tired, grumpy passengers jostling for position in the passport queue on arrival.

But once I’d gathered up my belongings and found myself a cab, things started to change.

I never did find out the name of the man behind the wheel, but the conversation moved faster than the traffic as we struck out on the snarled up highway heading into Toronto on a beautiful warm day at the end of what he told me was the longest, hardest winter he could remember. Before long I learned that he arrived in Toronto from the Punjab as a young man aged 25 (he’d recently turned 70 but couldn’t bear to stop working). He started working in a factory but the money was poor and he had dreams – and a young family. He wanted his children to have an education (all now have MBAs) and a house he could call his own. When he heard there was money to be made driving taxis, he and a friend invested in $600 in a car and started their own business, working 10-12 hours a days, 6 days a week to build a future for themselves and their families. Some money was sent home to India but eventually he was able to sponsor his brothers and they, too, set out in search of the ‘Canadian dream’.

All of this was unprompted.

I make a point of never telling cab drivers what I do unless I’m able to deal with the consequences (rarely pleasant, unless I’m in Glasgow). And so, as we drove down town, I listened to his vivid descriptions of the places we were driving through and the people who live there….how the Italians and Portuguese had built the roads and continue to dominate the construction industry, about the new wave of Indian students being sent to Toronto by their middle-class parents, of the Eastern Europeans looking for new opportunities as the political narrative sours in Europe, and of the racism that prevails even as Trudeau hugs Syrian refugees arriving through Canada’s much-lauded resettlement programme.

Of course, none of this came as any great surprise.

Toronto was recently named the most diverse city in the world  – half of its population is made up of  residents born outside of Canada and it is home to 230 different nationalities. In fact it was the photographs of Colin Boyd Shafer taken as part of his Cosmopolis Toronto project back in 2014 that first kicked up my desire to visit Toronto in the first place.

What did surprise me however was the warmth of the conversation, the nuanced analysis of the complexities of migration in these heady days of Trump and Brexit and Windrush and my own desire to capture it, to write it down in something more than the 140 characters that my Twitter account has to offer.

So I decided to start writing a blog and thanks to the kindness of the man I shared a car ride with this afternoon, I can. Having spent nearly 24 hours travelling half way across the world clutching a bag with all my papers for the next month – including the very latest version of ‘the proposal’ and my laptop – it was only when I answered the door 30 mins after he dropped me at my accomodation to see a familiar face that I realised that it was no longer with me. I’d left it on the back seat, to be spotted by my driver as he pulled on to the highway. He drove to the next junction, turned around and returned it to me.

I think there’s going to be a lot to talk about over coming weeks…

Murals on Eglinton Road, West Toronto