Lampedusa, is an island in the middle of the Mediterranean, where over 20 thousand people crossing the sea to reach Europe disembark if they make it safely to the Italian shores. Mahmoud was one of them in the summer of 2008. During our collaborative and multimodal research in 2014, he asked me to document his return to the island, following his legalisation process thanks to a recent amnesty decreed by the Italian government.
He stood up a cliff and looked at the vastness of the sea and said “How beautiful it is to look at the sea from the land”. At a later stage of fieldwork, we took this image into the animation studio, as Mahmoud wished to animate what the camera was unable to show at the time of our recording. He wished to tell the story of the crossing as he had experienced it: the prayers, the dread, the dolphins, the uplifting chants, the seasickness, the act of getting rid of all the proofs of where he was coming from…but in the middle of the animation process he stopped and hesitated for a moment. He said, “migration migration…you know, what we say before we leave to make the crossing? We say we’re going to travel, that we’re off for a big adventure. We don’t say we are migrating. Migration only happens later, in the following years, when we realise we are unable to leave or return.”
By turning the terms of the common discourse on migration upside down, Mahmoud emphasized that it is rather the realization of being entrapped by borders that turns people like him into migrants, and not the life-threatening journey across the Mediterranean, which he described as an adventure, an act of bravery and defiance.
This co-creative research with a group of Egyptian men that had crossed the Mediterranean illegally to reach Southern European shores, like Mahmoud, resulted in a documentary which mixes physical theatre improvisation, live footage and animation, to explore the role played by imagination in shaping life changing decisions, memories, stories and experiences of migration.
It was Tomorrow was produced in 2018 in collaboration with Mohamed Khamis, Mahmoud Hemida and Ali Henish (53mins, distributed by the RAI).
Inside a ‘rubb hall’ in the ‘hotspot’ of Moria in the island of Lesvos in Greece.
The term ‘hotspot’ was officially adopted in May 2015 to signify the space and name for the registration centres which are used to identify, register, and fingerprint refugees during the so-called ‘refugee crisis’. Refugees who are based in a ‘hotspot’ are allowed to move inside and outside of this space, but they are not allowed to leave the region where the ‘hotspot’ is based. A ‘rubb hall’ is a commercial name for a usually large, relocatable, tent-like structure that is used quite often in situations of emergency. This technical description obscures the fact that, ‘rubb halls’, like containers and tents, are confined spaces within confined structures, such as ‘hotspots’ and camps.
For me, this photograph represents a moment or part of the living history of the ‘hotspot’ of Moria which was burned to the ground in September 2020. It evokes the living history of fortress Europe, in which the fortress is experienced on an everyday basis within ‘rubb halls’, containers and tents, ‘hotspots’ and camps vis-à-vis the dead ends of state and humanitarian bureaucracy. It is sending a very specific political message about how Europe deals with both migrants and refugees. Those of us who worked in ‘hotspots’ and camps, analyse what the ‘rubb hall’ within a ‘hotspot’ represents in relation to humanitarian, state, and European immigration policies. What does movement mean within these spaces and how we come to see movement, aid, and support in this specific context?
‘Hotspots’ and camps are not neutral spaces of accommodation. Approaching them simply as a humanitarian and/or neutral space set up to ‘tackle the refugee crisis’ misses their political and strategic value. It misses how ‘hotspots’ and camps become the space through which someone needs to pass to be granted access in the ‘European home to come’. In that sense, not only movement is confined within these spaces, but we also need to think how these spaces confine one’s movement in a broader sense, to the ‘European home to come’. A home that is sustained through war, colonialism and capitalism.
Artemis Christinaki is a PhD researcher at the University of Manchester.
This photograph is part of a larger research on the politics of psychosocial support in the refugee camps of Greece.
Chopa Tenzin is performing a tantric dance ritual part of the Tibetan Buddhist chod tradition and talking about it with me. An extract from the documentary film Chod: The Journey of Cutting the Self.
Chopa Tenzin moved to Nepal when he was 12 years old as a Tibetan refugee. The Chinese invasion of Tibet in the 50s led to a massive migration towards Nepal and India. Many refugees found new homes in the Boudhanath area of Kathmandu. Famous for the Boudhanath stupa, built in the 2nd century, the area rapidly became the home of over 100 Tibetan Buddhist monasteries and Tibetan businesses, such as Dharma shops, restaurants, hotels, and souvenir shops for tourists.
Tenzin is part of a group of yogis that dedicate their lives to the practice of chod in cremation grounds and cemeteries. Chod is a Tibetan Buddhist tantric practice that seeks to aid the practitioner to cut attachments from the self through complex visualisations and chanting techniques. The self in Buddhism is seen as an illusion and the attachments to one’s self may become one of the main causes of human suffering. One of the biggest attachments we have is towards our body, the locus of the self. In the practice of chod, one seeks to cut attachments from the body by visualising the body chopped up and offered to all sentient beings. Experienced practitioners, like Chopa Tenzin, take the practice further and spend days or weeks in ‘scary places’, such as cremation grounds. In this image, we find Tenzin practising in the Sherpa Colony Cremation Ground in Boudhanath. He is currently on a mission to visit 108 cremation grounds all around India and Nepal. Due to lack of official documents, he is not able to travel any further.
Tenzin wears his tantric clothes holding a skull cup in his right hand and a damaru, a type of chod drum, in his left hand. On top of his tantric clothes, he wears several layers of bones, protective ornaments, and other symbolic tantric objects. The two images are juxtaposed to portray the illusion of reality. In this scene, Chopa Tenzin talks to me about how different spirits come to him at night in the cremation ground to scare him or stop him from his practice, yet he realises that all of these spirits or beings are nothing but the creation of his mind. His demons are no other than his thoughts and ideas. In other words, his demons are himself.
For more information please watch the trailer of the film: Trailer 1 – Chod: The Journey Into Cutting the Self on Vimeo
Eduard Vasile is a Visual Anthropologist at the Granada Centre for Visual Anthropology, PhD researcher at the Department of Social Anthropology, University of Manchester, UK
El’mira, a young school teacher of Russian, playfully posing with her three passports on the Tajik-Uzbek border in the north of Tajikistan in March 2018. From left to right: Russian travel passport (red), Tajik travel passport (blue), and Tajik national passport (brown).
After her marriage had ended abruptly, El’mira took her daughter and joined her parents who were working in Russia. She lived and worked there for eight years before returning to Tajikistan to take care of her elderly grandparents. In our numerous conversations, she confessed how suffocating her life was as a young divorcee in a Tajik village. She often felt trapped: her caring obligations limited her everyday mobility, her parents were pressuring her to remarry, and her every move was subjected to public commentary in the neighbourhood. As she had some savings from her wages in Russia, she decided to invest them in obtaining Russian citizenship hoping that the next time she would go there would be as a citizen.
According to International Organisation for Migration, Tajikistan is one of the most remittance-dependant countries in the world. After the collapse of the USSR, Russia has emerged as a place to turn to when one needs to ‘find money’: both in case of an emergency and for long-term family projects – getting married, building a house, buying a car, and paying for children’s education. For many adult women migrating on their own, going to Russia presents a ‘second chance’ after a ‘failed’ marriage that helps them support their families and avoid stigma of a divorcee back home. Yet, going to Russia is accompanied by challenges of staying documented. Mobility regimes are premised upon sorting the bodies of travellers into desirable and less desirable. Those possessing the ‘right’ documents can pass, while others are denied entry. It is in this context that we should understand what value documents bear for their holders. El’mira’s Russian passport relieves her of material and emotional burdens of maintaining a documented status in Russia. In Tajikistan, it represents her hope for a better future, the future where she will be able to carve out more autonomy and live her life independently providing for herself and her daughter.
For Tajikistani nationals, the road to Russian passport is long and bumpy: the process is expensive, time-consuming and nerve-wracking. People perceive citizenship as an achievement and treat their documents with reverence. I saw El’mira’s new Russian passport for the first time when we were traveling to Uzbekistan to attend a wedding after a long period of border closure since the late 1990s. After the border was opened in 2018, there was a short period of an ‘open door’ policy as Uzbekistan allowed Tajikistani citizens to enter with their national passports or recent ID cards. However, El’mira carried all three of her different passports as she was not entirely sure which one would be of use. When we approached the border crossing counter, she gave her Tajik national passport to a border officer. I asked why she had chosen that one and she rolled her eyes, ‘Pfff I don’t want them to spoil my new Russian passport with their stamps’.
Mary is one of 1600 people to live in Barbuda – the tiny and less ‘developed’ island of the twin-island Caribbean state of Antigua and Barbuda.
Barbuda’s main sources of income are small-scale fishing and a modest tourist scene. Since the end of slavery Barbudans have communally owned their land, which allows people to claim plots with the local council. Yet, after the devastation of Hurricane Irma in 2017, Prime Minister Gaston Browne tried to drive Barbudans off the island, accusing people of “illegally squatting”. Browne’s government intends to privatize land ownership to allow investors to construct huge luxury resorts that would undermine the culture and unique ways of life in Barbuda.
People on the island told us that disaster recovery was cripplingly slow and the island was still in great disrepair when we visited in 2019. Many Barbudans such as Mary believe that Browne’s government purposefully stalled recovery to try and wear people down so that they would leave the island. Yet, Mary as well as the majority of Barbudans oppose Browne’s development plans for mass tourism and they refuse to leave the island despite difficult living conditions i.e., lack of a reliable water supply, inconsistent power, closed post office and bank.
Most Barbudans prefer small-scale tourism, and they have many alternative ideas about how the island should and could be rebuilt. For example, Mary, who has lived on the island all her life explained that the island required better facilities for people with mental health issues. Other people wanted a cricket pitch, a roller-skating rink, increased fishing trade with neighbouring islands, and access to better jobs for example.
The situation in Barbuda is not unique. Governments often try to displace people after a disaster in order to establish more “economically productive” activities, such as hotels, apartments, shopping malls and so forth. This is known as “disaster capitalism” and it is based on a neoliberal logic of profit over people.
For more information see: https://gemmasou.com/barbuda-portraits/
See: ‘Resisting disaster capitalism in Barbuda‘. The New Internationalist 2020
My mother and I at my graduation ceremony for being awarded a PhD in Social Anthropology.
My parent’s experience as immigrants has had a profound impact in shaping my values and identity, not only as a second generation British-Pakistani woman, but also as an anthropologist. Their openness to other cultures and love for their own fed my own curiosity in other cultures and explore my own as a native anthropologist.
My mother was in her late teens at the time of the partition of India. She remembered British rule vividly. Her experience of being an immigrant was one of many challenges which she dealt with dignity and pride. In her opinion, moving to Britain in the 1950s was a service to Britain because Britain had used her country and now was exploiting the services and labour of her countryman in the aftermath of WW2. She stepped in Britain with the same attitude as the British did in India, with immense pride of her cultural background and identity. According to my mother although the colonials reaped the material wealth from the subcontinent, they could not tarnish its rich culture and heritage. This outlook enabled her to challenge racism, not to be intimidated by bigotry or pressured to forgo her cultural identity.
Living in Britain as an immigrant was to respect her new home in the same way she loved and respected the one she left behind. For my mother learning to be British was not a one-way process, but an exchange of values and ideas. Learning English enabled her to share her cherished memories of Pakistan with her neighbours, and allow an insight into her culture through food, hospitality and compassion. She never left the house without looking immaculate because she represented her homeland which she did not want to let down. Wearing Pakistani dress was inherent to her identity, something she did not want to let go or impose on her children either. Cultural identity was a compass, something she would be lost without. Now that my parents are no longer with me, consuming Pakistani culture though food, language and traditions anchors me to their legacy and homeland.
Being an immigrant was about remembering the past and looking to the future, being open to new experiences, ideas and values. My mother understood culture as something that evolved in time and place. She taught me to be proud of my heritage and espouse positive values from other cultures. My parents’ experiences of being immigrants has shaped my identity and understanding of who I am and the vocation that I have chosen. My status as an ethnic minority makes me different but not inferior. I was raised to represent my heritage though conduct, celebrate it though conviviality and openness to other cultures. I strive to keep the legacy of my parents alive through the integrity of my own work as an anthropologist and cherishing the values and identities that I once took for granted.
A sowing day in Northern Tunisia, November 2018.
Fahmi, in the middle, with his sons Kais and Amine, followed the tractor furrows spreading seeds. Fahmi owns 4 hectares of land and, together with another 35 rented from neighbors, operates a wheat farm extending across the surrounding hills.
I rarely crossed paths with Amine on the farm. Working as an assistant mechanic after quitting middle school a few years prior, he travelled back and forth from the farm in the nearby town. “‘Dad give me 10 dinars for the cigarettes, dad give me 5 dinars for the coffee’ – out I said! Go get your own job!” was Am Famhi’s response to my wonderings about his son’s occupation off-farm. Amine also spent much of the weekends away, crashing at friends of friends’ places at the beach or in Tunis. An extrovert and sharp, when occasions presented he embarked in ventures across Tunisia with people who hired him for specific projects without caring too much to telephone back home.
Kais, Am Fahmi’s oldest son, was quiet and deferential, and had instead worked on the land for all his young life. Though essential to the farm operations, Am Famhi had introduced him to me jokingly as the battala (the unemployed). One of the first occasions I was able to talk to him alone was on a short trip to the nearby village, when while ruminating on my question about his future plans he pointed at the stunning beauty of landscape: “Really it is a lot of ta`ab (weariness), there is always something to do season after season, you don’t get to rest. But look for yourself, it is so beautiful here, one doesn’t need much (to live well here)…”
That affirmation was candidly challenged on a summer day the following year, after the harvest was over. Earlier in April, Kais had confronted his father with the decision to initiate a path within the army, attempting something different from providing free labour for the farm operations. While sipping tea in the shade, Kais recounted how his new life in the army wasn’t bad at all, just moving a few boxes here and there. At the same time it offered the possibility to travel and see a different Tunisia with his own eyes. Wrapping up his current experience for me he smiled, “It is like for you, I went out to see the world.”
Both of the brothers’ desire to move beyond their household dynamics in the countryside can possibly be perceived as aspiration to move away from those spaces where marginality has been structurally constructed. It can also be read as a need to see their lives moving in some direction – meeting those essential living conditions that allow a young man to be acknowledged as such – or what can be called a condition of existential mobility.
Sara Pozzi is a PhD Candidate at the University of Manchester. Her project unpacks the multiple meanings of “good life” in rural Tunisia by attending to everyday practices (cultivation, processing, sale and consumption) around cereals, a staple food in the region.
This picture was taken in Douar Hajja, a peripheral neighbourhood of Rabat (Morocco), in a dilapidated and overcrowded building occupied by “irregular” migrants from western and central Africa. They nicknamed the building “Le Consulat”, a name which underscored how much migrants relied on each other. They lived in gruelling and unsanitary conditions, exploited by landlords and vulnerable to police raids as well as racist attacks and burglaries by some of their Moroccan neighbours.
Only one arm of Moussa (not his real name) is visible on the picture. Moussa and his companions felt stuck in Morocco. The only work opportunities they could find in Morocco were under-paid and back-breaking jobs on construction sites. Most had not intended to come to Morocco and reached the country after long journeys in search of protection and opportunities. They either could not safely return home or were too ashamed to go back “empty-handed” after so long. Douar Hajja was a stage post to organise risky border-crossing attempts further north. Migrants often failed and retuned to Douar Hajja to rest, look for money, and tend their wounds sustained in violent clashes with Spanish and Moroccan border guards. Hostile migration politics and increased collaboration between Europe and Southern Mediterranean countries like Morocco has made crossing increasingly difficult, and deadly.
The picture comes from my doctoral research project examining how “irregular” migrants made sense of their restricted mobility in Morocco. In contrast with public discourses that depict migrants as either threatening criminals or passive victims, these young men in Douar Hajja called themselves “adventurers”. They were on a “quest” to “find their lives”. They stressed how their own journeys where inscribed in, and defying, an unequal world where the ability to move and cross borders was unequally distributed. Focusing on their own self-representation challenges depoliticized and dehistoricized debates where migration is often reduced to a crisis in the Mediterranean region. Rather than a single and fixed destination (i.e. Morocco), adventurers explained they were striving to reach what they called “the objective”, where they imagined a better life for themselves.
Migrants in Douar Hajja pointed out that their lives and journeys entailed suffering and being vulnerable to powerful actors (e.g. nation-states) but in articulating what being on the adventure implied they also stressed the importance of hope and the need to face up to the obstacles they encountered, to display courage and strength to be able to cross into Europe. In Le Consulat, they slept and dreamt of the lives they imagined for themselves, their heads resting at night on plastic buoys, such as the one on the picture, which came with the unseaworthy, plastic dinghies they used to cross the sea.
From left to right, around the table: Anonymous, Sidike, Koné, Yacouba, Souleymane, Lamine. Moro is standing up, Amadou is sitting on the window sill.
It is the 5th of March 2019, the first game of the Champions League knock out phase. During the day we were speculating about possible outcomes. Real Madrid is the clear favourite. No one expects Ajax to win, but it is hoped they will put up a good fight.
7th minute. Ajax makes its first goal. While the guys in front of me are shouting and cheering with the TV, the text messages from my family in the Netherlands, committed Ajax fans, are also pinging in.
18th minute. Ajax makes its second goal. The Real Madrid fans are now getting anxious. Sidike explains that Real Madrid is “my first team, my last team, this team is my happiness” and Kone says “C’est une équipe qui ne fait pas pleurer, les gens me donnent toujours les émotions, les souris.” Yacouba has come from one of the other refugee houses in a village nearby, because in his place there is no sports channel. He and Souleymane are enthusiastically cheering for Ajax, but only because any opponent of Real Madrid is a friend of theirs.
62nd minute. Ajax makes its third goal. Everyone is invested. Some pour themselves another glass of milk or juice, while others scrutinise the slips they bought in the Italian betting shop. In a combination of French, Italian, Bambara, Dioula and Mandinka, game play is analysed and loudly criticised. The Real Madrid fans are losing hope, while Yacouba and Souleymane are enthusiastically bouncing on their chair, singing “Ajax, Ajax”. Yaya, not pictured, makes his calculations. If the next few games pan out as he expected, he could win a significant amount with his betting slip.
Real Madrid manages to get one goal in at the 70th minute, but still loses the game as Ajax surprises the world by winning 4 to 1, continuing to the quarter finals and throwing Real Madrid out of the league. Some days later, the guys are winding up again for an important game. Yaya calls me at the end of the match. Against the background of loud cheering, he tells me he just won € 6,000.
Author and photographer: Shirley van der Maarel, PhD researcher in Social Anthropology, University of Manchester
This photo is part of a larger research (Leiden University, NL) with refugees placed in depopulating villages across Europe, seeking to understand how people create a sense of home in a place local residents choose to abandon. For more information see www.land-unknown.eu
I am a former Lecturer at the University of Manchester who immigrated to Le Mans, France on 12 August 2021. My immigration coincided with the fall of Kabul to the Taliban. I couldn’t help comparing my situation as a privileged immigrant to that of the Afghans who were facing potential persecution and were thus desperate to leave their country as refugees.
A Privileged Migrant
Eight minutes, nine minutes, ten minutes
The precious minutes tick by“
We apologize for any inconvenience caused by this delay”
Annoyed, I gaze at the grey Manchester sky
Vite, vite! The giant shiny Charles de Gaulle airport spaces
Encompass me, running, breathless
Winding through the crowd, I’ve got to catch my train!
Ouf! I slip into the carriage
My destination, the old quarter of Le Mans
Is charming with its narrow cobbled streets
Quaint restaurants, and half-timbered façades
But it’s no good for the removalist
Horns toot at his large van
That’s blocking the medieval passage
25 packing boxes plus sundry items to disembark
My back aches and the sun is beating down
Resting, collapsed onto my futon bed
And surrounded by half-emptied cardboard boxes
I breathe, but something is wrong. What is it?
I’m cut off from news of the world
No internet, television lacking a cable
Can’t see any kiosks in the streets
But, yes, I do have a CD player with a radio
That’s never been used before
I fiddle around with the channels
French hip hop, lots of music in English, ads
Kabul, Kabul has fallen, I hear
Fallen to the Taliban
Below the hill of medieval and Renaissance times
Extend the shops of the modern town
And in the shadow of the bifurcating buttresses of the cathedral
Vendors display local produce at the thrice-weekly market
I scoff down scrumptious goat cheese
And a grain-covered baguette
I’ve also purchased an aerial cable
As this television from England should work
Sitting on the wooden floor
Of my furniture-less living-room
I go through the process of resetting the TV
And images appear
People in terrible desperation
Clinging to a plane as it takes off
Mothers handing their babies and toddlers
To American soldiers over a high fence
Thronging at the airport
They’ve left their homes with nothing
In fear for their lives
For the Taliban are raiding houses
I was peeved that
My plane was 30 minutes late
These people are begging, pleading
For any plane at all in order to get out
I gave some extra euros to the Polish removalist
For the bother of two flights of tiled stairs with no lift
These people would give an exorbitant sum, if they had it
For the chance of reaching safety
I am making a new life
That I’ve chosen and planned since long ago
These people are wrenched suddenly into the unknown
Or worse, left behind to their fate
Church bells resound in a joyful peel
I need to dial 00 33 to call via my English phone
How polite are the electricity and water admin agents
I dance to ‘Tears Dry on their Own’
Through the window a breeze wafts into my apartment
With the cheerful voices of passers-by
They’re tourists strolling in the old quarter
Will some Afghan refugees come here too? I wonder
Rooting precarious lives in the UK’s hostile environment: Dudu shows Rashidah how to care for and harvest rugare.
Growing Together is a community garden in Manchester that provides a space for refugees and asylum seekers to come together to grow vegetables, fruit and flowers; to share food; to relax; to socialise and joke with friends. Those living at the sharp edge of the UK’s hostile environment surrounding asylum and migration are subjected to a culture of disbelief within the Home Office and an apparatus of surveillance and control in their daily lives. Those without leave to remain are denied the right to work, many facing extended periods of destitution. In this context, the gardening project centres on an ethic of care and respect – for people, for plants, even, as one of the ground rules stipulates, for the slugs.
Some of the Zimbabwean participants at the garden grow rugare, a kale-like brassica from Zimbabwe. Meaning ‘that which will be here a long time’, rugare is a perennial plant. It is not propagated by seed but by cuttings. Being relatively easy to grow, it is valued in Zimbabwe as an important and widespread smallholding crop.
But it’s unusual in the UK, so Dudu (pictured to the right) describes the rugare as her ‘babies’. When she comes to the garden, she and others put their care and love into the plants – trimming off old or damaged leaves; looking for ways to keep the voracious Manchester slugs at bay; taking cuttings and starting new plants. Dudu talks about tending the rugare as “to cool down my mind, to focus on it”. From time to time, leaves are harvested, steamed with tomatoes and chillis and served to feed everyone at the garden. As volunteers serve the food, they joke “we’re eating the babies!”
Planting rugare, Dudu says, is “to put my memory in it”. She describes the memories it brings of her childhood when her father grew it. Sharing it with others from Zimbabwe, she describes the smile it puts on their face, how they say it tastes even better than back home – “because,” she tells them, “you miss it!”
But as well as reminding her of her past in Zimbabwe, it also roots her in the here and now. Beyond the garden itself, she also given a workshop at the Manchester Festival showing other Manchester residents how to grow rugare and how to cook it – she remembers everyone asking about it and enjoying eating it together.
During Covid lockdowns, when the garden had to close to participants, pictures were distributed over WhatsApp. When I said we would send a picture of the rugare, Dudu told me: “I will sleep peacefully tonight. I miss my babies.”
William Wheeler is a Leverhulme Early Career Fellow at the University of Manchester, conducting research in Manchester among people seeking asylum in the UK. He has been involved with Growing Together since 2019.
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