This post is dedicated to International Migrants Day, observed on the 18th December. My parents were migrants. I am a migrant now, though mostly living with the more respectable middle class, yet often colonial, badge of ‘expatriate’. I have always insisted that immigrants are among the hardest working people on the planet. Migrants are global citizens.
A contradiction that is difficult to understand is how educational institutions and international organizations aim to create global citizens, yet the real world restricts these internationally minded 21st century citizens from moving. Migrants are vulnerable to exploitation. They become political scapegoats. And in senseless restrictions, governments prevent their own citizens from engaging with difference- inhibiting their economic cultural competence. And in curbing international students, strangle the power of cosmopolitan education.
A dehumanized language of exclusion is used to describe migrants. The mass media and political rhetoric reduces humans to numbers or refers to them as “illegal” and “scroungers”. The Migration Observatory at The University of Oxford analyzed more than 40 million words used by British newspapers to describe migrants. The analysis showed that words with connotations of water were used across print media, such as “influx”, “wave” and “flood”. The use of this metaphor is powerful in shaping public perception- it dehumanizes people and creates an imminent catastrophic threat.
Juxtaposing the aggressive media immigration fervor, we have the cute popular culture icon of Paddington Bear representing the sanitized, yet still not human, migrant experience. Immigration lawyer, Colin Yeo, exposed the pretense of the popular fantasy in a brilliant review of the new film, making it clear that poor Paddington wouldn’t stand a chance of overcoming the legal hurdles.
So how do educators, particularly literacy educators who promote human rights and global citizenship, inject the humanity into a study of immigration? I suggest a primary focus on the language of migrants- real people with stories and feelings. This humanizes students’ production of knowledge.
Making contact with migrants in students’ families and communities strengthens understanding of commonality and transnational values. Students can compile oral histories from migrants. The language of these commentaries can be analyzed, student reflections can be made in journals and the histories even dramatized to encourage empathy.
Poetry provides an accessible exploration of the language of immigration through the eyes of people who have lived it. I have listed and described some useful poems about migration that could be used in the upper primary and secondary classroom. If you have any other recommended poetry by migrants, please leave a comment below the post.
Antigone Kefala’s The Alien expresses the fear and powerless isolation of the migrant experience, “I am naked, engulfed in tentacles of emptiness”.
Uyen Nhu Loewald’s ironic Be good, little migrants highlights the exploitation of immigrants.The poem conveys the frustration of knowing one’s place- that to be allowed into a country is not equal to inclusion.
“Give us your faithful service
sweep factories, clean mansions
prepare cheap exotic food
pay taxes, feed the mainstream”
Ruth Paddel’s collection The Mara Crossing unifies human movement with animal migration, making both a part of the ebb and flow of the Earth and history. In Time to fly natural images are listed next to human needs and hopes. Comparing humans to animals illustrates the natural order of movement “you go because you need a place to shed your skin in safety”.
James Berry uses the simile of a bird to describe migration in Black kids in a new place, “I’m like a migrant bird who will not return from here.” The tension of the trapped bird then shifts to permanence and hope with the metaphor of a tree “I am a transplanted sapling, here, blossoming”.
Peter Skrzynecki’s Migrant hostel also draws on images of birds to describe the migration experience, “We lived like birds of passage”. The theme of exclusion is expressed through images of obstructions, “barrier” and “gate”.
There is also an impeding image of the door in Adrienne Rich’s Prospective Immigrants Please Note. When a migrant goes through the door, a symbol of cultural assimilation, an identity struggle occurs “there is always the risk of remembering your name”.