Discovering truth in art: The Nasher Installation by Dima Karout

By Cora Siré

Before experiencing the Nasher Installation, what did I know about Syria?

Words and images derived from headlines on a country imploding before our distant eyes. Aleppo attacked, Homs destroyed, Damascus under siege. Journalists write of food shortages, power outages, checkpoints, armed militia, and chemical warfare. Photographs depict children on stretchers, rubbled streets and refugee camps. The news feed is nonstop, the facts abstract and hard to process. Millions affected by death, injury and displacement caused by the violence of Syria today.

An installation by Dima Karout changes my perceptions. During her solo exhibition at Montréal Arts Interculturels (MAI) in 2014, I encounter a stunning visual and textual interpretation of the Syrian experience that transcends statistics and facts. An artist and writer from Damascus, Karout studied in Paris and was living in Montréal at the time, before relocating to London.

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Who are you after you lose your home?

The gallery in MAI is cavernous, but Karout’s clever use of space gives viewers the sense of a personal encounter and the privacy of a journey to confront the direct experience of war and exile.

It begins with a montage of texts and photographs of Old Damascus walls. The artist introduces two unnamed characters – ‘She,’ a Syrian traveller, and ‘He,’ a Syrian refugee. Presented separately, each of the characters comes to life as Karout delves deeply in exploring their internal conflicts and the walls, or isolation, of their shattered identities. ‘She’ left before the conflict and her memories of Syria are vibrant and colourful. ‘He’ left during the conflict and his are bloody and grey. Both are haunted by survivor guilt as they process the ongoing death and destruction in their former country. Where they meet, metaphorically, is in exile, trying to find answers to the artist’s searing question, “Who are you after you lose your home?”


Dreams summarized in a few drops of water.

In addition to the fraught circumstance of exile, the roles of memory and imagination in overcoming loss are expressed in the Nasher Installation, a collaborative feature of Karout’s exhibition and her most impressive achievement.

Two rows of massive canvas-like fabrics hang in pairs, like laundry, from wires suspended in the gallery’s high ceiling. Each canvas tells a story hand-written in beautiful script – black and occasionally red lettering – presented in Arabic and English. Here I pause to read verbatim excerpts of the many stories the artist collected from a diverse group of Syrians, some in exile, others not, including women and men, many young.

The visual effect is that of textile art. The fabric comes alive as it wafts to the air circulating in the gallery. The amplified size of the canvases conveys the magnitude of individual suffering and resilience in stories told by witnesses from their varying points of view.

On the canvasses, I read firsthand accounts by Syrians such as Jean who remained in Aleppo. He tells of the impact of the conflict on the city’s children. Before the war, they played carefree in the parks and streets. Now they are obliged to collect water in containers for their families which the children do with pride and touching dedication, struggling to carry the jugs and bottles home. “All their dreams summarized in a few drops of water!”

Another canvas tells of Ibrahim’s struggle to adjust to his new life in Paris. He sees the Eiffel Tower as his wall of suffering but yearns to find something positive in this symbol. “It is a metal wall with plenty of voids ... maybe there is a glimpse of hope.”


The best way to reach peace is art.

The personal accounts bear witness to the consequences of the war, transcending political or religious affiliations. Sawsan describes having to leave Damascus after a massive explosion. Now in Beirut, she misses her workshop, her tools and the inspiration her former city always brought her. As to the way forward, Sawsan affirms, “The best way to reach peace is art.”

Karout’s installation juxtaposes two meanings of the Arabic word, Nasher. It refers to both the act of hanging clothes outside to dry and the publication of words, texts, or statements.

The account by Soulaf integrates both meanings as she recalls a scene from Damascus. While driving through the city by car during heavy bombing and sniper attacks, she sees laundry hanging outside a third floor balcony. “Terrified as I was, that scene filled me with the strangest sense of peace.” Another bomb explodes and “the laundry disappeared along with the ones who washed it.” After she returns to her home in Indiana, the scene haunts her – not the erasure caused by the bombing so much as the questions of who had washed the laundry and whether they’d planned a second load.

Speaking over the facts of the conflict in Syria, Nasher gives voice to its impact on the human family. Karout’s installation does not sag in sadness but soars with authenticity and visual ingenuity. After many hours, I leave the gallery feeling I’ve discovered truth in all its complexity, not abstract but heart-achingly real.

 

Cora Siré is the author of two novels, Behold Things Beautiful and The Other Oscar, and a collection of poetry, Signs of Subversive Innocents. Her essays, short stories and poetry have appeared in anthologies and literary magazines in Canada and Mexico.

Nasher

by Dima Karout

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Nasher is an art installation of suspended canvas first presented in Montreal in 2014 at MAI-Montréal Arts Interculturels as a part of a solo exhibition entitled “Damascus Walls.” It combines a collection of images and true stories. I created the installation’s idea and title around the double sense of the Arabic word Nasher. It makes reference to the act of hanging something outside to dry, often laying clothing on cords and suspending them from balconies. It also means to publish texts, books, or statements. I collected the stories and images via calls and emails, then I hand-wrote the stories on canvas human size (200×100 cm each) and sewed the photos alongside the texts. By sharing these images and stories in their own words, and by using hanging laundry as a familiar concept, I wish to bring Syrians’ experiences closer to the public’s heart. 

 

We are scattered across the planet, by circumstances. We don’t know what our future will be. All we have left are our hearts willing to maintain hope.

War is concrete, but Hope is abstract.

These are our stories as humans struggling with the walls of life. These true stories made their way here from Syrians who stayed in Syria and Syrians who had to leave and are spread out across different countries. What we have in common is our redefined humanity, and what these stories have in common is the loss of home.

With Nasher, we share our stories in an attempt to recreate a piece of home and to overcome the wall introduced to our lives in 2011. These are the stories that can be told; other stories we cannot hear as they are buried under the rubble.

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Soulaf Abas. She is 30. She moved from Damascus to Terre Haute, USA.

On July 23, 2012, I said goodbye to my family after a 10-week visit to Syria. My flight back to the U.S. was cancelled from Damascus because the airport was bombed. I had to drive to Lebanon with a friend, fly to Jordan, and then catch the rest of my flights.

On our way out of Damascus, there was heavy bombing and snipers, so I had to watch the right side of the highway and my friend had to keep his eyes on the left side as he drove. We were both sinking in our seats trying to protect ourselves from random bullets.

I saw buildings go down and I saw cars swaying and crashing after the drivers were sniped. Then my eyes were fixed on a three-story building that had laundry hanging outside the balcony on the 3rd floor. Terrified as I was, that scene filled me with the strangest sense of peace. I thought about the laundry being a small but significant indication of life going on amidst the chaos.

It was only a few seconds before a bomb exploded in the building to interrupt this very thought and shatter my peace. Black smoke filled the air. The laundry disappeared along with the ones who washed it.

45 hours later, I arrived to my house in Indiana with that moment haunting me. And now two years later, I still wonder: what was the last thought on his/her mind, the one who did the laundry? I still wonder if they’d planned on a second load…

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Shaza Koussa. She is 35. She moved from Homs to Damascus, Syria.

Leaving my home in Homs three years ago was a huge relief. It was the only way to escape confusing details. After the death of my younger sister, it was the best opportunity to get away from everything that reminded me of her.

A few months later, when I got used to the idea of her absence, I started to seek the end of the combat in my city. I wanted to go back and gather some of our shared memories, maybe some photos or a painting on the wall. I knew that our house was burnt because of the missiles, but I had some hope that I could fix something.

After the neighborhood was liberated, everything was destroyed. I didn’t have the courage to go back and face the new reality. I asked my brothers to get me anything that was dear to us. After a long wait, they got me a photo of our ruined room. When I asked them about family photos they told me that they were all burnt. Nothing remained. Only damaged walls and metal bed strings… Our room looked like a prison cell.

How much we had laughed and cried in this room, how much we had rejoiced and grieved, and how many stories we had whispered as kids at night… The extent of destruction was enormous, destruction of memories, dreams and hope.

In that room, stayed our conversations… Only the rubble can listen to them now.

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Jean Hanna. He is 33. He stayed in Aleppo, Syria.

During the holidays this year, the streets of Aleppo were different. I saw children standing in rows for hours not to play on swings or to buy ice cream, no, but carrying big containers to be able to fill some water.

Our Syrian kids were denied their hobbies. They grow up before their time. Today, their dreams are transformed. The only wish they have is to be able to live like other kids around the world, to see water getting out of the tap… All their dreams summarize in few drops of water!

Despite their struggle, I see innocent smiles drawn on their faces when they succeed to get some water for their families.

We can understand everything except that we deny each other water to see who will die of thirst first.

Why should children pay for adult’s war?

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 Rana Nezam. She is 32. She moved from Damascus to Ankara, Turkey.

I woke up that morning talking to myself imagining my way to work. Life in itself is hard, so how about life in war? Have you ever imagined yourself living in the middle of a war? I never did, but I am there now.

The road to work used to take me about ten minutes. I used to rush to get there on time. Minutes were a big deal. I used to feel that those minutes were a part of my bright future.

The situation is no longer the same. War influenced our awakening like it influenced everything else. The good thing is that I still wake up every morning, but I am no longer in a hurry to get to work early. What’s important today is that I get there safely. I’m now used to waking up to the real sounds of explosions, before they get broadcasted on TV. Then, the search begins for the safest road that I can take.

Sitting in my car, late, I comfort myself and say, a few more checkpoints and you’ll get there. Two hours later and I’m still imprisoned in the traffic. I try not to get angry. I think to myself: at least you are alive.

At the same exact moment, I hear an extremely loud explosion. I hold my breath.

I look around and thank God that the bomb falls three meters away. Then I continue on my road and in my day as if nothing happened.

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Yara Dababneh. She is 32. She moved from Damascus to Amman, Jordan.

I readjusted my seat in front of my computer, and I stared at the ceiling for a long while… I tried to look away from the horror photos of school bags shreds that blended with the blood of their carriers…

I suffocated; I opened my window. I saw my neighbor, a kid, pulling the hand of his bag to drag it behind him, ready for his school day. We shared a morning smile. His eyes were big and courageous. I wished safety for him and his parents. But his innocent look was enough to make my feeling of oppression reach its maximum.

I took my scarf; I rolled it well over my chest full of pain… Each atom of air seeping inside of me increased my suffocation. I felt helpless.

I still can’t imagine that there are people sharing with us our country, planned, facilitated and collaborated to produce death that will take away innocent school kids.

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Rita Karout. She is 26. She moved from Damascus to Dusseldorf, Germany.

She used to send me a message each morning at eight, another one at noon and a last one in the evening. I’m far away from her, but I don’t have a choice. My sister lives alone in Damascus. She goes to the university every day on her feet due to lack of transportation. The fear fills my heart because of the big number of attacks and falling bombs on the road she takes daily.

One morning, I heard on the news that the sky is pouring rockets on Damascus. I rushed and called asking her not to go; but her academic ambitions surpassed any fear for her life.

She sent me a message confirming her arrival to the university, so I calmed down a little bit. But then hours passed, and I didn’t hear from her. The news on my screen didn’t help: attacks on Dweilaa and Bab Sharqi resulting deaths and injuries. It is the same road she used to take. I was anxious, scared and desperate. I felt for a second that my “Rawaa” faded away.

I called and called only to get the answering machine. Even my family and her friends; all “Out of coverage”.

I sat at the corner of my bed and I prayed. I cried tears of despair and exile. I waited and waited. The only way I found to keep hope was to pick up my pencil and inflame my “Rawaa” on a white page. My drawing was her in our home in Old Damascus.

The evening came, the phone rang. I ran to it. I heard her voice. I felt that despite my suffering in exile, despite murder and death in my country, despite all the ugliness … I was the happiest person on earth.

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Firas Saleh. He is 32. He moved from Damascus to Doha, Qatar.

There always have been two sides: the side of Al-Hamidiyah Old Souq and the side of the Modern Shaalan Souq; the Qassaa area and the Abu Rumaneh area; the Naher Aiesha part and the Malki districts; along the side of the Citadel of Damascus and the other side across the Barada river.

I used to walk with my friends along the Citadel Wall. Every time life got too noisy, we went there to enjoy the peaceful river view at night with all the lights reflecting on its surface.

Today, I remember the smart humble man, who used to sell crafts there. His shop was on the other side of the Barada river. The people would pass near the citadel, see him, and admire his handmade leather bags and golden metal objects but have no access to him. He created a way to communicate with the other side of the river, with us. An ingenuous solution. He suspended a small basket that slide on strings to link the two opposite river banks where he could send the merchandise and people could send him the money in return. He was the one who simply created a bridge.

Hopefully, one day we will be able to break the Wall of our dark emotions and start to build bridges.

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I created this installation in 2014 with a total of 13 stories. Some of the Syrians who shared their experiences moved again, trying to create / find a place to call home. This work was later presented in Paris in 2016, and in London in 2018. These canvases are travelling as their authors, in the hope of building more bridges. All narratives shared here are republished with participants’ consent.

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About the author

Dima Karout is a visual artist and art educator. She works with mixed media and creates images, texts and installations. In her research, artwork and classes, she advocates for socially engaged art. Her latest projects focus on the evolution of identity beyond borders, the metaphor of home, the human experience of migration and exile, internal and external conflicts and the relation between people and places. It also shed light on the greatness of the human soul and its invincible force to survive.

Dima grew up in Damascus, Syria. After finishing a Bachelor of Fine Arts (BFA) degree in visual communication at the Fine Arts University of Damascus, she started an international journey. She has a Master of Fine Arts (MFA) in contemporary art from Paris VIII University, France and a certificate in creative writing from Concordia University in Montreal, Canada. In the past 15 years, she exhibited her work in Damascus, Leipzig, Paris, Montreal and London.

Today, she lives and works in London. She is artist and curator in residence at the Migration Museum during “Room to Breathe” exhibition and working with the British Museum to create a participatory art installation “Our Library of Humanity.”

Radicalizing Tensions: Between Fascism and Solidarity in Italy (Part I)

by Lauren Heidbrink

How do citizens enact solidarity when nations fail to? In this first of a 2-part series, anthropologist Lauren Heidbrink examines forms of solidarity that have emerged in Italy in spite of and in active resistance to the state.

The Diciotti at the port of Catania, Sicily. Credits: Lauren Heidbrink

The Diciotti at the port of Catania, Sicily. Credits: Lauren Heidbrink

“I thought it would only take three or four hours to reach Europe, but the journey was much longer and colder,” described Mohammed of his journey from Libya to Italy. A 16-year-old unaccompanied minor from Nigeria, Mohammed was one of 177 migrants rescued by the Italian coastguard’s Diciotti in August of 2018. Many onboard were fleeing violence in Eritrea, Syria, Bangladesh, Egypt, and Somalia; Mohammed was fleeing eight months of hard labor and violence in Libya, where he sought employment following the death of his parents in a car accident in Lagos. “Libya was no good for us blacks…I didn’t know if I would survive. I don’t know if I will survive here either; it’s not so easy, but I’d rather die than return there,” Mohammed explained several week later from a Sicilian reception facility where I was conducting research on child migration in Europe.  

Rescued near Lamapdeusa, Mohammed thought his journey had ended when he boarded the Diciotti. Instead, he would remain at sea for another four days and in the Sicilian port of Catania for another two before being permitted to disembark. Like so many others, Mohammed fell victim to ongoing debates on solidarity in Europe. Flexing his newly-acquired political might, Italy’s Interior Minister Matteo Salvini refused the Diciotti to dock, announcing, “The ship may land in Italy, as long as the 177 migrants are distributed, in a spirit of solidarity by the EU (European Union).” Italy’s populist Five Star Movement (M5S), which governs in coalition with Salvini’s far-right League party, assumed power in June of 2018, with aspirations of sealing Italy’s 7,600-kilometer coastline from incoming migrants.

"This is the situation aboard the #Diciotti for 8 days now.” Credit: Deputy of Europe, Riccardo Magi following his visit onboard in August of 2018.

"This is the situation aboard the #Diciotti for 8 days now.” Credit: Deputy of Europe, Riccardo Magi following his visit onboard in August of 2018.

As Mohammed explained, “I came to Italy to be safe and to live free, but there we were, captive on a boat just centimeters from land. I could throw a ball that would reach Europe, but I wasn’t allowed to catch it.” Simultaneously denouncing Maltese authorities for failing to rescue the migrant boat in its waters, Salvini drew a line in the sand—either Europe demonstrates “solidarity” by redistributing migrants from Italy to northern Europe or Salvini would return the migrants onboard the Diciotti to Libya.

With mounting international pressure, Italy’s transport minister Danilo Toninelli allowed the Diciotti to dock in Catania, but Salvini quickly refused migrants onboard to disembark. Akin to a hostage situation, Sicilian authorities and Italian civil society began to negotiate their release enlisting a hierarchy of vulnerability: the Italian Ministry of Health in Sicily secured the immediate release of 13 migrants with pressing health issues, such as pregnancy, tuberculosis, pneumonia, scabies, and urinary infections, who were whisked to local hospitals in Red Cross ambulances. The Italian Ombudsperson for Children and Adolescents (Autorità garante per l'infanzia e l'adolescenza) called for the immediate release of children onboard, citing Italian law and international protections for children enshrined in the UN Convention of Human Rights and the Convention of the Rights of the Child. Two days later, 27 unaccompanied children, including Mohammed, were permitted to disembark. Behind the scenes, the Italian Conference of Catholic Bishops began negotiating the release of migrants, who were threatening a hunger strike as negotiations drug on. Within a few days, prosecutors in neighboring Agrigento opened an investigation into Salvini for kidnapping, abuse of office, and illegal detention of migrants onboard—charges that were later dropped.

'Catania welcomes.' Credits: Silvio Laviano

'Catania welcomes.' Credits: Silvio Laviano

Sicilians took to the street in protest, flooding the port of Catania chanting, “We cannot quietly watch fascism come back. We have to act and resist.” Wielding the Sicilian specialty arancini (rice balls), they yelled, "Welcome to Catania! Here, have an arancino." Standing next to me in the crowd of 300, a protestor explained, "In our homes, you welcome travelers with food; arancino are warm and immediately satisfying after a long journey.”

These negotiations inflamed entrenched political debates in Italy, calling many to critique its slow-moving bureaucracy, high unemployment levels, chronic housing issues, and the increasing license of nativists’ “Italian first” response. International debates centered on issues of solidarity, as Italian Premier Giuseppe Conte said, “Italy must take note that the spirit of solidarity is struggling to translate into concrete acts.” Here, Conte specifically referred to the June 2018 EU summit, which failed to establish a scheme for redistributing 160,000 refugees held in overcrowded camps in Italy and Greece. Only after the 10-day standoff were the remaining 140 migrants onboard the Diciotti processed in a nearby Messina hotspot and transferred to placements with the Italian Church (100 migrants), Ireland (20 migrants), and non-EU member Albania (20 migrants) at their own expense. 

Port of Catania.

Port of Catania.

In recent years, Italy rescued nearly 600,000 migrants in the Mediterranean Sea; at its height in 2016, the Italian coast guard and humanitarian organizations rescued 4500 migrants in the Mediterranean in a single day. Since 2017, however, the number of migrants arriving in Italy has dwindled. Unrelenting in his anti-immigrant campaign, however, Salvini has exploited social ills and tragedies across Italy, blaming migrants for outbreaks in illness, rape and murder, the impunity of the mafia, and even the deadly Genoese bridge collapse. Salvini and the League systematically have criminalized any entity attempting to respond to shipwrecked migrants, including humanitarian organizations, commercial vessels, Frontex, fisherman, and in the case of the Diciotti, even the Italian Coast Guard—claiming they all are aiding and abetting smugglers.

With fewer boats arriving since the Diciotti in August, Salvini has turned to eroding social support and legal protections for refugees already residing in Italy. The recent arrest and exile of immigrant-friendly mayor Domenico Lucano, largely heralded for singularly resuscitating the town of Riace by welcoming refugees, served as a high-profile effort to deter local governments from welcoming refugees. Some posit that Lucano’s arrest is in direct response to mayors in southern Italy vowing to disobey Salvini’s orders to block humanitarian rescue boats from all Italian seaports.

Youth playing in Riace. Credits:     Francesco Pistilli     .

Youth playing in Riace. Credits: Francesco Pistilli.

 “It has only deteriorated,” explained an immigration attorney in Rome. “He is a right-wing sheriff who rules by tweet. He does not represent us; we must fight him at every turn and hope he doesn’t destroy the nation in the process.” On September 24, 2018,  Italian Council of Ministers unanimously signed the Decree-Law on Immigration and Security (decree law no. 113/2018), effectively abolishing humanitarian protections in Italy; allowing for the refusal or withdraw of international protections; and establishing a framework to strip Italian citizenship from some refugees. Colloquially termed the Salvini Law, the decree likewise erodes the System of Protection of Asylum Seekers and Refugees (SPRAR), a decentralized network of small-scale reception centers housing refugees and unaccompanied minors. The decree has cleared the Italian Senate. The Chamber of Deputies must review the proposal within 60 days, without whose intervention, it automatically becomes law.

“The clock is ticking,” Leonardo, the director of a Sicilian-based SPRAR, told me. “We have lost so much [government] funding in recent years, that we are already functioning with so little support. Now, staff are preparing for unemployment. We are scrambling to find places for these children to live.” Livid at what he sees an attack on Sicilian values of hospitality, generosity and inclusion, Leonardo fumed, “Mass mourning on social media is not enough; time for talking has long past. We must conspire. We must act!”

Part II: Radicalizing Tensions

 

Lauren Heidbrink is an anthropologist and assistant professor at California State University, Long Beach. She is author of Migrant Youth, Transnational Families, and the State: Care and contested interests (University of Pennsylvania Press, 2014). As the recipient of the Fulbright Schuman 70th Anniversary Scholar Award, she is conducting a comparative study on the migration of unaccompanied asylum-seeking children in Italy, Greece, Belgium and the United Kingdom.

Disclaimer: In an effort to ensure confidentiality, all names of individuals and organizations are pseudonyms. All views expressed in this publication are of the author.

Border to Border: The south takes me back north

In these times, when migrants, refugees, and asylum-seekers face an increasing hostile social and political environment here and around the world, we must have ongoing exchanges on how we contribute to the exclusion of others.

 

By Nancy Landa

¿K'uxi elan avo'onton? is an expression used to greet someone in Tzotzil, one of the indigenous languages spoken in the Highlands of Chiapas.  My Tzotzil colleagues explained to me that its literal translation means “How is your heart doing?” It struck me as one of the most beautiful expressions I had ever heard. I did not manage to pronounce it correctly in my time there, but I was still filled with joy each time someone would respond, “Lek oy” – “very well”. As I learned, this was more than just a question in a different language. Indeed, the expression represents an alternative way of thinking. It counteracts the superficiality many of us have grown accustomed to when someone asks “How are you?” and to which we generally respond with “fine,” as if on autopilot.  

Photo courtesy of Nancy Landa

Photo courtesy of Nancy Landa

The question ¿K'uxi elan avo'onton? invites us to reflect from the heart, because we are not only able to feel from the heart, we can also think from the heart. To respond honestly, I had to turn to that part of my inner self that I had neglected for so long—it was better to ignore the pain caused by the displacement I had endured throughout most of my life as a migrant. This question became an introspective process, one that made me realize I was unsure about how my heart was doing, or whether it was still intact. Had my heart really returned with me to Mexico or had a part of it stayed in Los Angeles, the place where I lived 20 years of my life before deportation?

The heart wants what it wants: Belonging schizophrenia

Despite my past, I am fortunate to have had the opportunity to experience life in environments that reconnected me to my roots and humble upbringing. I was born into a poor family. My parents came from rural towns with hardly any schooling, but they were hardworking people. When my time came to relocate for work and moved to Chiapas, a state with the highest rates of poverty in Mexico, I could see the similarities between it and my childhood home in Naulcapan, a municipality located in the State of Mexico. It was not foreign to me to live in towns that lacked sewer systems, or in a house with walls made of bricks and a roof laminated with thick carbon paper—the kind that would slowly start to fall apart and collapse during a hailstorm. Of course, the poverty and social exclusion from where I came was different from the kind that indigenous families in Chiapas endure. I never had to walk more than two hours to school. I never had to drop out of school to start working in the fields to support my family.

Returning to what resembled my pre-migration life was the consequence of being uprooted from my adopted country. Of all the places I have lived post-deportation, I have not found one that feels like home. Despite the encouraging words of friends who say, “welcome to your country,” or “welcome home,” my heart knows: I am not home.

In the past seven years, I have lived in seven cities and three countries, places where I have felt a kind of belonging schizophrenia. Part of me wants to belong, but another fails to do so. Even with the support networks and friends I have made, I can’t entertain the idea of living in any of those places for the rest of my life. I manage to physically move into each new space, but my emotional self never fully occupies it. What is the point of decorating my new “home” if the displacement I carry with me continues to persist? Could I ever attach myself to a place the way I did as an L.A. transplant?

These contradictory emotions forced me to admit there is something wrong with my heart. Even with the passage of time, the scars and the pain are still there. I am not the same person after undergoing the dehumanization of deportation, something only those who have experienced it can understand. At this point, I can only ponder what will make my heart whole again. The answer has yet to reveal itself; hopefully at some point I will know. In the meantime, my heart urges me to keep looking—and not only for a sense of home, but also a political family to which to belong. Finding the latter proves just as difficult.

Searching for home in “advocacy”

The moment in which I came out of the shadows of deportation also marked the start of my search for a place to belong in advocacy. The trigger for my post-deportation activist trajectory was the announcement of the DACA program by the former President Barack Obama in 2012. It began as a hopeful journey, but soon enough I experienced the invisibility that arises when social movements also reproduce the oppression they denounce.

The immigrant rights discourse has created a hierarchy among us, selecting which migrants are “worthy” and deserve to be included, and who should be left out. In the U.S., those of us who have been deported belong in the latter category. In Mexico, we have been similarly ignored. It was not until recently that the political elite have begun to discuss return migration, in great part due to Donald Trump’s antagonism towards Mexico. Still, few have meaningfully discussed the deportations occurring during prior administrations, including Obama’s record-setting removals and the criminalization of immigrants as a result of the 1996 legislative changes to INA that took effect under Bill Clinton.

It has become more convenient for the Mexican government to seek the attention of those belonging to the “good immigrant” category. Following the initiation of DACA, the Mexican Ministry of Foreign Relations, Senators, universities, and high-level policy makers invited DACA Dreamer groups to (re)discover their cultural roots via tours of iconic places in Mexico City and the ancient Aztec ruins of Teotihuacan. Political actors attempted to convince us that they supported Mexican immigrants here and abroad. Yet, these educational trips designed to reconnect Dreamers were simply a public relations tool.

Dreamer tourism, as we termed it, has continued to grow over the past couple years. At the same time, there is no real interest in giving the “unwanted” deportee a platform to demand a dignified reinsertion in Mexico. Additionally, and in contrast to our U.S. immigrant counterparts, we don’t have a return ticket to the United States—not even a tourist visa to visit our former homes, the places and people we left behind. Having presented to these Dreamer delegations, I am left with a clear view of the many asymmetries that exist between us. They are platforms that lack the conditions for genuine dialogue about our struggles. And on the occasions when we have raised such concerns, we just become a nuisance: to the government institutions that sponsor the trips, to the nonprofit organizations that welcome such efforts, and to the activist DACA Dreamers who fail to see how they have legitimated our exclusion by accepting a reconnection with their “México lindo y querido”, the beloved Mexico to which they make no indication they would want to return permanently.

In these times, when migrants, refugees, and asylum-seekers face an increasing hostile social and political environment here and around the world, we must have ongoing exchanges on how we contribute to the exclusion of others who are below us on the ladder of oppression. This is the introspection I find missing in U.S. immigrant advocacy movements—movements that understand social inclusion as stopping deportations, and that fail to consider the dark abyss one falls into after deportation.

If advocates measured their effectiveness based on reality, they would realize this failure is profoundly consequential. The culprits here are still anti-immigrant policies based in ignorance and xenophobia. And yet, immigrant activists must be accountable for not creating advocacy strategies that respond to the multidimensional and unjust realities created by deportations. This includes (1) family separation, where U.S. children are stripped away of their parents or forced to leave their U.S. homes to reunite with deported family members; (2) harsh treatment and penalties for deported immigrants, including re-entry bans; and (3) lack of reception programs to integrate deportees in the education system or the labor market in the countries receiving them.

These issues are just the tip of the deportation iceberg. Rather than yet another request to include “my story” in someone else’s research or advocacy campaign, I search for collaborations or co-creative efforts to unite our interconnected fights and struggles, not to be “educated” on my own intimate experiences of deportation, long before Trump assumed power.

I’m left asking: Does social justice have a time limit or does it expire under “new” political realities? Will deportations prior to Trump take a back seat to the somehow more “urgent” situation under the current administration? So long as new movements answer these questions affirmatively, then there is a dire need for a new paradigm for immigrant activism. We must learn to speak of struggles in ways that do not re-victimize those who have suffered or to render them invisible by privileging the “good immigrant” narratives.

Heading north to reclaim my own fight

Today, I am back in Tijuana—and this time by choice. After years of chronic emotional burnout aggravated by those internal battles I had not anticipated, I am stronger. In the southern region of Mexico, I learned that there is an alternative perspective to activism—one that is designed from a collaborative and participatory approach. This work creates spaces of dialogue and reflection where migrants are the migration experts, the protagonists in all processes and organizing work. We are not just research subjects to be studied, or whose stories should be collected.

This takes decades to master, and in no way have I reached competency in it. At the same time, I am encouraged to engage on initiatives created by migrants, for migrants, and am filled with a sense of responsibility and the urgency as when I first started this journey. Seven years ago, it would have been impossible to engage in this type of work: I was putting back together the pieces of a shattered life. Yet the south has reenergized me to reclaim my own fight back north. You can’t be in a place like Chiapas, one that embodies the resistance of the country, without it changing you in some way. So, what comes next?

In 2009, the year of my deportation, there were between 300 to 400 of us arriving every day in Tijuana.[i] Today, that figure is slightly over a quarter of such deportation levels, with nearly 100 deportees arriving daily. With the anticipation of the continued expulsion of Mexicans from the U.S., there is still much work ahead.

The needs and demands of deportees: From reinsertion to family reunification

Photo Courtesy of Nancy Landa

Photo Courtesy of Nancy Landa

People often ask how they can support the cause south of the border. Just as I’ve struggled to find a home for my cause, I always struggle to provide concrete actions. I have come across many organizations that are doing important humanitarian work in Tijuana. Here, many nonprofits such as Desayunador Padre Chava, Casa del Migrante, Insituto Madre Asunta, and The Salvation Army focus on providing immediate food and shelter. There are also emerging youth-led organizations like Espacio Migrante and countless other churches and individuals who helped when thousands of Haitians and Africans were in limbo and looking for refuge. And most importantly, migrant-led organizations like Unified U.S. Deported Veterans, Deported Veterans Support House, and Dreamers Moms USA/Tijuana have also gained presence and visibility. This is by no means an exhaustive list. I certainly hope all continue to grow as sustainable organizations along with other up-and-coming efforts.

However, there is a lack of programs aimed at the mid- and long-term integration of returning migrants and families. Although many of us have developed survival strategies to rebuild our lives, there is still a need to support others who face obstacles such as obtaining identity documents, continuing their education or finding work. These challenges also require political advocacy, as local and federal government agencies must address the structural barriers that hinder reintegration.

An important demand from migrant-led efforts is family reunification—an opportunity to return to homes, communities, and family in the U.S. Given the current U.S. president’s fixation on a “big, beautiful wall,” this sounds like a fantasy. Yet, we believe, more than ever, that supporting projects that create bridges between nations rather than walls are imperative. This is what inspired Friends of Friendship Park to launch a petition last year to garner support to ask San Diego Customs and Border Patrol (CBP) to create a binational park, a border space where transnational families to meet and hug. Currently, CBP only allows five families to meet for 30 minutes once a year. It is an effort that remains at a standstill as CBP has yet to respond to the request. However, binational families and allies are committed to counteract the politics of separation. Perhaps having a region without borders, for now, it is just a utopian dream. But in my heart, I know that our sense of family, home and belonging will not be dictated by the physical and emotional borders placed upon us.

Families Reunite At U.S.-Mexico Border At Friendship Park

Nancy Landa is a migration scholar, activist, writer and translator. She writes on transborder activism, her experience of being a deportee under the Obama administration, and the social injustices migrants face due to the increasingly restrictive immigration policies in the Americas and beyond. To follow Nancy and projects she is currently working on, visit her bilingual blog at Mundo Citizen and via Facebook or Twitter.


[i] Personal interview, Mexican immigration authorities (INM), Tijuana, 2016.

A la Intersección de Género, Relaciones Familiares y Migración/At the Intersection of Gender, Family Relations and Migration

Por Catarina Chay Quiej

(English translation below. For additional posts in this series, visit: "Migration and Belonging.")

Aunque conocido como el país de la eterna primavera con un ecosistema rico, Guatemala sufre de desigualdad socioeconómica extrema, con altos niveles de desnutrición, limitadas oportunidades de empleo, y exclusión de género, entre ellos la violencia contra la mujer, femicidio, racismo y exclusión social. Como revela nuestra encuesta comunitaria en Almolonga, la migración también es prevalente. Para algunas familias, es la única opción a pesar de la incertidumbre tremendano solo en los peligros del viaje, pero también, los riesgos de la desintegración familiar a largo plazo. 

Casa de remesas, Almolonga. Créditos  fotográficos: Lauren Heidbrink

Casa de remesas, Almolonga. Créditos fotográficos: Lauren Heidbrink

En nuestra encuesta, los padres cuentan de experimentar una presión psicológica y emocional para proveer las condiciones adecuadas para el desarrollo saludable de los hijos y su familia. Entre las limitadas opciones, buscan la mejor alternativa considerando factores como la educación, conseguir un empleo, ahorrar sus ingresos, y mandar remesas. Las familias buscan las oportunidades de comprar terreno, construir una casa, amueblarla, agenciarse de electrodomésticos que facilitan la vida, y dar una buena educación a los hijos. Este es el mejor escenario.          

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     Vehículos en Almolona. Créditos fotográficos:     Giovanni Batz

Vehículos en Almolona. Créditos fotográficos:  Giovanni Batz

Como encontramos en Almolonga, a veces la realidad es bastante diferentellena de riesgo, deuda, pérdida y con pocas garantías. Los que quedan, quedan angustiados al ver como su querido se obliga a las incertidumbres del viaje. En los casos más tristes, sus queridos terminan desaparecidos o muertos. En otras ocasiones, aunque el migrante llega a su destino, la llegada viene con una mezcla de emociones dado a los traumas y la violencia que sufren en el camino mientras que felizmente celebran una llegada como un gran logro. Las familias nos dijeron que, si bien el migrante busca conseguir rápidamente un empleo, la familia que queda lucha para subsistir y pagar su deuda migratoria hasta cuando las primeras remesas llegan. Varias de las mujeres que entrevistamos describen que viven en la casa de los suegros sin sus esposos resultando en su pérdida de privacidad y libertad de realizar actividades que beneficien su entorno social, emocional o familiar. Algunas mujeres describieron ser vigiladas constantemente y ser víctimas a explotación laboral de parte de sus suegros; al llegar las remesas, los suegros se apropian del dinero, no permiten que sean autónomas ni independientes.

Si bien la migración puede contribuir a mejores condiciones económicas y materiales, también puede transformar las estructuras familiares cambiando los roles típicos de género. Como nos encontramos en nuestro estudio, cuando el padre de familia migra, las madres se quedan como cabezas de la familia, asumiendo responsabilidades de sustento económico de la familia y de lidiar con la educación de los hijos. En estos casos, las madres cuentan que trabajan de más para cubrir los gastos familiares, deudas y, a veces, para enviar remesas inversas; es decir, algunas mandan dinero al esposo en Estados Unidos mientras este se establece. En Almolonga, nos encontramos mujeres también que migran, luchando para mejorar sus situaciones económicas. Sin embargo, la migración también trae sus riesgos. Según los entrevistados, las mujeres son más vulnerables a sufrir violaciones, robos, enfermedades, discriminaciones, y sufrimientos.

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  Muñecas en Escuela.  Créditos fotográficos: Lauren Heidbrink

Muñecas en Escuela. Créditos fotográficos: Lauren Heidbrink

Entre las mujeres que permanecen en Almolonga, algunos describen que buscan una pareja extramarital o formalizan una nueva relación sentimental para apoyarlas. En algunas situaciones, estas relaciones resultaron en un descuido de sus hijos o una separación de sus esposos que también buscan otras parejas en los Estados Unidos, dejando de apoyar a sus hijos que permanecen en Guatemala.  

En resumen, los riesgos de la migración son significativos y múltiples y las consecuencias de la migración son profundas. Desde la violencia a la deuda a los cambios en los roles de género a la desintegración familiar, la migración trae tanto cambios estructurales como cambios íntimos en la vida de las familias, cambios importantes que merecen un examen más detallado.

 

Catarina Chay Quiej es estudiante de la Universidad Rafael Landívar-Quetzaltenango en la carrera de Relaciones Internacionales de la Facultad de Ciencias Políticas y Sociales. Ella ha trabajado en su comunidad en la Municipalidad de Zunil con grupos de mujeres indígenas a través de capacitaciones en sus derechos e incidiendo en la participación ciudadana. Ella trabajó como investigadora colaborando en el estudio de migración y retorno en Almolonga en 2016.  

 

At the Intersection of Gender, Family Dynamics and Migration

by Catarina Chay Quiej

Although known as the land of eternal spring with a rich ecosystem, Guatemala suffers from extreme socio-economic inequality, with high levels of malnutrition, limited employment opportunities, and gender exclusion, among them violence against women, femicide, racism and social exclusion. As our community-based survey in Almolonga revealed, migration is also prevalent. For some families, it is the only option in spite of the tremendous uncertainty--not only the dangers of the journey but also, the risks of family disintegration over the long-term.

Remittance home, Almolonga. Photo credits: Lauren Heidbrink

Remittance home, Almolonga. Photo credits: Lauren Heidbrink

In our survey, parents report feeling the psychological and emotional pressure to provide adequate conditions for the healthy development of their children and families. Within the limited options, they search for the best alternativein many cases migrationconsidering factors such as education, securing employment, saving earnings, and sending remittances. Families search for opportunities to buy land, build a house, furnish it, acquire appliances that make life easier, and, importantly, to secure a good education to their children. This is the best scenario.

Vehicles in Almolonga. Photo credits: Giovanni Batz

Vehicles in Almolonga. Photo credits: Giovanni Batz

As we found in Almolonga, sometimes the reality of families with migrants is quite differentfilled with risk, debt, loss and few guarantees. Those that remain are anguished as their loved ones undertakes the uncertainties of the journey. In the saddest situations, their loved one ends up missing or dead. At other times, although the migrant arrives at his or her destination, the arrival is met with mixed emotions given the traumas and violence experienced en route while happily celebrating one’s arrival as a great achievement. Families told us that while the migrant seeks to quickly secure employment, they struggle to survive and to now pay the additional migratory debt until the first remittances arrive. Several interviewed women described that living without their spouse in the home of their in-laws has resulted in a loss of privacy and freedom from activities that benefit their social, emotional, and familial surroundings. Some women describe being constantly surveilled and others describe their in-laws exploiting their labor; when the remittances arrive, the in-laws seize the money, not allowing for autonomy or independence.

While migration may contribute to improved economic and material conditions, it may also transform family structures by changing the traditional gender roles. As we found in our study, when a father migrates, the mother who remains may become head of the family, assuming responsibility for the economic livelihood of the family and directing their children’s education. In these instances, mothers explained that they work more to cover the family expenses, pay debts, and at times send inverse remittances; that is, some women described sending money to the husbands in the United States until he got settled. In Almolonga, we encountered women who migrate as well, struggling to improve their economic situation. However, their migration also comes with risks. According to interviewees, women are more vulnerable to experiencing rape, robbery, illnesses, discrimination, and hardship.

Dolls in a school. Photo credits: Lauren Heidbrink

Dolls in a school. Photo credits: Lauren Heidbrink

Among women who remain in Almolonga, some describe looking for an extramarital partner and/or building new emotional relationships to support them. In some situations, these relationships resulted in neglect of their children or a separation from their husbands who also may have established new relationships or families in the United States, neglecting to support their children who remain in Guatemala.

In sum, the risks of migration are significant and multiple and the consequences of migration are profound. From violence to debt to shifting gender roles to family disintegration, migration brings both structural and intimate changes in the lives of families, important changes that warrant closer examination. 

 

Catarina Chay Quiej is a student of the Universidad Rafael Landívar-Quetzaltenango studying International Relations in the Political and Social Sciences department. She has worked in her community in the municipality of Zunil with groups of indigenous women through workshops on their rights and the importance of civic participation. She worked as a researcher collaborating in the study of migration and return in Almolonga in 2016. 

For the previous blog in the series: Alejandro Chán: Almolonga: una interpretación a partir de la migración a Estados Unidos/ Almolonga: an interpretation of migration to the United States

For the next blog in the series: Ramona Elizabeth Pérez Romero: El Papel de las Comadronas de Almolonga/The Role of Midwives in Almolonga

Almolonga: Una interpretación a partir de la migración a Estados Unidos/Almolonga: an interpretation of migration to the United States

por Alejandro Chán

(English translation below. For additional posts in this series, visit: "Migration and Belonging.")

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     Actividad con jóvenes sobre la migración, Sibinal.  Créditos fotográficos: Lauren Heidbrink.

Actividad con jóvenes sobre la migración, Sibinal. Créditos fotográficos: Lauren Heidbrink.

Después de meses participando en una encuesta comunitaria, entrevistando familias en Almolonga, un municipio del departamento de Quetzaltenango, Guatemala, se pudo tener aproximaciones sobre algunas dinámica social, económica, política y cultural; de manera que en esteblog pretende a capturar algunos fragmentos de la vida cotidiana a la intersección de familia y migración. Aunque de inicio fue difícil, no obstante, de encuesta a encuesta, de entrevista a entrevista, poco a poco se fue conociendo sobre el sentir, la percepción y la opinión de las personas en el tema de migración. No importando contar con vivencias directas o ajenas, siempre hubo una opinión. Era evidente que hay muchas experiencias de sufrimiento que no se hablan-- que no se comparten, sino que se sufren en silencio; muchas familias toleran o reprimen los aspectos negativos que provoca la migración.

Vista de Almolonga.   
  
 
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   Créditos fotográficos : Giovanni Batz

Vista de Almolonga. Créditos fotográficos: Giovanni Batz

Escuchar, por ejemplo, la experiencia de rupturas entre esposas y esposos, entre padres e hijos y viceversa. O de los peligros que corren los migrantes, la violación constante y permanente de sus derechos más elementales: la vida, la dignidad y la libertad. Es decir, que el derecho de migrar o no migrar no traen garantías algunas.

Derechos humanos se desvanecen en distintas rutas--ante las largas caminatas que emprenden los migrantes en los desiertos donde exponen y arriesgan su vida. El camino de los migrantes supone el despojo de sus derechos y con ello sus sueños de tener una vida digna. Muchos mueren buscando al “Sueño Americano.” Otros llegan y logran obtener un trabajo. Sin embargo, no significa el fin de los sufrimientos; sino que se transforman por otras formas de sometimiento--el racismo, la discriminación y la explotación en las interacciones económicas, sociales y políticas de los Estados Unidos.

¿Cuántos migrantes son despojados de sus derechos, del esfuerzo, fruto de su trabajo? ¿Cuántos aguantan esta explotación por el hecho de buscar una “mejor vida”?

     
  
 
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    Marcas de la migración, Almolonga.  Créditos fotográficos:  Giovanni Batz

 

Marcas de la migración, Almolonga. Créditos fotográficos: Giovanni Batz

Es cierto que en algunas ocasiones los migrantes logran de mandar dinero a sus familias y con éste pueden comprar o mejorar sus viviendas o comprar tierra para cultivar los alimentos para sus familias que se quedan. Pero no equivale a tener una vida digna. Dichos logros tienen costos inmensurables: separarse de la familia, vivir solo, desconectado del pueblo, lejos del sueño de una vida mejor.

Y para los que se quedan también es difícil. Como mencionó una de las entrevistadas: “No es lo mismo educar a los hijos en pareja que uno solo.” Esto es solo uno de los tantos retos que enfrentan las familias que se quedan en espera del ser querido que fue a buscar el “Sueño Americano.”

En este sentido, el “Sueño Americano” es solo una ilusión que obliga a millones de personas a migrar al Norte. Ya estando allí el sueño del migrante es el menos beneficiado; es el que lo menos importa. Lo que le importa a Estados Unidos es el trabajo que ofrecen los migrantes de forma barata. Un migrante retornado relató: “a nosotros los migrantes guatemaltecos, nos dan los trabajas más duros y por ser indocumentados no nos pagan lo que es justo.” No obstante jornadas largas de trabajo en las peores condiciones, aun así el migrante sigue trabajando.

De manera que Estados Unidos absorbe la fuerza de trabajo de los empobrecidos de países como Guatemala y comunidades como Almolonga. Millones de personas por la pobreza que impone el sistema económico global vigente se ven obligados a tomar la única alternativa que el mismo sistema económico global ha fabricado--la migración irregular--para luego ser explotados en el “primer mundo” si llegan.

A como está el panorama se puede ver que aquí o allá el Estado, el supuesto garantes y protectores de los derechos humanos, se ha convertido en la mayor estructura criminal que persigue, asesina y empobrece a los migrantes.

Cruzando la frontera de Guatemala y Mexico.   
  
 
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    Créditos fotográficos:  Lauren Heidbrink

Cruzando la frontera de Guatemala y Mexico. Créditos fotográficos: Lauren Heidbrink

Y por si fuera poco, detrás de esta explotación se fortalece cada vez un negocio donde se visualizan estructuras, instituciones, organizaciones y personas que explotan al migrante. Como se ve en Almolonga, por ejemplo, los coyotes que son los primeros en cobrar una cantidad exorbitante de dinero a las familias o personas que quieren migrar, luego se encuentran por los préstamos con intereses sumamente altos de los bancos, cooperativas o prestamistas. Las autoridades fronterizas corruptas que, al igual que las estructuras criminales como los Zetas, cobran cuotas a los migrantes con la finalidad de tener derecho de paso por los territorios nacionales. Todo dicho, la cantidad de los actores e instituciones que aprovechan la vulnerabilidad de los migrantes son impresionantemente numerosos.

Una vez que los migrantes logran integrarse en la economía de la explotación de los Estados Unidos, los mayores beneficiados nuevamente son los bancos o instituciones financieras donde tiene lugar las transacciones de las remesas. En tándem, los centros comerciales se benefician por publicar y cultivar una cultura de consumo en las familias receptoras de las remesas.

Aun en estas condiciones, es fundamental que reconocemos y aprendemos de las múltiples resistencias que consolidan los migrantes para esperar por un mundo mejor, así como también los familiares que se entretejen con su experiencia en búsqueda por una vida más digna.

Alejandro Chán es Maya K’iche’, originario de San Andrés Xecul, Totonicapán. Maestro en Gestión Social para el Desarrollo Local, por FLACSO-Guatemala y Politólogo por la Universidad Rafael Landívar. Ha publicado en revista El Observador,  sobre reconfiguración del territorio.

 

Almolonga: An interpretation of migration to the United States

by Alejandro Chán

Activity with youth about migration. Photo credits: Lauren Heidbrink

Activity with youth about migration. Photo credits: Lauren Heidbrink

After months of participating in a community survey, interviewing families in Almolonga, a municipality in the Department of Quetzaltenango, Guatemala, it was possible to approximate some of the social, economic, political and cultural dynamics. This blog aims to capture some of the fragments of daily life at the intersection of family and migration. While it was difficult at the beginning, from survey to survey, from interview to interview, little by little, we gradually came to know the feelings, the perceptions, and the opinions of the people on the topic of migration. Regardless of having direct or indirect experiences with migration, there was always an opinion. It was evident that there were many experiences of suffering that are never discussed--that are not shared, but rather suffered in silence. Many families tolerate or repress negative aspects that incite migration.

View of Almolonga. Photo credits: Giovanni Batz

View of Almolonga. Photo credits: Giovanni Batz

Take, for example, the ruptures experienced between wives and husbands, between parents and their children and vice versa. Or the dangers that immigrants face, the permanent and constant violation of their most fundamental rights: life, dignity and liberty. That is to say, the right to migrate and the right to not migrate do not come with any guarantees.

Human rights vanish along different routes--before the long journeys migrants undertake across the deserts where they expose and risk their lives. Migrants’ paths imply the displacement of their rights and with it their dreams of a dignified life. Many die searching for the “American Dream.” Still others arrive and are able to obtain employment. However, this does not mean the end of their suffering; they are transformed to other forms of subjugation--racism, discrimination, and exploitation in their economic, social and political interactions of the United States.

How many migrants are stripped of their rights, their efforts, the fruits of their labor. How many endure this exploitation in seeking a “better life?”

Marks of migration. Photo credits: Giovanni Batz

Marks of migration. Photo credits: Giovanni Batz

On some occasions migrants may succeed in sending money to their families and with it, their families can buy and improve their houses or purchase land to cultivate the sustenance for their families who remain. But this is not equivalent to having a dignified life. These achievements come with immeasurable costs: separation from family, living alone, disconnected from the community, far from the dream of a better life.

And for those who remain, it is also difficult. As one interviewee mentioned: “It is not the same to educate children as a couple than alone.” This is just one of the many challenges that families confront, as they wait for their loved one who left in search of the “American Dream.”

In this sense, the “American Dream” is only an illusion that forces millions of people to migrate to the North. Once there, the migrant’s dream is least valued; it is the one that matters least. What matters to the United States is the cheap labor that migrants provide. A returned migrant related: “To us Guatemalan migrants, they give us the hardest jobs and because we are undocumented, they do not pay us justly.” In spite of a long day’s work in the worst conditions, the migrant still continues working.

In this way, the United States absorbs the workforce of impoverished countries like Guatemala and communities like Almolonga. Because of the imposition of the current global economic system, millions of people find themselves in poverty and see themselves obligated to take the only alternative that the global economic system itself has created--irregular migration--to only then be exploited by the “first world” if they arrive.

In this panorama, the State here and there, the so-called guarantors and protectors of human rights, has become the greatest criminal structure that persecutes, assassinates, and impoverishes migrants.

Crossing the Guatemala-Mexico border. Photo credits: Lauren Heidbrink

Crossing the Guatemala-Mexico border. Photo credits: Lauren Heidbrink

And if that were not enough, behind this exploitation is a business network that is increasingly strengthened by structures, institutions, organizations and people that exploits migrants. As we see in Almolonga, for example, coyotes [smugglers] are the first to charge a exorbitant amounts of money to families or people who want to migrate, followed by high-interest loans from banks, cooperatives or money-lenders. Corrupt border officials who, in the same manner as criminal structures such as the Zetas, charge fees to migrants, as if they own the right of passage through national territories. All told, the number of actors and institutions that take advantage of migrants’ vulnerability are breathtakingly numerous.

Once migrants are integrated into an exploitive US economy, the principal beneficiaries are yet again the banks and financial institutions where remittances pass. In tandem, commercial centers benefit by publicizing and cultivating a consumer culture among families receiving these remittances.

Even in these conditions, it is critical that we recognize and learn from the multiple forms of resistance that strengthen migrants to hope of a better world are recognized and admired, as well as their family members whose experiences are interwoven in the pursuit for a more dignified life.

 

Alejandro Chán is Maya K’iche’ from San Andrés Xecul, Totonicapán. He has a Masters in Social Management of Local Development from FLACSO-Guatemala and is a Political Scientist at the University Rafael Landívar. He has published in the magazine El Observador regarding the reconfiguration of territory in Guatemala.

For the previous blog in the series: Sandra Elizabeth Chuc Norato: Deudas y Migración: Explorando a la realidad de Almolonga/ Debt and Migration: Exploring Almolonga’s reality

For the next blog in the series: Catarina Chay Quiej: A la Intersección de Género, Relaciones Familiares y Migración/At the Intersection of Gender, Family Relationships and Migration