In this essay, I consider issues of migration and im/mobility through experiences as a qualitative researcher of the aftermath of mass violence. In doing so, I consider how the progression of my scholarship has occurred in tandem with the development of my identity as a mother, and contemporary geopolitics, all of which implicate questions about migration and mobility. Attending to the embodied, somatic experiences of both movement and the process of qualitative research, I engage issues of identity, particularly gender, sexuality, race, and nationality. While not re/solving the tensions of qualitative research addressing im/mobility, I illustrate the ongoing relationship between motherhood, movement, and migration.
I never intended to focus on movement in my research. I study the aftermath of mass violence: how people and communities organize in order to respond to and commemorate the past.1 But mass violence, by its very nature, inheres the movement of people. This persistent fact requires attention to issues of im/mobility and migration, both in the contexts under study and in the qualitative research process. In examining the process of ethnographic observation and interviewing in relation to postconflict organizing in South Africa, Sierra Leone, and the Liberian diaspora, issues of human movement are salient. As I have engaged in field contexts across borders, and over the time it takes to write up the patterns and insights that derive from them, materiality and mobility have become increasingly important issues to which I attend.2
This therefore requires greater attention to the complex ways in which movement is interpolated in and through responses to mass violence, which creates particular meanings around and genres of remembering that violence and its aftermath. For example, in examining the testimony given at the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Liberia Diaspora Project, the reasons for participants' flight from Liberia, and when and how they came to resettle in the United States, create a particular view of the country's civil war. The overrepresentation of political elites in this project thus created a distorted picture of who was affected by the civil war and how.3 In the aftermath of a violent civil war in Sierra Leone, organizations in the United States and Sierra Leone created a partnership to address the aftermath of conflict in rural areas. This created opportunities for women to participate more substantially in political life than before the war, as well as to develop their identities and roles in and beyond their communities in significant ways.4
These developing contours of my research have happened alongside my decision to become a mother. The writing in which I wrestle with the importance of materiality, mobility, and movement in my scholarly work has occurred in concert with growing, birthing, and raising babies, now boys, of negotiating the activities of motherhood in between teaching, research, the academic job market with a partner who is also an academic, at long last the tenure-track, and then finally, more bittersweetly, the adjustment to halftime co-parenting as a single mother. These intensely somatic experiences—the transition of my body to a life-growing, life-giving, life-sustaining being—have meant that my academic understanding of migration and movement has occurred simultaneously with my personal negotiation of what it means to be a mother, to raise children, and therefore to inhabit the material subjectivity of a cisgender woman and live in a feminine body, with all of the symbolic and discursive import that these identities entail.
“Mama, what does a Muslim ban mean?” The US presidential primaries are in full swing. National Public Radio (NPR), the ambient noise of our household, plays while I am nursing my 7-month-old and drinking my first cup of coffee. While he eats his Cheerios, my loquacious and exhaustingly curious 3½-year-old is listening to the morning news report on candidate Donald Trump's provocative position to ban all Muslims from entering the country.5
I am finishing my first semester as an assistant professor raising two young children. Between bites he asks, “Does that mean Yasin will have to leave?” Yasin is his best friend from school who, like my son, has a body in perpetual motion and a seemingly endless stream of words. They are a dynamic, if occasionally overwhelming, duo. Yasin is charming, with a mischievous twinkle in his deep brown eyes. He is also a young Muslim boy.
This is a question I was unprepared to navigate before 7 a.m. on a Tuesday in December. How to explain the grotesquely nativist, xenophobic, and Islamophobic perspective of such a policy, not to mention how obscenely impractical it was, and is, in terms that my inquisitive, but still very young, preschooler will understand?
I give a deep sigh and take another sip of coffee while I move his younger brother from breast to shoulder, rubbing the small, warm back rhythmically, coaxing a burp from his full stomach. “Well, this is just an idea from a person who wants to be president.” My son looks down at the placemat of presidents on which his cereal bowl rests. We have already had long conversations in response to his perceptive, pointed questions about why that placemat has only men on it, and why it is that Barack Obama is the only man on the placemat with dark skin.
“So Yasin and his family will be okay? They won't to have to leave?,” he persists. I respond firmly, “Sweetie, no. Yasin and his family are citizens. Yasin was born here. They cannot be banned from their own country.” In hindsight, such naivete on my part. The election of Trump is statistically possible, certainly, but so remote as to be unnecessary to worry about. Busy with the work of packing lunches, teaching students from disadvantaged backgrounds, writing about diaspora and conflict, and raising my sons to be aware and humane, the republic remains halcyon. Hopeful even.
But that was the last day we listened to NPR as the background audio of our family. The work of raising responsible, equity-minded children is endless. Now more than ever, I am preparing them for a world in which they understand, and respond to, injustice. But I am not going to expose them to the casual reporting of hateful words in a misguided effort to give airtime to “both sides” of issues, to people who want to hurt us and the people we love.
“Mama, does this mean that Yasin is not safe? Will he have to leave?” It is January 2017, and my now 4½-year-old, still inquisitive and attentive to the words of the adults around him, has sussed out the substance of the new administration's Muslim ban from furtive conversation between me and his father. I am not sure what to say. I feel in my bones that, more than ever, Yasin is not safe. I worry for his mother, who has become a beloved friend and who wears a hijab, a sartorial and spiritual choice that feels riskier than ever in the current political moment.
Just a week into the new administration, things are more disastrous than I ever could have imagined two years earlier. I worry for every person with a brown body and for those who worship in mosques, and I feel embarrassed and full of rage and disappointment at the educated, middle-aged white women, like me in many ways, who made the election of Trump possible. I am simultaneously mad that I have to have these impossible conversations with my not-yet-five-year-old and aware that it is only the insulation of our race and nationality, and their attendant privilege, that meant I had not yet had to have them. And that we ourselves, our bodies and lives, were not yet personally on the line.
But here we were, in a place that demanded that we put our bodies, our words, our family in opposition to the proposed ban. “What do you want to say about this idea, honey? I can write the words, and you can trace them with a marker.” My son's usually talkative lips fall into a straight line as he considers my question. He looks at the sign his parents have made, the Statue of Liberty underneath the words “We're With Her.” He takes a breath and responds, “Liberty and justice for all.” I write these words in pencil on poster board, which he traces carefully, if a bit jerkily, with a permanent marker. I'm not sure how to make a protest sign for a 4-year-old, but I figure out how to fashion the hand-lettered poster into a sandwich board that he can wear. The almost-20-month-old has a sign “I Love Naps, But I Stay Woke” that we attach to the backpack carrier for the rally. We take our bodies into the cold, clear sunshine of the winter afternoon and, with thousands of our neighbors, our family uses our bodies, voices, and words to register our opposition to a policy that excludes based on religion and national origin. It is not enough, but it is a start.
The body is a site of border engagement and national security. The acts of presenting one's self to passport control, and submitting to airport screening, and moving through customs enforcement are simultaneously sites of surveillance, where the regulation of the movement of bodies, as well as locations where the categorizing, differentiating, and evaluating of these bodies, happens. There are unpredictable and powerful moments of embodied encounter, showcasing identities and differences in all their complex and varied forms. The border, and the access borders beget, are both routinized bureaucracies and fundamentally (in)human(e), in nature. And they sometimes are places where my gender, my appearance, and my assumed sexuality, even as I move into middle age, make me hypervisible.
I stand in line for passport control at the airport in Boston. It is October 2017, and I am returning from giving a talk in Germany about transitional justice and peacebuilding in Sierra Leone. A moment of professional accomplishment, I should be proud and perhaps a bit tired after a whirlwind four-day trip to Europe. Instead, I stand a little uncertainly with my passport.
For the very first time in my life, in the midst of the Muslim ban, I feel some trepidation as I wait at the US border. I am aware of the lawlessness of this space. I feel palpably that anything could happen to me here. I have no Constitution to protect me, that particular paper powerless before I cross over this border. I can feel that my heartbeat has quickened as I get closer to the front of the long line.
When I am finally called, I present myself to passport control. The white man at the booth is thick, head shaved, in the required uniform. His forearms are covered with intricate tattoos. I remember him from a previous trip. The full sleeves of tattoos on both arms were noteworthy on an otherwise homogenous civil servant. He asks, “Where were you and what were you doing?” I respond, “I was in Germany, giving a talk.”
“About what?” My heartbeat quickens a bit. Even my feminine appearance and white skin do not give me an automatic pass in this encounter, and I wonder: Is this random? Or related to something about me? I am never sure how much detail to give about my work, and the border is no exception. “How to deal with the aftermath of mass violence and build peace,” I respond. He pauses and looks up from my passport. He gives me a long look. My heart has gone from racing to, it feels like, dropping three floors inside of me. “I remember you,” he says. “You have been here before, earlier this year.”
My heart drops three more floors. I am sure my cheeks have flushed. “Uhhh, yes. I gave another talk on this topic in March at the London School of Economics.” My mind is racing. Why does he remember me? How does this happen? What the fuck is going on?
My questions are interrupted by the sound of him stamping something. The moment remains a blur in memory, and my heart still quickens when I recollect the interaction. “You're all set.” I am sure that my race, nationality, and gender have collaborated in this moment to make me both somehow memorable but not remotely menacing. A fleeting moment of unease and panic passes. I cross the border into the United States.
I am hustling through the busy airport in Frankfurt. I have only 55 minutes to connect from my domestic flight from Nuremberg to the international flight that will take me back to Boston. It is October 2018, and I have been gone for 12 days. I am ready to sleep in my own bed, see my students, and hug my children. Always a fast walker, I rush off the plane and toward the international terminal from which my next flight departs. I have forgotten that I will need to pass through passport control in order to get to my next flight. This is the easy carelessness that American citizenship affords, so rarely needing a visa, the thoughtless assumption of access to so many countries, the offhand transiting across borders. Of course, I am not thinking about this. I am just thinking about making my connecting flight home.
I hurry into the non-EU line, which is a little long. That famous German bureaucracy, which was put to such disastrous ends during World War II—the very reason that I am there in the first place—at least makes the line feel less daunting. I am reasonably hopeful that it will move quickly, and that I will be able to transit this border quickly.
Nevertheless, I am nervous about making my connection. Such transit points simmer with uncertainty. Who knows when the shift changes, which persons will not have their papers in order, when new policies are instituted about which bodies can have access to the international terminal, on what terms, and under what conditions. I am never totally at ease, even though I know that, as an English-speaking white citizen of the United States, I fare so much better than many of the people in this line, due to the passport that I hold in my hand.
And yet, each moment at the border is fraught, tenuous—things could turn out completely routine or go completely awry. I wait as patiently as I can. I scan the faces of possible civil servants I will encounter in transiting passport control. They are young, white, and all but one is a man. I take a deep breath and wait.
A young man in his late 20s, in thin wire-rimmed glasses, looks in my direction and says, “Next.” I approach his booth, slide my passport across the counter between us, and give him a brief but friendly, “Hallo.” He flips quickly through the pages of stamps to the picture page. He looks at the picture, and then looks up at me. He does this a few more times, his smooth forehead slowly giving way to a furrowed brow with each successive move of his eyes from page to face. I give an uncertain half-smile. “It does not look like you.” I find his impassiveness inscrutable. I say, a bit playfully, “I hope that's because it is an extremely bad picture of me.”
It is a risk, joking at the border. As a feminine-appearing white woman approaching middle age, this is a risk I am able and willing to take. His face breaks into a broad smile. I breathe a sigh of relief. He says, “Well, you are certainly much better looking than this picture shows. The picture is terrible, and you are beautiful.” His forthright commentary on my physical appearance catches me off guard. I say, “Thank you.” He goes back to the page and continues his commentary: “The only way that I could tell it was you is because of your eyes.” An ageless attribute, apparently. He looks at the passport page again, “This picture is quite old, also. However, you don't look older than you do in this photo. I can't believe that you are 40.”
The whole conversation has unfolded so unexpectedly and organically that I am more shocked than irritated. While the overall tone of his comments is light and complimentary, as they continue, they also strike me as ridiculously inappropriate in this setting. Perhaps at a bar, but not in the context of negotiating borders and transnational security. It reminds me that, even as I move into middle age, there will be no moment in which my appearance is safe from scrutiny and commentary, particularly from men in power. Though I have been positively evaluated, in moving across borders, I submit my body, along with my documents, for his perusal. Without complaint. I smile at him expectantly. I just want to make my connecting flight.
He seems to shake himself from his observations and reaches for his large stamp. He marks my exit from Germany with a quick, firm stamp on one of the pages full of EU stamps. I thank him and quickly get on my way. I arrive at the gate, breathless and relieved after having run the length of the international terminal clutching the passport in my hand. As it turns out, 55 minutes is only barely enough time to transit through Germany, even with the right kind of skin color and passport.
“Ma'am, is this your bag?” The Transportation Security Administration (TSA) agent gives my black roller bag a wary glance. I step forward and respond, “Yes.” She says, “Okay, I'm going to need to look inside it. Can you please unzip it for me?” I do as I am told. This is a familiar routine. Since spending time in Sierra Leone and Lebanon, countries with significant Muslim populations, my interactions with TSA almost always include my bag being flagged for extra scrutiny. I am used to it now. I pack my bag so that it is easy to unpack. I adhere to the increasingly absurd regulations about liquids and plastic bags and shoes and iPads. This is one place where I am not quick to crack a joke. I am quiet, compliant, polite. This is a moment burdened with all kinds of personal and political uncertainty. I perform the demure comportment expected of me.
As the agent takes every single item out of my suitcase, I see the faces of my fellow travelers move from disinterest, to mild curiosity, to indignity. Often, they watch the exacting inspection of my self and my stuff with increasing agitation at the invasive scrutiny I undergo. A middle-aged white woman in a black dress, wedge heels, and bookish glasses with a US passport, I look more librarian than looming threat.
National security is, at its very heart, about the ability to regulate the movement of bodies across borders. It is also about those whose bodies, because of skin color, gendered appearance, and passports and language, can move with unthinking ease. Whose rights of movement and access are simply assumed. Who can feel that, basically wherever they are, they belong. And that is a privilege that is both expected and arrogant. There is rising unease and both visible and vocal outcry of onlookers when my body, and my bag, become the object of examination. It is notable precisely because my appearance, the passport I hold, and the language I speak make this treatment, in the eyes of onlookers, incomprehensible at best and insulting at worst.
In one spectacular week at the end of 2018, a year that seemed particularly awful both personally and geopolitically, I have lost my voice and have a cough. My youngest son, now 3½, is home sick with strep throat. I hold his warm, sluggish body on my lap as I grade graduate student projects to meet the semester deadline for submitting final grades. It is one of the routine difficulties of being a single working mother, but I am able to hold his sick body in my lap and complete the work I need to do. It is not easy, but I get it done. The following day, I learn the lost voice and cough are actually symptoms of the flu. I spend the days of Christmas week sick with a kind of painful weariness, as much in spirit as body. I am weak, feverish, and convulsed by coughing so severe that I pull a muscle in my chest wall. A broken heart, of sorts.
Alone and miserable, I am transfixed by the unfolding story of Shaima Swileh, a mother of a young boy, like me. She married an American citizen in Yemen in February 2016, and they applied for an I-130 visa for her to come to the United States. The grindingly slow, not to mention difficult, expensive, and often-humiliating process of gaining lawful entry to this country meant that Swileh did not have her first interview for the visa until November 2017. At her second interview in January 2018, because of the Muslim ban, her application was automatically denied. She would need a waiver in order to travel to the United States.
But, in the manner of so many migration stories, of course it gets worse. The immediate reason for travel to the United States was to be with her dying son, her only child, who was on life support.6 The process of the appeal was slow, even as numerous lawyers and organizations joined her fight. The waiver was granted at the end of December, and she miraculously made it to California to feel her son's warm, living body, cradle its life, and feel his breath on her body. But only barely. His body held on long enough for her to negotiate this particularly heinous, hateful bureaucratic indignity of the border.
But Swileh is the exception that proves the rule. Much of the Muslim ban remains in place, upheld legally, marginalizing and excluding certain nationals in their migration to the United States. As I write this, the federal government is largely shut down in a legislative stalemate about Trump's border wall to keep out migrants entering the United States along its southern border. The work of understanding, engaging, and—when necessary—raging in relation to migration, movement, and motherhood, of border, bodies, and bureaucracies remains more important than ever. The work goes on, in our methods, in our mothering, and in our individual encounters with mobility and migration.