Melissa Hauber-Özer, Hatay, Turkey
As a second language educator and emerging migration scholar, I was drawn to participatory action research as a democratic way to document migrants’ experiences and knowledges in order to develop improved policies, practices, and pedagogies. Migrants have valuable knowledge and skills that are all too often discounted, and their choices and prospects are often constrained by linguistic, social, and economic capital they possess in the new society. We are seeing this in increasingly stark and distressing ways as the COVID-19 pandemic plays out globally, presenting distinct challenges as well as opportunities for action.
I am also now an immigrant living far away from my family and country of origin. Social isolation and travel shutdowns take on different meanings for migrants like me. Plans for visiting ‘home’ this summer have been postponed indefinitely, so I’ve found comfort in Easter dinner by Zoom and storybook read-alouds with my nieces and nephews over Google Hangouts. Meanwhile, school closures, social distancing measures, and weekend lockdowns here in Turkey have interrupted my integration process, limiting interactions with coworkers and local friends to WhatsApp chats and stunting my language development.
Far worse, xenophobic scapegoating, hate speech, and violence toward ethnic minorities have risen among civilians and leaders around the world. Migrants fill many of the essential jobs that keep our grocery stores stocked and our hospitals staffed, leaving them at higher risk of infection and without the luxury of working from home. At the other extreme, migrants working in the service sector and the informal economy have been some of the first to find themselves abruptly unemployed without access to social safety nets or stimulus payments.
Then there are the millions of refugees, asylum seekers, internally displaced people, and undocumented immigrants for whom social distancing is a physical impossibility in crowded camps and detention centers. Children whose education has been repeatedly disrupted by conflict and displacement are attempting to continue learning remotely with limited access to technology. Those integrated in national school systems, like the nearly 700,000 Syrian children enrolled in Turkish public schools, are struggling to get the language, academic, and social support they need, especially when their parents have limited proficiency in the language of instruction.
Yet in the midst of such staggering challenges, grassroots groups, formal organizations, and governmental agencies are taking action to increase immigrants’ and refugees’ access to knowledge and vital resources and to combat misinformation about and discrimination toward these populations. For instance, the European Commission has shared numerous examples of outreach activities and policy and educational initiatives for migrants carried out by governments, civil society organizations, and community groups in response to the pandemic.
Educator networks have stepped up in creative and practical ways. Two international professional organizations I belong to, TESOL (Teaching English to Speakers of Other Languages) and LESLLA (Literacy Education and Second Language Learning for Adults), have actively collected and circulated pedagogical resources for teachers who have suddenly transitioned to online teaching. Members have shared informational materials in numerous languages and multimedia formats to ensure that immigrant and refugee families can access knowledge about COVID-19 regardless of home language or literacy level.
Many groups have also engaged in advocacy and efforts to educate host populations about migrants amidst rising xenophobia. For example, the London Migration Film Festival has created a wonderful online retrospective of films featured in the 2016-2019 festivals, encouraging donations to organizations supporting migrants and refugees during the pandemic. Church World Service, a faith-based refugee resettlement agency in my home state of Pennsylvania, launched a 21-Day Solidarity Challenge consisting of one activity per weekday during the month of April. Activities included watching and sharing a TED Talk about the global refugee crisis, practicing mindful meditation on the theme of welcoming the stranger, writing postcards urging Congress to restart refugee resettlement, and putting together welcome kits of household items to set up homes when resettlement resumes.
Numerous groups have begun fundraising and organizing resources to connect low-income and undocumented migrants with rent relief, healthcare, internet service for remote schooling, and other crucial assistance. Other organizations have boosted efforts to provide migrants with sustainable work during the pandemic. For example, the Refugee Artisan Initiative employs immigrant and refugee women who are rebuilding their lives in the Pacific Northwest of the US to use their skills making handcrafted jewelry and sewing home goods and accessories. In response to the pandemic, artisans shifted their focus to creating a line of face masks to be donated to frontline medical workers, correctional facility inmates, and immigrant seniors in low-income housing and offering a limited number for sale to the public. Scrambling to keep up with demand, the organization also began selling low-cost mask kits and prepared an instructional video and tutorial so that others could join in the effort – helping to provide a living wage for refugee and immigrant artisans while producing sustainable PPE for themselves and their community members. The group has made over 6,000 masks and has raised over $33,000 for the cost of supplies.
Despite distressing news of the virus spreading in my countries of birth and settlement and my own feeling of isolation and interrupted integration, it is reassuring to see how so many have come forward in solidarity with migrants. The future holds many unknowns about how this pandemic will change our world, but we are witnessing the power of social solidarity to respond in practical and powerful ways by democratizing knowledge with and for migrants who are especially vulnerable to COVID-19’s ripple effects.