I chose to study French and Italian for my undergraduate degree because I was fascinated by social problems, and how people have used language to articulate and solve them across cultures and periods of time.
I’m also very chatty, so languages help! I studied at Oxford University where the degree was focused on literature and philosophy as well as contemporary politics and social issues, so that was a huge attraction to me.
While I was studying, I was horrified to find that one of the UK’s many immigration detention centres, Campsfield House, was just a short cycle away from Oxford’s dreaming spires. There, people were held for unlimited periods, devoid of comfort and unable to leave. Their only ‘crime’ was that they were foreign. I started volunteering there and at a local youth club with young refugees, Asylum Welcome, and met a group of awesome fellow community activists through Student Action for Refugees (STAR). If literature helped me develop a global consciousness and appreciation for difference, everything I learnt about borders and the criminalisation of migration seemed to run the other way.
I was struck by the parallels of how displacement features in the literature I was reading, from Dante Alighieri’s 14th Century poem of exile, the Divine Comedy, to more modern articulations of globalisation in the novels of Guadeloupean author Maryse Condé. I’m currently writing a book, Reading Dante with Refugees, which tries to bring these different threads in my work together. Storytelling, language, and artistic methods remain a central feature of my social policy work and to that, I owe my background in the humanities. One thing I’m always aware of is how we need to humanise migration stories. I usually start my lectures by telling my students that, at its core, every migration story is a love story – whether that be love for family, homeland, or life itself.
I went straight into my MSc after my BA as I knew I wanted to keep learning and make the jump to social sciences. After the MSc, I wanted to cut my teeth in the world a bit.
I worked for a refugee charity for a couple of years where I was Head of Campaigns. I enjoyed the research and community outreach aspects of that role, but like many campaigners, I became frustrated by how poorly policy was informed by data. On issues like asylum support rates and immigration detention, the data was there, but it wasn’t getting through to policymakers. Before I jumped in to do a PhD, I worked as a Research Assistant on two projects which was good to test the waters. I was also able to fundraise for my PhD as an offshoot of one of these projects in the form of an ESRC grant-linked studentship with the Becoming Adult project. In my PhD, I was motivated by the opportunity to involve affected populations directly in each stage of the policy cycle, from design, data gathering to impact.
I’m attracted to the diversity of Birmingham as a city and as a University.
I think the Birmingham Fellows programme is an incredible and quite unique opportunity to spend five years really developing my research and thinking, surrounded by some excellent colleagues. I’m also originally from Milton Keynes, and being close to my family is important to me right now.
It's been truly fascinating to spend time coming to understand and work with other countries’ migration mechanisms, as well as the role of research and universities in relation to them.
Even terms like 'migration' have a very different set of connotations depending on where you stand. It’s only now that many of us in the global north are coming to see how climate change and displacement intersect more and more, whereas many communities have been grappling with this and devising strategies for decades, if not centuries. The idea that the West is the cradle of knowledge has been shown to be not just incorrect, but an obstacle to progressing knowledge in many areas related to displacement, as in many other fields. Places like the Mahanirban Calcutta Research Group, Memory Museum in Medillín, American University of Beirut – all of these places are decentring the locus of knowledge. For new scholars interested in migration, these are the places to watch right now.
Another thing I’m particularly aware of, probably in light of my background, is language. Lecturing in SciencesPo, Lille, for example, my students were really shocked to hear the ease with which we talk of ethnicity in the UK. Terms like BAME (Black-Asian-Minority-Ethnic), which are also common in the UK, were shocking to US students, who have a whole different terminology.
In my role as a Postdoctoral Fellow with the global Harvard Migration Leadership Team, I was both humbled and excited to see how much we have to learn, especially from the global south and indigenous communities.
I learnt a huge amount from my undocumented students and colleagues at Harvard about how to make struggles inclusive. Under the Trump administration, there was such an acute fear among minority groups, and a lot of my time was spent devising strategies of support and educating myself in how to be an ally. One of the offshoots I’m proud of from that time was a podcast I hosted called Immigration & Democracy; it aimed to translate to the rest of the world what was happening in the US and the Americas.
Another really beautiful outcome of that work was an online global conference we organized that brought some 600 early career scholars from five continents together to learn from one another, from New Zealand to Afghanistan, Sri Lanka to Canada. It was a blast – a definite silver lining of the pandemic, as before COVID such an ambitious global effort would have been unthinkable!
Is there a line between researcher and activist? I think about this all the time, and it’s a topic I love to discuss with students and colleagues alike.
I think there are different roles. Not every academic needs to step into or replicate that role of community researcher. I also think it is important to be able to trade in ideas and concepts, and conduct research that is creative rather than responsive to current crises.
I certainly felt my work at openDemocracy, where I was an editor for six years, went hand-in-hand with my work as an academic. For me, gender equality, social justice and migration are all interlinked. I was greatly inspired by activist-scholars I worked with during that time: Deniz Kandiyoti, Cynthia Cockburn, Nira Yuvell-Davis, Barbara Harrell-Bond, among others. Reporting with openDemocracy also made me question what research and data really are. Communities have immense resources, and I think we need to be humble and open as academics in how we understand knowledge and listen; there may be more wisdom in a community seed bank or tapestry than all the NGO reports written on that community. I learnt a huge amount in this respect from the women of Casamance in Senegal and from my friend Julienne Lusenge in the Democratic Republic of Congo – these women take community research and activism to a whole new level!
I’ll be frank and say that as a researcher, I haven’t always protected my own mental health.
I experienced direct and vicarious trauma from fieldwork at the height of the European refugee crisis and was treated for anxiety and depression. I’m really thankful to my friends and family who supported me during that time. In some ways it was hard to avoid in that I had planned my fieldwork before the crisis really hit. Then, what do you do when you’re in the field and people are in desperate need? I was incredibly grateful to be part of amazing activist networks who offered solidarity, but I still get flashbacks to that time. From what I’ve seen, burn-out is very much the norm in this field of research. That’s something that has to be addressed and it’s a priority for me in my pastoral capacity at Birmingham.
In terms of switching off, for me, making space to read and see the bigger picture is always helpful. I really enjoy biographies; my new obsession is Eleanor Marx. I also draw and make mosaics. I run and make time for exercise. For students going into the field, it sounds odd, but I always advise them to take a really nice set of pyjamas! That way, whatever has happened in your day, you can change, try to let it go, and just switch back. Good sleep is everything.
If you're thinking of a career in social science research...well done for choosing the most fascinating area of research ever!
Remind yourself why you chose this topic, and what makes you positively motivated to research it – what do you love about migration or social policy or human rights? I think a lot of people are motivated by what they want to change or what they dislike; they define the impetus negatively. For me—and literature that captures the great beauty of migration has always been a huge part of this—as well as my relationships with migrant and refugee friends I’ve known from my early volunteering, I try to focus on what I love about people moving and the stories of love and joy they tell. I try to wake up and have that motivate me rather that starting my day with an image of what we’re fighting against. Otherwise, it can get a little overwhelming. In other words, I won’t have Priti Patel on my radio until I’m out of my PJs and with a cup of coffee in hand!