Ramapo Global Talks discusses the function of the migrant narrative

Photo courtesy of Ramapo College of New Jersey

Through his own encounters and one migrant’s personal testimony, Dr. Behzad Yaghmaian took the audience of Ramapo’s latest Global Talks event on a journey of emotional migrant stories.

The March 22 Webex lecture was co-sponsored by the Roukema Center for International Education, the International Rescue Committee (IRC), the George T. Potter Library and the Ramapo Provost Office.

“Trump’s presidency is behind us, but the narrative of fear remains,” Yaghmaian said.

From Migrants to Storytellers

A professor of political economy at Ramapo, Yaghmaian discussed the narratives surrounding migrants. Governments create narratives in an attempt to keep people out, and migrants must create narratives in order to make their way in. Americans have witnessed what appears to be an increase of the “narrative of fear” since Donald Trump was elected in 2016. Yet, Yaghmaian noted that this narrative has been around for decades, influencing migration policies around the world. Trump’s narrative is just the latest installment. 

Currently, an average of one person has died every day trying to cross the U.S. border, and from 2015 to 2020, 22,000 have died trying to cross the Mediterranean. Yaghmaian shared heartbreaking statistics about migrants who have killed themselves on their journeys and armies that have destroyed refugee camps. 

“Waiting is violence,” he said. 

According to Yaghmaian, globalization is majorly to blame. First-world countries have systematically opened borders to let commodities and capital in, but yet they systematically close the borders to prevent the movement of people.

“This dualism in border policy is not accidental, it is actually systematic,” he said. “It is part of the policy.”

In the '50s and '60s, European countries would hire migrant workers to help in manufacturing, but once globalization came about in the '80s, there wasn’t a need for them anymore and resulted in not only lost jobs, but lost social protections. With numerous migrants full of social and economic anxiety, Yaghmaian says the governments “turned the resentment around” and formulated an anxiety against migrants. There are now 200 million migrants globally. 

“It was in this context that migrants were forced to come up with stories, narratives, to be able to find their way through the cracks,” Yaghmaian said. 

Developing Authentic and Worthy Stories

Yaghmaian shared stories about migrants he met on several Greek islands around 2018. An Iranian couple, whom he calls Romeo and Juliet, “were busy making their stories to convince the authorities… that they had a good reason for asylum.” 

Romeo showed off a large scar on his body, which would typically signify being a victim of war. Yaghmaian said that clear evidence of falling victim to war violence creates an excellent story, however, Romeo’s scar was from selling his kidney for cash. 

“When all options fail, the commodification of the body becomes the only possibility for people like Romeo.” 

Yaghmaian met another man who was a street vendor in Afghanistan. He also had a scar — a signifier for a good story. In 2015, a car bomb exploded near his cart, knocking him out and shooting shrapnel into his neck. He couldn’t afford to pay for the surgery to remove it, so it still remains in his neck. 

The last story Yaghmaian shared was directly from the writings of an Afgahni migrant, a 40-year-old woman named Zakiah. Reading the piece aloud, the woman explains how she was physically and sexually abused by her husband for years, at one point even branding her with a horse shoe. Her brother eventually helped her and her young son escape to Turkey, and they made several failed attempts to reach Germany.

However, the husband tracked them down, and the domestic violence continued until Zakiah managed an agreement that she could travel to Germany on her own. 

Yaghmaian said she finally succeeded. Though difficult to tell, he thought it was important to share her story with the event’s participants. These examples painted the troubling picture of what migrants today must deal with in order to have a chance at protection and a better life. 

Hopefully, these inside perspectives will impact the immediate Ramapo community in the fight to end the “narrative of fear.”