“I could still move back home if I wanted to,” I tell myself, often in tears, when the pain of “missing” comes on too strongly. My name is Abi, and I am one of the 14 million first-generation immigrants living in Germany who make up almost 20% of the country’s population. One might say that my transition here has been technically easy: I came to study, I graduated, I found a partner, I found a job—end of story. But the reality is different. Moving abroad, migrating—as much as it brings possibilities and opportunities, it also inexorably entails many losses that are hardly ever acknowledged.
I arrived in Cologne in March 2017. Shortly after, I was feeling misplaced, hopeless, and disoriented. I had often heard the term “cultural shock” but I repelled the thought that I could possibly feel something like that. I kept telling myself: “I always wanted to live abroad” and that this was not my first time outside of Argentina. But I was not adapting to my new school, and I felt alienated from most of what was going on around me. During the first months, I tried to get close to colleagues, but nothing worked out as I expected. I did not fit in, and I could hardly hold onto anything.
Fortunately, in my background, the stigma around mental health is minimal—therapy is just another appointment on a calendar. Through a Facebook group for immigrants, I found a Mexican psychologist. During our first session, as I pulled one after the other from an entire box of tissues, she said: “Abi, you are going through migratory mourning.”
Multiple, partial and recurrent losses
Migratory mourning or grief are the emotions associated with the losses that are caused by migration. The term has been coined by the Spanish psychiatrist Joseba Achotegui, who has been working for more than two decades with guest workers, asylum seekers, and refugees. Migration entails many changes and engenders a need for internal reordering. Achotegui describes migratory mornings as a state of vulnerability and stress, during which migrants battle with multiple unknown difficulties including loneliness, exclusion, fear and helplessness. Although privileges such as a better migration status might alleviate the experience, they do not guarantee the absence of pain.
“To mourn is to provide an emotional response to the loss of something or someone. As an immigrant, mourning might start with the loss of the self-image reflected in the mirror of the new society or group in which one is immersed.”
Stress and mourning are delicately tied to the possibilities and conditions of feeling welcome in the host country. If conditions are extreme, migrants might even develop what Achotegui calls the Ulysses syndrome, which is an extreme migratory grief experienced by immigrants in very adverse situations. However, Achotegui emphasizes that humans are capable of migrating successfully, and that migration is not in itself a cause of mental disorder, but rather a risk factor.
To mourn is to provide an emotional response to the loss of something or someone. As an immigrant, mourning might start with the loss of the self-image reflected in the mirror of the new society or group in which one is immersed. One of the characteristics of migratory mourning is that it is not just one single loss, but multiple different losses that altogether create the life that has been left behind. These include:
- The loss of family and friends
- The native tongue
- The culture
- The landscape
- The social status
- The ethnic group
- The migratory project
- The possibility to come back
Migratory mourning is always partial because these losses are not permanent. Each of them is still alive somewhere; the losses are not whole, they only exist for the migrant, and every now and then they can be accessed, touched, and—for a brief moment—recovered.
The possibility of momentary recovery makes grieving recurrent as an infinite loop. Migrants might miss different things at different points of their lives, triggered by a phone call, a smell, a song, an important date in the calendar, a birthday missed, or something else. Many migrants find themselves in a state of “in-betweenness.” As Joseba Achotegui puts it, “The migrant lives and survives between the assimilation and resistance to the host country.” Migration is thus lived with mixed feelings. Every step, every success or failure can be lived as a contradiction: there is happiness and sadness, guilt and freedom, hope and nostalgia. Many migrants find themselves in between seasons, in between languages and in between plans and time zones. We find ourselves in between realities, either travelling or remembering.
Primavera en el espejo
En este mundo del revés
ha llegado, otra vez,
Trajo hojas paseanderas,
medias, sacos y camperas.
Se calzó sus nuevas botas,
y su gorro, por si caen gotas.
Fue a comprar pañuelitos
(ya saben, para los moquitos...)
Cuando estaba llegando a casa,
ya oscurecía en la terraza.
Se hizo un rico chocolate
(que calienta más que el mate).
Prendió una vela y sacó un cuaderno,
pensando en cosas para el invierno.
Fue hacia el espejo a arreglarse el moño,
y ahí se dio cuenta
¡de que era Otoño!
September 21, 2019
(Spring day is the beginning of Autumn)
When migration is a choice, mourning feels like a privilege
I grew up in a country whose national narrative is built upon the dream of going abroad. The falacy of “Argentina Blanca” (“white Argentina”) is rooted in a colonial mindset that denies the genocide of the original indigenous population. This myth is deeply ingrained in our culture, and many of us grew up idealizing Europe and its institutions, and with the vision that leaving Argentina for Europe is the ultimate proof of success. From this perspective, my personal story is nothing but a success story.
While preparing my application to the design school in Cologne—which described itself as “international”—I thought that, if not many other South Americans had applied, then I stood a chance. I was right—I did. But when I met my classmates on that first day, we didn’t talk about ourselves. We were sixteen new students from all over the world, and we barely named the places we came from. We did not ask whether we knew each other’s home cities, why we had come to study, what efforts we and our families had made to get us there, or even why we had been accepted. We didn’t talk about our expectations, dreams, or fears.
As time went by, I found out that one of my colleagues had previously tried to study in Europe, but had not been able to gather the money at that time. I also learned that another colleague from Brazil was planning on working while doing the Master’s degree, just like me. I was relieved to know that I was not the only one with that same plan. But as months went by, my sadness started to build, and with that a growing feeling of confusion. When the decision of living abroad is a choice, the feelings of mourning can itself be contradictory. Back then, I did not see myself as an immigrant; I was just an “international student.” I was struggling to accept that that pain was my own personal cost to an idea of success. I could not justify the pain I was feeling; it was a disenfranchised pain.
“A migrant, while being an addition or a ‘gain’ to its new environment, is simultaneously a ‘loss’ of a loved one, to its family and friends in another corner of the world.”
In migratory mourning, not only the person who leaves experiences feelings of loss. A migrant, while being an addition or a “gain” to its new environment, is simultaneously a “loss” of a loved one, to its family and friends in another corner of the world. For me, when the pain of missing is too much, there’s always a familiar voice that reminds me why I’ve left. Sometimes this voice comes from deep inside, saying: “You always wanted to live abroad; you shouldn’t complain.” But other times, the voice is a familiar one telling me why I should not come back. Growing up, looking up to success being somewhere else—this generates a complex mindset and contradictory feelings within people. It also feeds into the idea of those who come back being martyrs—they are viewed as “patriotic” to have returned despite the “better life” out there; on the other hand, perhaps it can be viewed as though it’s better for them to stay where they have achieved success abroad, rather than return to their roots. I wonder which one of those labels is actually lighter to carry.
From international student to skilled immigrant
It is February 2019, and it is the first weekend that I have free time after finishing my Master’s. I sit in front of my computer, filled with relief. After two years surviving far away from everything I once knew, I can finally update my resumé with “Master of Arts. Integrated Design, Köln International School of Design.” I type slowly and embarrassedly “German-B1.” To be frank, I spend most of the time making layout adjustments that match the current resumé design trend. The design file has now 100 different variations with different colors and typefaces, but the content doesn’t change. It’s still a dead description from point A to point B. Between ironic laughs, I tell my flatmate, “I’ve had two very challenging, and at times painful years, yet most of my learnings do not fit in this CV.”
Once I had received my degree, I was entitled to apply for a Job Seeker Visa in Germany for 18 months. Also known as a visa for “skilled immigrants,” it grants a limited residence permit status for people with certain degrees or certified skills that are catalogued by the government as scarce and useful. The length of the granted visa changes from person to person, and to apply for it, I needed to collect all the papers, certificates, and financial statements that indicate I have a future in this country.
Applying for the skilled immigrant visa meant many visits to the immigration office, each of them a reality check that reminded me that the game had changed. But those visits also provided me with perspective into my own privilege, as I was reminded of how “lucky” I was. It might have been my tired face, the fear in my eyes, my pale skin or my German last name that urged the officer to say: “You shouldn’t worry, it’s much worse for others. Your process is quite easy.” I understood then that a “skilled migrant” who is deemed “welcome” is not allowed to express weariness or discomfort. But how could the officer know what it is like to be sitting at the other side of her desk?
“At the end of the day, migrants cannot bring social capital in a suitcase, which means that so-called certified skills are all you have to prove that you and your migratory project can work out.”
But even with the visa, joining the labor market and finding a job that matches expectations and qualifications is still a challenge. It often requires strategies of re-skilling such as learning a new language, retaking university studies to gain acceptable qualifications, or even starting a new education program. However, the term re-skilling only refers to so-called “certified skills”—thus rendering other acquired abilities like persistence and tolerance invisible. At the end of the day, migrants cannot bring social capital in a suitcase, which means that so-called certified skills are all you have to prove that you and your migratory project can work out.
The visa was a subtle but sharp change—a status change, a context change. At the university, I was part of an international community, but now I was part of the group of those who dabbled in German trying to explain themselves, asking for deadline extensions and for permission to stay under the promise that I was useful to this country. What was harder, to get a Master’s degree or to survive as an immigrant? What leaves marks? What’s predictable, and what is not? What’s valued? What’s accepted? Sometimes in my imagination, I try to compare the weight of the struggle, but I get nowhere.
The melancholic migrant
Migration reshapes one’s own understanding of identity. As explained by Achotegui, we need to reassemble all the representations of ourselves that allow us to connect and feel that we belong in our new environment.
Although I recognize myself as an immigrant, I confess that I still feel uneasy using the term. There are many contradictions between the terms “expat” and “immigrant,” as well as a lot of political discussions around what signifies privilege, whiteness, class and wealth, and assumptions that some secretly say they’re “not willing to integrate.” Nevertheless, I’m one of the few who dares to self-describe as an immigrant in a corporate environment that clearly prefers the term “expat.” I struggle with acknowledging the freedom and choices I had while being able to vocalize the difficulties and the anger I sometimes feel as a person who’s not from here.
The movie “ab Nach Deutschland/ Perdiendo el Norte” narrates the story of Hugo, a young Spanish man who can’t find a job after the economic crisis of 2008 and decides to move to Germany. On his first day in the country, he argues with an older Spanish man who emigrated during the dictatorship. In this argument, Hugo resists finding similarities with his older compatriot, who had just called him a new immigrant, and instead defines himself as an “itinerant worker that Germany needs and therefore would appreciate.”
The idea that certain privileged groups of migrants are free from struggle and automatically welcome not only erases experiences, but it also creates an illusion that legal migration is easy and leads to happiness. As pointed out by Sara Ahmed in her 2010 book The Promise of Happiness, for a migrant, inclusion and success are represented by happiness with zero costs. This idea denies the array of emotions a person might feel when living in a diaspora, and it takes away a frame in which to reflect on the difficulties of integrating and re-skilling. The idea that certain privileged groups of migrants are free from struggle erases many difficult experiences and creates an illusion that legal migration is easy. In her book The Promise of Happiness, Sara Ahmed analyses the relationship between integration and happiness. As she posits, a “happy immigrant” is seen as the one that has integrated well. This leads to framing the forced migrant—the older Spaniard—as what Sara Ahmed calls the “melancholic one” whose project did not succeed and who is therefore unhappy.
Migration is a human phenomenon that is as old as time, yet the political discourses around immigration—fueled by neocolonialism, xenophobia, and racism—have categorized and divided migrants. According to Achoteguis, such restrictions “make it less stressful to go from Cape Kennedy to the moon than crossing the border between Morocco and Spain.” In his article Emigration: From a Right to a Crime, Achotegui analyses the gap between the declaration of universal human rights and the current criminalization of migration, which makes moving a right only for those who can afford it.
“Migration is a human phenomenon that is as old as time, yet the political discourses around immigration—fueled by neocolonialism, xenophobia, and racism—have categorized and divided migrants [...] as ‘wanted’ or ‘unwanted.’ ”
In Germany, the idea of the wanted immigrant is impregnated within official government statements such as “skilled immigrants are an asset to our country.” This discourse categorizes immigrants as “wanted” or “unwanted.” It is my personal belief that this need of differentiation is at the root of the popularity of the term “expat.”
At the company where I work, as the rules of operating changed frequently during the pandemic, the internal communications being shared only in German became a cause of anxiety for me. I asked to have a conversation with the owner to express my concern, as my level of German—and that of many of my colleagues—was not completely fluent, and we wanted to ensure that we were understanding all the necessary information. He explained that this was a “complicated” issue and tried to comfort me by saying “if anything, being an expat is an advantage”; he wanted “this place to be international” and I was here because he “wanted me to be here.”
As I left the meeting, many questions popped into my mind. Was I here because he wanted me to be? What happened to my freedom to choose, and to leave my home country? And why exactly am I an advantage? To this day, the confusion and questions are still swirling in my head. The skills for which I got my visa have nothing to do with my migratory experience, yet I am portrayed as a person whose experiences are needed. I can’t help but ask myself again: which experiences are being valued?
Free for what?
Contrary to a collective belief, migratory mourning is not only about leaving; it’s also about arriving. Coming to terms with what’s left behind might even result in being manageable and predictable, in comparison with coming to terms with what is encountered upon arrival. By giving back protagonism to the present lives of migrants, we can smash the melancholic story as the only possible frame, and reclaim a personal voice to narrate ourselves. We can look past the struggle and the melancholia used as a technology to dominate immigrant narratives, and expand into the multiple feelings that these experiences might mean for different people.
In her essay Dinamitando desde Berlín la hegemonía del emigrante melancólico, Carmen Moreno-Díaz seeks to expand the interpretation of personal migratory mournings, leaving behind its conditioning understanding and seeing it as a daily conflict that coexists with being. Nostalgia and sadness might be an inseparable part of mourning, but in living as an immigrant there are also moments of anger, of frustration, liberation, fun, and also personal fulfillment.
According to the philosopher, writer and journalist Vilém Flusser, we are attached to our homeland by many bonds, most of it invisible or inaccessible to our consciousness. Whenever these bonds are torn, one experiences pain “almost as a surgical invasion of her most intimate person.” Flusser’s work on migratory creativity, migratory challenges, and freedom are intertwined with his own migrant experience: he was born in Czech Republic and emigrated to Brazil. As a result, his work is impossible to grasp in a single language, topic, or discipline.
“Flusser inverts the imaginaries of living in a diaspora as creativity, rather than a tragedy. This creativity consists of the constant dialogue between the information we bring with us and the ‘waves of information that washes us in exile.’ ”
In Flusser’s essay in The challenge of the migrant, he describes being forced to flee Prague, feeling the universe crumbling, and the “error of confusing myself with the outside world.” Only then he realized that these severed bonds allowed for a strange feeling of liberation. He transformed the question from Free from what? To Free for what? And in doing so he declares himself free from habits and liberates himself (and all migrants) from the inexplicable attachment to their homeland. Although it might still hurt, this inversion along our diasporic status “pulls the blanket out of our customs” and lets us create and own our identities. Flusser inverts the imaginaries of living in a diaspora as creativity, rather than a tragedy. This creativity consists of the constant dialogue between the information we bring with us and the “waves of information that washes us in exile.”
As I’m going through my own experience, I have made a few steps towards acknowledging my own homeland habit, gaining a more informed and critical approach towards them. Over and over again, I ask myself: for what, exactly, am I “free”? I jump around feelings and states, checking my privilege, questioning my memory, and addressing my traumas. I wonder if maybe I’m just not resilient enough; if maybe I just haven’t been able to “invert” my own experience. I wonder if I am allowed to have scars.
All in all, I have grown with my pain in this journey, and I have also broadened my own understanding of my migrant self. Whether as an immigrant or an expat, skilled or unskilled, the emotional complexity that migrating means for each of us also opens up the range of possible responses and determinations of what we miss—the other pieces of our identities that inevitably get lost in translation.
This is an ongoing research of migratory mourning and diasporic experiences of skilled migrants. As each our our stories is unique, I would love to hear yours. If you would like to share your experiences with me, please write to email@example.com.
Abigail Schreider (she/her) holds a BA in Industrial design from the University of Buenos Aires and a Masters in Integrated design at Köln International School of Design. Originally from Entre Rios, Argentina and now based in Cologne where she works as a service designer. Her work, motivation and struggle lies in bringing discussion to the workplace around issues such as care, diversity, inclusion and belonging. As a designer and immigrant, Abigail navigates between corporate workplaces where critical agendas make their way and academic spaces for research and reflection. This dialogue builds and reflects her daily thinking and doing.
She has organized several design jams and is also a member of Hay Futura, a collective of design workers in Argentina.
The title of this vertical, Vulnerable Observers, is an homage to anthropologist and author Ruth Behar and her book “The Vulnerable Observer: Anthropology That Breaks Your Heart.”
This text was produced as part of the Against the Grain workshop.