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Frozen in space: (im)mobilities of international researchers during the COVID-19 pandemic

A group of migration scholars share how the pandemic is impacting both their personal and work lives.


During the COVID-19 pandemic, what does it mean to study migration, to be an immigrant professor or an international student separated from family, to see so much we care about, work on, and live in our lives come to a screeching halt? We pause. We ask important questions.

Alison: The pandemic arrives, destroying some lives and intersecting profoundly with whatever was unfolding in others. I am a professor parenting small children, my daily life shaped by 68 miles dividing my workplace from them. As work and school shut down, I adapted in fits and starts, privileged to not yet have COVID-19 in my family. Although there was some relief in the shutdown, I grieved absences: missing family visits, students, colleagues, conversations in classrooms and hallways. My own family remains tantalizingly close – just on the other side of the now shut Canada-U.S. border. As a newly-separated co-parent, my new rhythm vacillates between extremes: the chaos of single-parenting and homeschooling, followed by the stunning silence of life apart from my kids when they are with their other mother. I adapt to a new transition, isolation exacerbating the isolation I was already experiencing.

Having lived in Canada for some 20 years as a student, visa holder, and permanent resident, I’ve never more precariously felt my immigration status. Physical distancing and isolation at home merely reinforce this. In this strange moment of reflection and existential crisis, I asked graduate students whom I advise in their work on global migration to join me in writing our way through this anxiety-inducing moment together.

Mónica: News in Canada and Mexico makes me reflect on our different locations amid COVID-19. The distance between me and my family in Mexico becomes clearer, not only because of the borders dividing us but also the countries’ divergent responses to the pandemic. While in Canada people self-isolate and can rely on government support for unemployment, in Mexico quarantine is an issue of privilege; not everyone can afford to stay home. Because my mind and heart are in two countries, I also grieve being unable to know if those not here with me are safe.

International students and researchers are used to distance. More than six feet – hundreds of miles, borders, and immigration requirements – have been separating us from our loved ones. We cope using technology, now more frequently and resourcefully. Weekly Facetime calls with family are replaced by daily ones. Monthly Skype boardgame-playing sessions with friends are replaced by weekly ones. Social isolation and uncertainty make way for more profound virtual interactions. Technology, now more than ever, proves essential.

Shiva: During COVID-19, I float with the tides. Swift currents of regulation, pause, and transition control my movements. Shifting from on-site to online creates spaces of introspection, information and consternation. A rising tide of anxiety, fear and unknowns heighten the vulnerabilities of immigrant students.

Our current living situations lack routine, forcing introspection. Despite jokes with colleagues about the unchanged nature of our writing processes in self-isolation, much has changed. I am forced to confront the challenges of my life as an international student: using work to escape loneliness. Trying to “fix” this brings pandemic-associated anxieties squarely into focus: apprehensiveness about asking for physical help for fear of endangering others, anxiety over limited resources available to international students. My precariousness parallels my research: locked down borders and limited access to resources.

I have cancelled plans to visit long-missed family in Trinidad and cannot return home. I worry about their health and safety, while they worry about mine. The worry is never-ending despite frequent communication; apprehension transcends borders. Shifting circumstances at home translate into panic for me abroad. Yet I remain grateful for the degree of calm real-time communication brings.

Ana: Quarantine has brought surprises and kindnesses, more connection than I anticipated, all underscored by feeling powerless against the unknown. My small family in Canada is tighter. I walk the empty streets of our town with my partner, his children, and ex-wife – an unlikely configuration we could not dream of before total societal shut down. We are each kinder and more appreciative of what we have. What we don’t have matters less.

Quarantine tightens my family in Romania, too. Our distance grows with the pandemic’s spread, political differences becoming starker during each call. I worry for what their misunderstanding of the virus means for their health. I want to explain the science. Instead, I listen, hear their concerns, acknowledge their fears, tell them, “I love you.” I offer concern, defer judgement. All the while, I can’t stop a nagging voice in my head asking, “Will you see them again?”

I am grateful and sad to be in Canada. Grateful for the communities that surround me. My neighbors put up signs in windows: “We’re not stuck here. We’re safe here.” The migration cohort at school checks in every week. Sad that my closest friends are locked down in New York City, texting me daily about the city’s death toll, telling me stories about bodies being carried out of the building across the street. I want to help but remain powerless. All I can do is listen. All I can control is how I respond and connect.

Illy: I am a first-generation, queer woman of colour in academia. I am African diaspora from the Caribbean. I share this to reflect on my position as a researcher and immigrant living on Indigenous land in Canada. My presence here is mediated by numerous historical, political, and social intersections, yet I am grateful for the privilege of mobility. Though states immobilize us during the pandemic, my hope is we reflect on the ways in which most marginalized groups already suffer such immobility – often with lethal consequences.

As someone who already self-isolates, an introverted person, I have not found it difficult to stay home. While I experience grief and anxiety, I AM ALIVE. I have the privilege to be safe and not experience domestic violence. I do not have to return to a dangerous, minimum-wage job, and am not homeless, incarcerated, or immunocompromised. I have healthcare, which is more than many have. I am deeply affected by the amount of suffering and loss taking place.

In the midst of this loss, it is okay to pause, grieve and not be at your best. I feel we must honour those lost to us by committing to do better and be better people. I cannot say what honouring the dead will mean for everyone. I can express this: I am grateful for friends, family, and opportunities I have.

Kate: As a scholar of migration and detention, I am troubled by comparisons between self-isolation and prison. Many of us are able to safely shelter at home, with family, food and Wi-Fi. Those in prison, unsafe homes, or those without homes cannot. Yet I remain hopeful that truths revealed in isolation engender empathy for people who may not have had any before: that prison is not like being locked in your home; that safety or access to sanitation is not the reality for so many among us; that threats, including and beyond COVID-19, harm imprisoned people disproportionately.

Amidst this pandemic, I find moments of optimism. Abolition movements are garnering new traction and solidarity. Technology allows us to retain connections, albeit in compromised form, when we need them most. Concepts like basic universal income and universal health care show themselves not only necessary, but possible. I worry, but I hope too.

Kira: I am a postdoctoral fellow at Wilfrid Laurier University. On January 10, 2020 my father died. My mother is terminal with non-Hodgkins Lymphoma. My grandmother suffers from a neurological disorder, and we may soon have to remove her from a nursing home due to COVID-19. We, individually and as a society, face this choice: break from the pandemic or choose to grow into something greater. Immense as our collective suffering is, we must learn from this experience. Compassion, empathy and mutual aid must guide us to a better world; we must give to those most in need, within and beyond our own borders. If we fail to do so, we will merely compound this world’s grief. Value and cherish your loved ones, but always remember sonder: that each life, especially of the marginalized, is as complex and difficult as your own – and as much deserving of love and support. We shall overcome.

Alison Mountz is a geography professor, Canada Research Chair in Global Migration, and director of the International Migration Research Centre at Wilfrid Laurier University. Mónica Romero, originally from Mexico, is a PhD candidate at Wilfrid Laurier University. Her studies focus on the Canadian asylum system and border enforcement. Shiva Mohan is an international student at Laurier from Trinidad & Tobago, pursuing a PhD in geography with a focus on islands and migration. Ana Visan is a PhD candidate at Laurier interested in the intersection of state power, migration, and technology. Ileana Diaz is a PhD candidate at the University of Waterloo and her research explores political geography, food systems, feminist and critical race geographies. Kate Motluk is a graduate student at Laurier studying political geography and forced migration. Kira Williams is a postdoctoral fellow at Laurier studying migration by boat and border enforcement.

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