"Strangers spent so much effort on labelling me as a migrant from Korea, whereas my family and friends paradoxically kept assuring me I was 100% Norwegian."
This week is Refugee Focus Week at Pakhuis de Zwijger, Amsterdam. Every day, we are publishing articles that highlight different migration focused initiatives that fall in line with the evening in-house programs that also focus on this theme.
In 2015, there were 232 million migrants worldwide, including 21,3 million asylum seekers and refugees. That’s 3% of the world population. In the same year, 1,1 billion people, or 15% of the world population, were international travellers, such as international business people and tourists. Both are means of crossing borders in the pursuit or a more enriched life. However, it is the 3% of migrants who create fear. Ingi Mehus founded Pocket Stories to unite migrants and travellers to challenge stereotypes and prejudice.
The purpose of Pocket Stories is to challenge the polarised misconceptions and misinformation about cultures and migration in a fun and engaging way. According to Ingi, ‘we’ associate migration with ‘poor’, ‘illegals’, and ‘criminals’ coming to rich countries. “Free mobility has become a privilege that is only extended to the smaller and wealthier part of the global population. International students, international adoptees, deployed military personnel, travellers, lifestyle migrants, and expats are usually not considered when discussing migration policies. I want to create solidarity between all people who move around the world and celebrate the beauty and diversity of all migrants and cultures.”
Am I a migrant?
Ingi was born in South Korea and adopted by a Norwegian family when she was three months old. “With a traditional name, local parents and a thick farmer’s dialect, I was Norwegian. However, at the age of 19, I began a decade of travelling, studying, and working abroad. During this time, my identity as a ‘traveller from Norway’ was frequently challenged. Complete strangers rarely accepted my Norwegian identity, and would ask quite personal questions about my family and heritage. “But you look Asian” became a standard response to “I am from Norway”. No matter how frustrating these remarks could be, in the end, they triggered me to re-think my identity. Strangers spent so much effort on labelling me as a migrant from Korea, whereas my family and friends paradoxically kept assuring me I was 100% Norwegian.”
She found this contradiction ironic: “I am the same person regardless of which label I, or anyone else, assigns to me. People’s constant need to label me, combined with my initial refusal to be labelled as a migrant, made me seriously re-think the default negative association with the migrants.” In 2012, Ingi worked for the IOM (International Organisation for Migration) in Tajikistan. Here she met Ajselj from Germany, who was born in Macedonia, and Grace from the USA, who was born in Zambia. “They both shared their inspirational migration stories with me. Relating to their emotional challenges as migrants made me realise that I am a migrant too and should be proud to call myself one.Before that moment, calling myself a migrant or an immigrant had such a negative load. I was Norwegian, and that was not up for discussion. When I heard the stories of Ajselj and Grace, they literally gave me the vocabulary to express how I felt. It was so weird, and I started laughing. I remember they looked at me and said ‘you never considered yourself as a migrant?’ I said no. From this moment on, I started to tell people that I was originally from Korea. I want to challenge the negative image of migration. My ideas for Pocket Stories started to develop, which became a reality in 2014. I hope the project can do the same for other migrants as Ajselj’s and Grace’s stories did for me.”
“Pocket Stories is a movement that aims to spark curiosity about migration by using travel and storytelling as tools. We unite migrants and travellers to challenge stereotypes and prejudice.”
Why are white people expats when the rest of us are immigrants?
Africans are immigrants. Arabs are immigrants. Asians are immigrants. However, Europeans are expats. Top African professionals who work in Europe are not considered expats, but ‘highly qualified immigrants’. According to Koutonin, there are hierarchical words in the lexicon of human migration. An expatriate, often shortened to expat, is a person temporarily or permanently residing in a country other than that of the person’s upbringing. Defined that way, you should expect that any person going to work outside of his or her country for a period of time would be an expat, regardless of his skin colour or country of origin. But that is not the case in reality; expat is a term reserved exclusively for western white people going to work abroad. Ingi wants to stop this hierarchy of who has more rights to travel than others. In her view, the labels are currently very much linked to a nationality and passport.
“In my utopia labels don’t matter. When people travel across borders for whatever reason, everyone should be treated the same.”
Ingi wants to stop this mobility hierarchy, because it results in segregation and a ‘we versus them’ mentality. By showing people how much richness and knowledge there exists in other cultures, she wants to create with Pocket Stories an image of cultures beyond what is represented in the media. “So for example, Naimait Rawan travelled through Afghanistan and he used his camera to tell beautiful stories about his country that we very rarely see in media. No poverty, no Taliban; nothing that has something to do with negative thoughts.”
Windmills aren’t originally Dutch
Travel Far Away At Home is one of projects of Pocket Stories. This travel fair offers locals the chance to experience cultures from places they otherwise wouldn’t visit out of fear, war, or lack of time or personal finances. In this way, Ingi aims to challenge harmful stereotypes and prejudice against migrants. At the same time, the projects show that lots of the things that we call ‘our culture’ are actually a fusion of cultures. “The cheese slicer is not Dutch, it is Norwegian; windmills are from Greece; hutspot, a typical Dutch meal, is originally based on a Spanish dish. No culture today lives in a vacuum.” Pocket Stories wants to bring people together from wider backgrounds.
“We want to emphasize an engagement amongst consumption with our projects. Amsterdam is very multicultural; we go for dinner to a Thai restaurant or we go see a foreign film, but we only consume it; we don’t really engage with it. We want to create activities where you can meaningful interact.”
Accoring to Ingi, our multicultural cities are very segregated. “People live side by side, but they are not actually connecting. My ultimate goal is engage those people who are usually not interested in subjects like this because otherwise we’ll create this little bubble up here.” Last year, the video ‘Migration vs. Travelling’ of Pocket Stories won the European Youth Press award, for the best journalism on media freedom.
“The comments on the video gave me a lot of positive feedback. People said that they learned something new from the video. And that is exactly what we want to achieve: providing a new perspective so that people feel empowered. And beyond that, we aim to change behaviour, but that’s going to be incredibly hard. I’m ready for this challenge!”