Over the past month I've been meeting up with people who have recently moved to Oxford, and talking to them about their experiences. It's been quite an intense experience, for participants and me alike I think, although a really valuable and enjoyable one.
There's something about a major life change, like moving city or country or continent. The people I've talked to have come from all kinds of different backgrounds: different countries, family structures, economic circumstances.
I couldn't help noticing that they've all shared some really wonderful personal qualities. I wondered whether people with these qualities are more likely to take part in an art project. Most people I've talked to told me they'd never taken part in something like this before though, and it was often me who approached (and persuaded) them to speak, not the other way around.
It makes sense, then, to assume these qualities have more to do with moving – it's pretty much the only thing that unites an otherwise diverse group of people. If that's right, then I wonder how much these qualities are the result of such a big life change, or whether people with those qualities are simply more likely to do well after a big life change, and be in the position to tell a stranger about their experience. Taking part has a few costs: a bit of free time, perhaps a risk in talking to someone you don't know about something personal.
So those qualities:
I've noticed that people who've talked to me have all seemed naturally curious, and supportive of people doing new things (including me). Moving countries usually means a loss of social capital, often a loss of income, and you might imagine people would therefore be less likely to take part in something that wouldn't directly benefit them. But the people I've spoken to have typically gone out of their way to contribute to the people and places around them, for no direct personal benefit.
Family has been hugely important to everyone, which is interesting when you consider that for most participants, families typically live a long way away. Some participants have not seen family members since leaving their home country, and do not feel that they will again.
A general attitude to bad luck that people often describe as 'philosophical'. I've been genuinely shocked at some of the off-the-cuff comments about life-altering events, and how well people have coped with them. One participant told me about a relationship ending and moving country for a fresh start. Another told me about being on the wrong end of government corruption. Another crossed the Mediterranean as a child on an overcrowded boat full of strangers. Another moved for a partner they loved. Another can't return home because their city has been bombed. I do not personally know how I would cope with many of those things, and feel respect for anyone who has.
An ambivalence between a warm openness and a nervousness that has always been caused by external pressures. People have been so keen to tell their stories but also anxious about repercussions from authority. Sometimes that authority has been a government in a homeland; sometimes it's someone's boss in the next room, who doesn't want our talk to run over into work time. It's hard to express, but it's a feeling that someone is really going out of their way, in the face of a risk, and that trying to do good things in the cracks between larger authorities is a real part of the migrant experience.
I'll stop there. I don't want to make the people I've talked to seem like one uniform group – they very much aren't. But the above similarities interested me because they really were apparent, and it seemed like something important to share.