“Celebrating Common Identities or Tiptoeing Around English ‘Platitudes’?”

The year is 1976. It is the beginning of the first term and Waltham Forest College of Adult Education is buzzing with activity and the endless noises of students – mostly foreign but some natives too. The foreign ones are almost all fee paying, the native ones all from a poor or working-class background and confined by such to the East of London.

This was and remains an unusually large college, without an excellent reputation really, but with a truly magnificent building. At the time, it was headed by an almost invisible Principal, who became even more so after being exposed for making an openly racist remark that “all Africans have smaller brains”. There were in fact very few Black students around from what was commonly known as Black or Dark Africa. The Principal then declared that his statement was essentially directed at these types of Africans and that their visible absence meant that they would not have benefitted from any kind of higher education anyway. Needless to mention that he would have been fired either way, for in the late 70’s, racism was not acceptable in education.

Even more visible was this: What divided the foreign students also divided the teachers of English, namely class. Some were of the old colonial type; others barely making a living. The richer they were, the more generous they appeared to be. There were, however, as in every other social space, factors of continuity which both divided and united the permanents and transients.

The students were from all over the place. Some came from the “Homelands” of the vast British Empire who were not really in need of learning English as a Second Language, despite their varying accents. Others were from the oil-rich countries. Others yet were second generation immigrants or were “naturalised” through marriage to British citizens. A few, although not refugees as such, had arrived from war-torn places. The purpose of the last group was primarily to help small family businesses in need of trusted relatives to assist them in return for free food and housing. There was a very strong sense of familial honour and social control exerted on this group. A slight delay or deviation from the bus route taken “home” might have resulted in hours of strict questioning.

Starting off with the teachers: There was Mrs. Margrett, who was gracious enough to lose her temper one day regardless of who was a full fee-paying student and who was not. Although she was always extremely well-dressed, punctual and serious, upon early encounters with so many foreign names, one day she lost her temper and almost screamed: “I really don’t understand why we have to teach English to many foreign people!” A statement which perhaps seemed reasonable at the time, but certainly failed to see just how easy it might be to master her language in a short period of time if one spoke so many other languages much more complicated than hers. To prove her utterly wrong would be a hard challenge, given the short period of time (a mere six months or so) dedicated to E.S.L before one could even begin to gain a simple Ordinary National Diploma (O.N.D.). Mrs. Margrett was from the suburbs of London. She would travel in and out of the City because her husband, a fellow teacher, had refused to live in London and had repeatedly proclaimed that he was utterly fed up “with the stench of aimless shoppers in large and developing supermarkets”. He would be very happy to go on a pleasant stroll and get small items of food from the local shops, but other items would have to be purchased by her. She was responsible for the cooking, for him and their son in the evenings. Luckily for all, she was a good driver and stopping at Sainsbury’s on the way back always did the trick, even when she had cracked a bone in one leg, following which she had been off for several weeks. There was no shortage of temporary replacements for her position. Mrs. Margrett came back fit as a fiddle, and actually whistling in the corridor as she always had, welcomed back by her students. Much had happened in her absence.

Then there was Mr. David, who always wore a bow tie (papillon), a formal suit and a big smile, and if asked an intelligent linguistic question would actually burst out laughing and say: “You see, that is exactly what I mean!” Mr. David confessed openly that he stood in full admiration of anyone who spoke more than one language. What was truly impressive about him was the unanimity of his language, appearance and heart. He was reportedly gay, but so kind and respectful to all that one was intuitively inclined to think he was merely a womaniser.

Least but not last of them, was Mr John, who was a reasonable teacher but was not trustworthy in other ways. Disillusioned with life as a “young” father and a marriage which seemed to have failed him, he pursued other channels of releasing his tensions, which would have been unacceptable to all his students, presumably to college authorities, and certainly to his wife. Upon meeting his wife nearby, also a fellow teacher of English in one’s humble home, for a gesture of foreign hospitality, one would immediately recognise that the relationship between Mr. John and his wife was based on nothing but a broken heart and soul on her part and a restless ego on his, disguised under the banner of admiration for the pains she had suffered during childbirth and the equally painful recovery period which had not yet ended. She mourned the days when she was slimmer and fitter. One felt obligated to invite them both to be patient while serving an affordable homemade meal, which they both seemed to thoroughly enjoy.

The canteen at the College was of crucial importance, offering the nearest choice for food and snacks such as sausage rolls, baked beans on toast, English tea, and of course the ever – present renowned native sweets such as apple crumble and custard and apple pie. On Fridays, when the legendary battered Fish and Chips and mashed peas was served, one had to queue for a long time to be served. The dinner ladies were always very serious and occasionally grumpy due to the large level of demand, especially on Fridays. On Wednesdays, vegetarian meals were provided but were confined to egg curries and rice. Unfortunately, boiled eggs on their own could only be provided at a higher cost, as they were meticulously spared to be put inside the curries. This, however, was not the students’ only choice, because immediately across the road at the Y.M.C.A. similar foods were served to both young men and young women, which was itself another puzzle at the time. England had, of course, been a practically secular state for a long time, so the religious connotations were less puzzling. And just a little further down, newly opened and expanding ethnic shops were also flourishing, such as a sit-in café called “Ankara kebabs” and a carefully positioned Chinese takeaway. The Kebab place was run by an old man resigned to his fate as his wife had left him a few years after arriving in London, but he was happy to have imported Ali, his exceptionally hard working, dedicated, young and strong nephew from back home to do the heavy work that he could no longer do himself. He trusted no one else. On occasion, the kebab shop would offer evening jobs to students from the college, mostly for cleaning and waitressing. The money was nothing to boast about, but it did pay for the rising cost of notebooks, stationary and textbooks.

The French teacher, whose name escapes one due to her seemingly colonial attitude towards everything including teaching her own mother tongue (not to mention her almost incomprehensible English) was puzzled by why her class was practically cancelled due to a falling number of attendees. Her teaching was replaced, of course, by well-spoken and well-mannered immigrants who spoke better French and English than her. They would not shock one at that tender age regarding why learning about the well-known private behaviour of French presidents, as well as learning about the beautiful “Parie/Pakhee” and the world famous but extraordinarily ugly and steely Eiffel tower (if visited during the day without the lit lights) had to be a natural part of learning French, particularly at that cost. Admittedly, the poor French teacher was not a racist. If questioned as to why she did not return to Paris, given that she had no customers as such to learn her mother tongue, she admitted that it was because the French were indeed racist, which was the original reason why she had chosen to stay in London permanently. Occasional visits back to Paris would involve visiting aging parents who were too old to come over for a visit. Unfortunately, as French was, at the time, the only second language offered at this particular college, and it was not possible to learn any language online like it now is, the students vouched that if they ever needed private tuition in French, they would call her directly. Impressed with the generosity, she put her home number on the board and emphasised that if she were out, the students could leave a message with her English husband. The question that remained in one’s thoughts was: If cities were indeed gender neutral in French, why had she been the only candidate to teach it in the first place, and why would anti-racist women not resist all that has just been described?

Interestingly, the most humane, safe and wonderful lessons one learnt as a very young student who hardly spoke a few words of English, were from fellow E.S.F. students who had arrived from all over the world, some with extremely complicated histories, and others for a genuine opportunity offered by generous parents to explore the world. In the case of the latter, learning English as a second language was indeed a secondary concern altogether. Some were from cities large enough to represent half the world; others from continents visited by the same. Nonetheless, the affinities formed either at E.S.L. classes or at the canteen, re-united them all into more major battles ahead.

Those who stayed on to continue, would move to learn serious business-related subjects, namely compulsory two-year long courses in Commerce, Law, Accountancy and Statistics. Business English was a must, of course. But failure in each would mean either a repeat examination or total disqualification.

Here, the Head of Department – let’s call him Mr. Savage for the moment – was a married, nervous and rather presumptuous man on women’s cycle of maturity, who nonetheless had fallen in love with a most eloquently dressed and intelligent teacher of Statistics, a divorcee with a young son. The Head was not yet divorced himself but understood that marriage was a union of hearts and he would disappoint his wife and children when the time was right. His main commitment was to his job and to ensuring that he could get the best team to promote the image of the College.

Private matters and secret love affairs aside, this was a different world altogether. Most post-E.S.L. teachers were of excellent calibre.

Computers had just emerged, as had the binary methods of digital communication. Predictably, the computer room was almost as large as the Canteen, with punch cards and endless streams of papers and tapes crossing each other to meet at some point or requesting to be replaced through silent waiting. Extraordinarily, the computer teacher was an elderly gentleman, perhaps by far the oldest permanent member of staff, which was quite puzzling to say the least! His patience and grace were limitless. Asked when he had mastered this new art, he would always answer through mathematics, and explain that when he retired as a teacher of mathematics, he looked for something new to occupy his mind. Did he like the new machines? He remained unsure. He did comply with his promise though, that as he was always more interested in people than machines, and he would pass on the final year examination questions to us as a gift! Not knowing whether he was joking or serious, most students marvelled at the subject, and they were the ones who really were shocked on the day of reckoning when they realised that the final questions were indeed the questions of the mock exam! The lazy students were indifferent either way, but would manage to pass because of the aforementioned threat of total disqualification.

The teacher of Commerce turned out to be an angry Economist from Cambridge! He showed little interest in commercial matters and preferred to explain key concepts via Economics and Econometrics, while remaining profoundly critical of both. God knows that between him, the teacher of Statistics, who was critical of Mathematics as a rival science, and the teacher of commercial Law, Mr. Hungerford, one started missing the French teacher for some peace and tranquillity, or the fussy Mrs. Maggie of the English suburbs. The Economist (whose name has been frozen out in memories of anger) commuted between the two cities on an almost daily basis with a small backpack full of books and items of clothing, presumably to change as and when the heat had become unbearable. He was an excellent Economist but had never managed to find a permanent job in the glorious city of Cambridge, where had actually lived all his life.

Mr. Hungerford was another key and permanent feature for the next couple of years: An excellent professional lawyer who had, nonetheless, ended up at a mere college of further education. He was extremely thoughtful, considered every detail appropriately and used them to challenge us with his own uncertainties regarding the law. What he did manage to do plausibly was pose targeted questions at his audience. This particular mock examination contained not just “culturally relevant” contemplations but also commercially based future exchanges relevant to the future as he might have seen it. Typical areas for investigation were events such as who, in the eyes of the Law, would ultimately be responsible for “a car stolen from a young and reckless driver from Hong Kong, should the thieves have a near-fatal accident with an innocent pedestrian; how would a Nigerian prince deal with a stolen gold necklace offered to a girl he had met in London should his mother disagree with his choice or, indeed, his chosen future bride to refuse the proposal. Bear in mind that the necklace belonged to the Family. Should he settle the matter in an open courthouse in London, or internally within the family?”; “Who was ultimately responsible for expenses claimed from insurance regarding a small tear in a valuable Persian rug, if the rug had been used in rented accommodation with the permission of the owner but not professionally cleaned after the expiry of the rental contract?”; or “Who would be responsible for a potential terrorist attack on the Chinese take away nearby?” You can see from the list of a few questions posed by Mr. Hungerford that he really was hungry for challenges of the future. When one asked him once why this was the case, Mr. Hungerford sorrowfully explained that he was Irish, and brought up by a family who had themselves experienced much sacrifice to ensure that he would get a decent education in England. One wondered if his thoughtful pauses had something to do with his revisiting old memories of home but was greatly encouraged by scoring the highest mark in Law as well as English in the end, and that was more than adequate for harder challenges one would face as an Economist a few months later for endless other years ahead.

The other intriguing character was the teacher of Accountancy who was always calm and collected. Clearly, without knowing the very basics of simple accounting procedures, such as book keeping, debit and credit transactions and double counting, tax payments and how to avoid costly wilful or innocent mistakes, one would be totally lost in any future. His last piece of advice to us all was this: “If you are rich enough in the future, make sure you pay an accountant to do the boring bits for you, and if you are not, make sure you always consult your current notebook for the rest of your life!” Asked if he still practised accountancy himself, he answered: “Of course not! I’ve got my youngest son to do it for my special clients in his free evenings. All I do now is sign the final annual tax returns. I mostly teach now. It is less boring.”

Years later, some correspondence arrives in the post, all written in excellent English. The soul of some correspondence does not authentically reflect the language of Empire yet yearns to come back to it to visit missed friends in London, while obliged to look after sick and aging family back home. Even more tragically, the one love they had originally left behind had already disappeared in strange ways.

Extracts from this correspondence, hand written between 1979-1980, are mentioned here with sincere gratitude for her encouraging words, her genuine love and trust and the eternal memories she has left me with. I hope that I have left her with the same feelings and memories. More importantly, I hope that wherever she may now be, she has found all the happiness she deserved as one of the most astonishing young women I have ever met, despite our utterly different backgrounds. The safest place on earth is in the heart of a true friend with whom Oneness can be reached amidst Otherness. In her letters, Aliye talks about a mountain of obstacles she has had to climb to find a job that involves her using her undoubtedly excellent English, acquired in the short period of training and an equally short period of staying in London to help her family’s small clothing factory with the actual production of garments used or sold on a wholesale basis locally or exported globally all labelled “Made in the UK”.

“My dearest Helen, I am now back in Cyprus… I do miss you a lot. I just can’t explain how I feel over here. I really feel very lonely as all my friends are in different towns. I have no one to talk to, no one to feel close to. I wish you were here… Anyway, I’ve been working for eight hours a day now. I work as a secretary. The office belongs to the State. The thing I do is just typing. It’s nothing to do with English.

The trouble is that it’s very far and I have to get up at five o’clock in the morning. I change two buses to get there… My father has not changed much but he looks older. Well, I know he is old, but he looks older than he is. I expected it after all they had been through.

I did see Ali at a mutual friend’s wedding from high school. Many of my friends were there. They all said I had changed a lot and if they saw me in the street they wouldn’t recognise me. Ali was there with his mum and dad. We didn’t talk – well, we couldn’t. I don’t really know if he recognised me, but he kept looking…”

The English teacher’s letter, delivered in the same period, uses equally affectionate terms: “My dear Helen, I am sorry that you do not sound altogether enthusiastic about your university course. But I think in the first term there are bound to be the problems of adjusting to a new environment… Your success is due almost entirely [!] to your own determination and hard work to succeed. You should be held up as a shining example to students who come here and have to start by mastering the language. I am well, I am glad to say – my leg has quite healed, although there is a big scar and it hurts sometimes – but I suppose, as my husband keeps saying I was lucky it was not my head!”

As for me, it is sufficient to point the following passages from the introduction and the conclusion of my final year thesis, for which she granted me a Distinction:




The story of Mesopotamia goes back to a time a little over 5000 years ago. Its ancient history is usually associated with the two distinct areas from which political leadership stemmed; Babylonia and Assyria… Each of the two provinces had its own character. Babylonia was a flat brown desert, formed from the mud-deposits brought down by its rivers in their course from the northern mountains towards the Persian Gulf. Assyria was, by contrast, an area of low hills, of much greater geological age than Babylonia – rich in oil deposits and dependent on winter rains…

It might interest the reader to know that the Assyrian nation was never totally demolished. There is no accurate estimate of the number of Assyrians left, but the figure lies somewhere between two and five million. The remaining Assyrians are Christians and have taken residence in different parts of the world. They still use the names Assur, Esarhaddon and Tiglath, and write in a language very similar to that of the neo-Assyrians.”

As to why the word “platitude” is used here and how one’s identity became an exotic commodity, it is all to do with Mrs. Margrett asking for an alternative to the phrase “common sense”! No prizes for guessing who could offer the alternative “platitude”. While English does remain the language of Globalisation and will soon be the key language of the whole world, one can only hope that while all scars are permanently healed for all human beings, one’s greater sympathies must lie with the “children of the Empire” to whom all citizens should remain eternally grateful. For then and for now, as they do not belong to empires anywhere. On English, one cannot be more grateful to a language so vast in scope and soulful in so many ways, particularly if mastered as a language that has always divided as well as united people, and is destined to carry an even heavier burden.


“Godless Borders”

This is dedicated to all those abandoned by all Gods they believe in, or otherwise.
May they all find a place of safety, where they can survive to yearn for whatever or whoever they left behind; and stay strong enough and patient enough to dream of unification with anyone who may be waiting for them back home in not too distant a future.

Humanity is borderless, as is its language, hope, and despair.

The rest was, is, and will always remain History – in the era of “Globalisation” anyone with a slight degree of conscience, will hope that this history will be as short as humanely possible.

As Edward Said quotes Auerbach quoting from Hugo: “It is, therefore, a great source of virtue for the practiced mind to learn, bit by bit, first to change about in visible and transitory things, so that afterwards it may be able to leave them behind altogether. The man who finds his homeland sweet is still a tender beginner; he to whom every soil is as his native one is already strong; but he is perfect to whom the entire world is a foreign land….From boyhood I have dwelt on foreign soil, and I know with what grief sometimes the mind takes leave of the narrow hearth of a peasant’s hut, and I know, too, how frankly it afterward disdains marble firesides and panelled halls”.


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Victors or Traders?

My Dearest,

I am grateful to you for your eternal presence. I had been worried again and wondered if you were, once again, not feeling quite yourself. Thank God all is as it should be with you. Your silence remains as golden as ever.

As always, it is I, the vocal one, who remains in need of your guidance. Bewildered by the increasing darkness that surrounds me, I simply cannot make heads or tails of existence on this earth any more. So, here are some relatively new but deep-rooted dilemmas just in case you are in a position to lighten the day a little. Right now, any guiding light would do. The tunnel of History has simply been too long and far-fetched for an end to be in sight, be it day or night.

You see my dear, the people we used to know together have all departed too. No-one gets back to answer a simple question on their own state in the Underworld or the Hereafter. Are you yourself in the same boat, I wonder?

Today, even worse news arrived about the Master of Universe himself. The one who proved that life may well exist elsewhere, Professor Hawking. They buried him right next to other ingenious Masters who had already taught us Time itself was relative; and that we were all after still evolving since time immemorial, Einstein and Darwin.

You are no doubt aware that some years ago, in not too distant a past, I decided to break my own silence and write on an ancient and wise civilisation in the Land of God, admitting publicly to all who wished to listen that Nothing Under the Sun Is New. So, I am at a loss which wisdom one should now return to for guidance. One’s choices seem to be clearer than ever before: total silence or hell on earth because quite clearly all hell has broken loose on earth with all its elements (Earth, Fire, Air, Water) losing their way and causing nothing but total chaos and destruction.

I will now return to an equally wise and ancient inherited civilisation, my own, where the answer must surely lie?


“You, the ghost of my family, …

As many as lie at rest in the Underworld, I

Have made a funerary offering to you;

I have poured water for you, …

Judge my case! Decide the details of the decision about me!

The Bad Thing which is in my body, in my flesh, in my veins,

Seize him and send him down to the Land of No Return!

Let me, your servant, live, let me Prosper.”


My ancestors were no doubt the creators of the Cradle of Civilisation, building amazing cities, temples, waterways, hanging gardens, creating warfare technology to conquer the world as they did, boasting about it in many languages, simultaneously creating and recording for those who came after them the very first codes of human rights, international trade and commerce, justice and democracy for kings and citizens as well as friends and foes; and crucially wrote epic stories of love, trust and intimacy.

The answer then must lie with leaving their dead behind. Did they do it for profit? Could such wise people also be so in need of profit?

I will end now, as I am truly done with digging any deeper into the tunnels of the past. But before I leave you in peace with your precious solitude, I will present you with an extract I found decades ago when I was still digging, hoping to find some answers:

“Shamshi-Adad died in 1716 B.C. Shortly after his death, Jaggidlim, the son of Jahdulim, drove Jasmah-Adad out of Mari and made himself master of that city, which he regarded as his own rightful inheritance. Power passed from the founder of the Dynasty to the more “important” of his sons, Ishme-Dagon, who wrote to his brother:

“I have ascended the throne in my father’s house. Now, you are my only brother; I have no other brother but you. You must be anxious. Your throne is and will remain your throne. You must not be anxious [repetition is by original writer]. The town of Uta, that you will take over, I will accept its peace (i.e. I will make peace with it). Let us maintain brotherly relationships with each other for all times. Let us swear a blinding oath by the life of the gods.”

Ishme-Dagon thus “reassures” his brother that as long as he was king of Assyria, Jasmah-Adad would have his own throne and could count on his brother’s helpfulness. According to the Assyrian king-list, Ishme-Dagon ruled for 40 years (1615-1677 B.C.) but detailed information on his reign is not available.

Was this reassurance based on his – their father’s earlier assertion?

“Say to Jasmah-Adad: thus says Shamshi-Adad your father. Having five days ago defeated the ruler of Qabra, now I have also defeated Jaianum. I have also taken the town of Hibara (current day Japan it seems). In this town I have made myself the master of 300 of his [the ruler’s] garrison troops and one of his sons. ”

All I know is this: we left the dead behind. And we are now lost everywhere.

And our children and theirs will travel to other Nowherelands and find nothing new to read, write or teach about, except the wrath of God and how to survive it. Of this I am now absolutely certain.

So, my friend and brother, such was the story told with as much honesty as I can assure you of at this point.






Her Lingering Voice

“Open your eyes and look me straight in the face!”


This piece is dedicated to my teacher of Mathematics, Rabbi Anna Sarkisian, of one of the first independent Assyrian schools in Tehran (Madrashta Et Shushan), affiliated to the first Assyrian Community Centre (MOTVA) during the era of relative modernity in Iran, some sixty years ago. And to all those who are close by to do the essential chores that she can no longer do, particularly dearest Zoya.

Rabbi Anna’s lingering voice shall forever guide me, and I hope others, when we appeared to be lethargically wasting our time without the slightest attention to her own time, energy or well-being. Her impeccable attention to the talents and needs of each and every student, as if they were her own children, her outstanding mathematical ability, and her charming and uniquely gentle soul will do the same.

Her mathematical skills were so advanced that I am still haunted constantly by how they all worked out, despite being a trained Econometrician whose brain is full of advanced theoretical and “Practical” models and formulae that no-one seems to understand.

Rabbi Anna was born in June 1934 in the city of Hamadan, Iran. Both her parents were of ethnic Assyrian origin and shared the same history as their fellow Assyrians along with other minorities whose identities as well as socio-economic status were discontinued and displaced within and without borders. All that is remembered clearly is that her parents, too, were actually born in Iran and had migrated to Russia at a very young age to join their family who had stayed behind at that point in time.

Rabbi started teaching at the school at the age of 28, having already given birth to three children of her own, all talented, pure and decent in their own way.

She retired from the school in 1989.

Amazingly, Rabbi Anna, despite frailty and naturally poorer health and still carrying the heavy burden of both motherhood and genuine scholarship is enviably active, reading, writing, keeping up with and analysing world affairs and developments while remembering every detail that even I, and no doubt many of my own generation, would have forgotten.

Conversing in different languages and dialects; reciting poetry and proverbs to match each turning; remembering every name of the students and the other teachers; those who were too short to sit in the back and happened to be rivals, those who were too tall and as such designated to sit at the back and sing along in different languages; both native and foreign, names, names just names, songs and poetry… Ed, Nenous, Reeta, Ninveh, Josephine, Belous, Sayonara, Saraphima, Beatrice, Mable, Mary, Gracie, Alice, Shoora, Latifa, Maria, Tamara… We continue to explore the past.

The resident Muslim gatekeeper “baba”, who controlled our every move silently and with discretion, and the trusted bus drivers, their history, correcting and completing each other as we go along the root of history and geography, continent to continent, city to city backward and forward until we more or less get it all right, or each sigh, confessing we don’t quite remember. No-one can really, after more than half a century.

Rabbi, we are “homesick”, but as we said what keeps us going is a quest for knowledge, for authentic knowledge. “But you must rest a bit Rabbi, you just must”, I plead each and every time, getting the same answer back: “But I can’t, I must keep up with the news, or with sick friends and relatives… If only I was not so frail, and in such pain…”

Trying to cheer her up, I insist on “giving her a taste of her own medicine”. My dearest, most devoted and cleverest Rabbi: “Ptoukh aynakh, gash go pati – open your eyes and ….”, nothing will happen if you try to relax a bit, watch a comedy or listen to some soothing music.”

“But which comedy,” she asks. I describe one that I find meaningfully distracting and describe it fully and accurately, but Rabbi Anna must have all the socio-geographical details, the place, the language spoken in the drama, date of filming… In the end, historical logic must win. We agree neither the geography, nor the other details, though significant, matter all that much in the end. What mattered was collective memories. Memories of friendship, affinity, comradery, love, respect and peaceful co-existence until that logic was, and continues to be broken, not just for us an ancient, decent nation, but for all others in the same situation.

“But you read too much too much!”

“No, not as much as before. But I do keep up with the news, they deliver the newspapers… and I do walk every day, even if within my home now. That too keeps me going, as does a bit of home cooking. I don’t like fast foods, nothing but disease, and then there is the kitchen to clean. I can’t rest until I clean the kitchen. It is like an old obsession, a disease perhaps, you know more about this than I do…”

If only she knew how she and I copied the routine precisely! But I insist. “Listen to me please, Rabbi, this is not a disease, or an obsession. It is discipline, pure and simple. A clean environment indicates clarity of mind. Clutter does the opposite. It is very simple. If only this was as simple as the mathematical model you showed us all those decades ago! I must confess that with all the formulae in my cluttered brain, the numerous languages that mix and mingle in in the same space, I am truly unable to remember exactly what it was. Do you?”

“Which one?!” And the conversation continues in search of further and further clarity.

Every conversation ends up in clearer and clearer voices, and on a more cheerful note than when it started… Promising each other that we would talk again just to finalise the last details or to analyse the newest ones with as much accuracy as anyone could possibly hope for… Feeling both more relieved and calmer after we had heard each other’s voice one more time.

“Rabbi, with the kind of memory, talent and commitment you have, and with mutual devotion and respect between you and your caring children, you will not only live long, but you will never be forgotten.”

Awakening my own memories of another place, another community school named “Sadie”, the neighbours from back “home”; the Muslims, the Jews, others whose histories and fates we had shared and still do. The teachers, men and women, were all Assyrian, beautifully dressed and freely walking across the wide and narrow streets, always finding support from an enlightened stranger in the face of adversity.

If one’s memory allowed further accuracy, this was a hired space, neat and compact with another “baba”, this one nasty and brutal, almost crippled but untrustworthy in more ways than one.

As with any social space, it was the neighbours that mattered, and the afterschool mixing and mingling. Not a single child or adult cared what games were played in the open spaces outside the neatly designed beautiful array of homes, as long as the children’s noises could be heard. When dinner time came, the homes could easily be distinguished by the odour of each kitchen in an exclusive home, or indeed a mixture of aromas from one home. Social media, confined to old radios, and the odd television, were a novelty, as were typewriters. Letters were written mostly by hand and took months to arrive from places so far away that a connecting trip would have been financially and professionally ruinous. The occasional typewriter, and typist, were a rare novelty, let alone a scribe who could write by hand and type simultaneously, obsessively printing copies of each output, clearly marking the dates and the various languages employed to express distance, displacement, and yearning for a visit or indeed any news at all. And I remember my own father, Havil Avrahim, officially known by the surname Shakho (mutilated from “Shakhov” because of some border “dispute”), typing away day and night in various languages. Sometimes for others, and sometimes for himself and his extended family for whom he bore sole responsibility. Significantly, he also wrote sad and funny stories – true and fiction – in several languages except his own mother-tongue.

At times, he sought a better-paid job closer to the Capital; and at other times, he pretended to be older than he was to get a small promotion locally, while challenging the top managers to judge him on his typing speed, accuracy and ability rather than his age. The strangest part was that the surname inherited by him and by me after further mutilation was not even the right one! It was a name dished out to us both by that old enemy of transparent continuity, History itself, which nonetheless contained the last-minute comradery between my grandfather and his best friend at the moment of forcible parting.

Memory after memory come to the surface.

So, the Rabbi and I further explore.

“Tell me Rabbi, in Hamadan, wasn’t there a Jewish Doctor called Cohen? He was everyone’s family doctor. Remember him? He treated me once with incredible accuracy when I was a very young girl on a short family visit. He told me it was sheer anxiety, perfectly natural at that sensitive age and ensured that after a few days all symptoms of physical pain had disappeared never to return. What incredible accuracy!”

“Oh, I don’t know… I thought you were referring to my family doctor, Cohen, here in the US. I refuse to see anyone but him. He is the one who refers me to Specialists if and when I need them.”

Lest another linguistic connection escapes my own muddled memory, I vouch to find out if Cohen might be connected to “Kahen” or even “Kohan”, or “astronomy and the sky”, or “ancient”, or some such phenomenon.

“OK dear Rabbita, I promise to call again very soon, but for now let me say good night and just ask a key question before I forget:

How come you started teaching at such a young age, and with a large family to look after?”

“Oh, I don’t know really, they sort of dragged me out of the home. They said there was a shortage of Mathematics teachers.”

May all teachers of authentic character and talent be remembered, as their teachings and lingering voices are of universal human value.



























Beyond Borders

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“I would rather count on the mercy of a kind stranger than on my own uncle.” (A young unknown writer)

May all those who have no choice but to leave home to survive, meet a kind stranger – within or without borders, regardless of their place of birth, the language they speak, their class, their gender, their ethnicity, their visibility or invisibility, their faith or fate…


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In memory of the only brother I ever had Sargon Vardeh Anhar.

Despite our fundamental political disagreements, he lived and died true to his beliefs and left an enduring legacy which cannot be erased. From his gravestone that stands alone amongst thousands of others.

Let him be an inspiration to all who live and die with honour.

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“Let me cry like the clouds cry in the spring

And like stones wail at the parting of friends.”

Beyond Borders: Living and Dying to Work,


(English version. Published, in Spanish, by The Autonomous University of Mexico as Debates and Studies of Labour Mobility, 2016) 


Universidad Autónoma Metropolitana

Xochimilco, México


Vista Alta 918

La Herradura, 62303

Cuernavaca, Morelos





Helen Sakho

South Bank University-CIBS

United Kingdom






This paper discusses, taking the examples of two different geographies – Mexico and the UK – how the movement of labour towards ever increasing insecure and inaccessible labour markets takes place through hazardous reliance on mediators of mobility at both regional and international scales. The paper, while acknowledging and containing very different characteristics and specificities of each geography and each case, points to three overarching processes: the reliance of migrants on private sector operators be it human traffickers or private car owners; the important role of the state in regulating or ignoring the process; and the development of new migratory cultures based on “permanent” alienation.

Key words: mobility, migration, workers, refugees, asylum seekers, vulnerability, risk, cultural change.



Reflected in the paper are findings of long-term studies of migration. In the case of Mexico, the findings reported are based on action research and active participation in the daily commuting between two metropolis in central Mexico where different types of commuters move in different directions and forms, vulnerable and risk, the State does not intervene to provide more economic or human alternatives to the day to day move. The paper reports findings based on 15 years of being part of the move, and therefore action research, more than 30 case studies, and 15 focus group interviews.

The case of the UK, the paper presents aspects of findings based on 40 detailed case studies of refugees and asylum seekers, from arrival to case resolution via settlement, deportation, voluntary return or abandonment to poverty and further vulnerability for long years. The paper will describe how this group is perceived and treated by the State and segments of society as a sub-human segment of a vulnerable army of reserve labour that can be added to the underground world of the shadow economy in which a variety of undocumented migrants are invisibly trapped. It will outline the fundamental role of the state in both creating and fuelling a shadow economy and workforce and in “cleansing” it through arrests and deportations, and in subjecting very large numbers of the most vulnerable people in society to further poverty and degradation and to the possibility of extreme exploitation, as it does not remove them but denies them right to work simultaneously. In the case of Mexico, the paper describes how due to a long history of inappropriate development and use of natural resources, the Mexican state leaves its citizens without protection on their long and potentially dangerous journey to work; and how as a result a culture based on work-related mobility develops that is in essence alienating for very large numbers of people and families.

Conceptual Framework

The migratory movements considered by this paper relate to movement for work. We are aware that the terms mobility, migration and movement are often used as generic terms or interchangeably. Here, we employ a framework in which movement, potential movement and blocked movement are all conceptualised as constitutive of economic, social and political relations (Urry, 2007: 34). While we would emphasise that such a broad definition is in danger of ignoring the elements of choice and degrees of vulnerability in the sense that the pleasure seeking tourist is in a very different position than the fleeing refugee, it, nonetheless, helps us analyse the emerging common themes and concepts that bind our very different geographies together.

We would also like to draw attention to the concept of “permanence”. In the two cases under consideration here, both groups of workers move towards work. At the Mexican metropolitan scale, “permanence” could mean daily or weekly travel or travelling three or four times a week, the point being that the travelling time involved is between 2 and 6 hours as migrants travel from city to city; and the associated consequence that they spend long hours away from home. Our research shows that when these migrants arrive home, they are too exhausted to conduct a normal family life such as having a conversation with their children or discussing daily issues. And as will be discussed in more details later, as this sort of movement becomes a way of life for the migrants, new cultural and social patterns develop via the long journeys.

In the case of the international migrants into the UK, being away from home takes a different meaning and scale ranging from never being able to return to longs years of waiting to see family and friends again. The paper argues that the UK is a most stark example of uneven access to employment, and one that condemns many thousands of poor migrants to abject poverty, as poverty rises worldwide and the demand for un-skilled work increases in cities such as London and other centres of cosmopolitan life in the country. It looks at the futilities of official and often NGO-adopted terms such as “illegal”, “refused”, “temporary” and how hundreds of thousands of lives are put on hold for years, unsupported by the state and exploited by brokers of globalised shadow economies.

The point worth emphasising here is that both groups are at risk of danger throughout their journey, from either a smuggler letting them down at some point across continents or a fellow citizen doing the same on the road in their own country, despite the clearly different elements of risk and harm involved in un-boarded (Mexico) and bordered (UK) migration. Common to both groups is reliance on non-formal, unregulated networks because it will guarantee them economic survival or a better life, as they move to fulfil the demands of the labour market in their final destinations.

Finally and importantly they are away from home forever or for a substantial part of their lives, away from their families, often, in order to support the same. In both cases the migrants develop cultures based on separation from home and family. The first part of the paper presents the case of Mexican migrants on the move within Mexico and the second of international migrants in the UK with a focus on refugees and asylum seekers who are pushed into poverty by the state.

The case of Mexico: spatial context of the movement

In the past 30 years or so, long distance movements of labour, not only inside the cities, but between metropolitan areas, have emerged as a Mexican reality. Cuernavaca, Morelos and Mexico city, metropolitan areas located in Central Mexico, around 35 miles distance from each other or half an hour by car, are areas affected by the increase in long distance labour movements, especially if we include the moving time inside the cities, which is to 2 or 6 hours on the move per day. During the 1970s, a policy of decentralisation and relocation to outside Mexico City lead to the development of new industrial parks in surrounding cities such as Cuernavaca, where labour was attracted from the countryside by transnational corporations such as Nissan, and concentrated in neighbourhoods close to the industrial parks (Garza, 1992).

But skilled blue collar workers from Mexico City migrate to Cuernavaca as well. The new industries needed educated and specialised labour from Mexico City to support them. Over time and for different reasons, the same workers lost or changed their jobs and could not replace them. The wage differential pulled them back to Mexico City, where the labour market is open to receiving them. However, the workers migrate alone, without their families, as often the spouses have found jobs locally; or because the children do not wish to leave their friends and lives behind. It is now the male worker who needs to find a job elsewhere in Mexico and move everyday to work in the big city.

There are few studies regarding commuting in Central Mexico, for example (Acuña & Graizbord, 1999) concentrated in transport. We follow those concerned with agents of movement (Henry, 2008), while our papers adds data on how and why the movement takes place in space (Ramírez, 2005; 2009). Amongst the people moving, we have found there are young people who want to move socially and towards a better standard of living. They might decide to find a better job in a different sector such as commercial services or they may already be professionals working in public and governmental bodies or as university teachers and researchers. It is important to mention that no industrial workers were found in this sort of mobility, but we did encounter workers in the construction industry, making the journey on a weekly rather than daily basis (Ramirez, 2005).

It is also important to mention that other skilled workers such as teachers, trying to find a better life after the earthquake in Mexico City in 1985, also moved to Cuernavaca, a place known as the “every day spring” for its nicer weather, especially in winter. However, with the low wages they found there, they could not afford to pay at least 300,000 pesos to meet the cost of relocation closer to home. Different reasons explain this issue: the controlling power of the trade unions in the allocation of jobs, corruption in the allocation process and the impossibility of finding a permanent job close to their homes, means they will inevitably continue working around the boarders of Mexico City, close to Cuernavaca in order to maintain their standards of living.

Some mobility is, however, facilitated by the public sector. For example, following the earthquake in Mexico City in 1985 and the relocation of some research institutes to cities such as Cuernavaca, some workers kept their residence in Mexico City from which they commuted to Cuernavaca every day, while others lived in Cuernavaca for a while and moved back to Mexico City. In this case for example, the Institute of Public Health provides a two-way coach for the workers, with the journey lasting more than 4 hours every day.

In the development of this process, nurses in Morelos were amongst other highly skilled workers who moved to Mexico City because of the wage differential. Moving to Mexico City was their only solution even if they had to work at night three or four times a week. Nurses appear to be amongst the first groups of workers to move. During the course of the research, we came across one case of retirement and others with more than 22 years of travelling.

Amongst the migrants are also students who decide to move to Mexico City to pursue a specialist course or because the CETEBIS (technological vocational schools) are located in rural towns to which the students have to move; both movements occur because of a lack of local educational opportunities.

Different workers, different movements

In total, we found at least six different groups of workers on the move (2005). They and the students in search of better educational facilities move with the common goal of achieving better present or future standards of living. The process then can be summed up as follows: mobility in these cases is voluntary and therefore the decision of the workers, but that this decision is made under pressure from the system to find access to social mobility, to climb the social ladder, and to maintain or attain higher salaries through the move (Ramirez, 2009).

Mobility then can be facilitated through different modes of transport or different forms of social organisation. In the case under consideration, moving from Cuernavaca to Mexico City, workers can move by bus or by private car or they can catch “the ride” – a term that describes the sharing of a privately owned car for the purpose of daily commuting. This might be considered a successful form of mobility because although Cuernavaca is now considered one of the most insecure cities in the country because of drug trafficking, sharing someone’s car is now one of the most common ways of daily commuting to Mexico City. The reverse of the movement also takes place on a daily basis, as the service sector in Mexico City needs the specialist skills of (mainly) service sector workers found only in the metropolitan areas. Such workers commute from Cuernavaca to Mexico City on a daily basis (2005).

The ride has a specific spatiality depending on the place where the migrants stand, and codes and symbols have developed over time that define how and where people are going to move; for example, one can gauge from the specific place a person is standing whether they are waiting for a bus or for the collective ride. The difference in the position can be 5 or 10 meters or less, but for those involved in the commute, the mode of mobility is clear. Despite the small geographical gap in where the commuters wait, the difference in cost is enormous: to take the bus would cost 85 pesos per trip and sharing the car only 20 pesos. The passengers benefit from sharing the car and dividing the cost of the transport and reduce waiting time simultaneously (Ramírez, 2005).

The question to be asked here is why does this process appear to be so popular? As described above, the first reason is invariably economic: it costs far less to make the journey sharing a car. As indicated above, the cost of the round trip between Mexico City and Cuernavaca, using a shared vehicle is a quarter of the cost of making the same journey by bus. In addition the commuters have a specific and secure place where they can wait at night to go back for the same price. The driver of the car also benefits as the cost of the road tolls is now divided amongst the commuters.

The second reason why this form of mobility is popular relates to the social networks it is capable of producing. Often professional relationships are developed based on specialist interests of the commuters. Others become friends; they not only share mobile phones to locate each other while waiting for the ride at night to go back to Cuernavaca, they sometimes spend part of their spare time at weekends with the friends they have made in their everyday exchanges. Particular bondages of solidarity develop between the daily migrants and their fellow migrants travelling at night who wait at entrance of the road back to Cuernavaca at a specific time in order to make the journey back together in the safety of people they already know. This process is particularly welcomed by female workers, commuting after 10pm at night.

We came across cases where common ownership of the vehicle had been discussed amongst some of the friendly commuters, which would make the whole process more secure. However, uncertainly around who was going to be responsible for the maintenance and the cost of the car and other associated costs prevented the materialisation of the scheme.

It is pertinent to say that the destination of most of the migrants is the west part of the City, where commercial services and governmental offices are located. This, however, does not prevent some people from travelling to the north, crossing through the entire city, both at night and during the day, spending 6 hours per day on the journey to work – work which will keep them away from home for another 8 hours or more. The average spent on most journeys is, on the whole, between 4 or 5 hours per day.

It is also important to note that some workers and a large number of university students make the journey on a weekly rather than daily basis; they stay with the family in Cuernavaca at the weekend and spend the week either with a relative or in rented accommodation in the City.

It is difficult to accurately quantify this process, but some figures put the number of daily migrants moving between the two cities at a quarter of a million people. However, given the increasing number of cars appearing on the road since this research started, we can safely attribute some of the increase to a growing need for the migrants to use private cars to get to their destination.

Two questions, two patterns

Two key questions arise from the discussion so far that are of particular interest to this paper: the first relates to the reasons for a lack of institutional interest in facilitating this daily migration and the second to whether this form of mobility has created new cultural patterns to which increasingly numbers of migrants belong.

Regarding the first question, we need to contextualise the development of this type of mobility in the realities of Mexican regional development. In total contrast to Europe or the East of the United States for example, where the train has solved regional mobility problems at different geographical scales, Mexico has historically given priority to cars and buses and relied on its petrol resources (Navarro, 2010). The result has been a more disintegrated and dispersed metropolis with a disproportionate concentration of population in certain areas, in addition to more degradation and pollution due to petrol consumption. If the State is responsible for facilitating mobility, in this case, it would be the Municipal State which would be responsible for the construction and maintenance of public means of transport to serve people inside its administrative space. The national state is committed to providing roads and highways to facilitate large-scale movement, but there is no public agency responsible for organising regional mobility. That is left to privately owned coach companies. What the State facilitates here is an infrastructure based on cars and roads and petrol consumption, while clearly a more sustainable and human alternative would be railroads and trains for long and medium distances. The main beneficiaries of the current form of mobility are the big transport companies and privately owned cars and coaches.

On the other hand, attempts were made by the community to institutionalise the movement described in this paper when they registered a Civil Association with the Municipality with the sole purpose of facilitating the move for the migrants. The Association is still alive but not functioning officially, due to a number of leadership difficulties.

Regarding the second question, if by culture, we understand the material conditions which constantly and repeatedly one has to follow to fulfil the needs and requirements of daily life, then understood as the means through which different sectors of the tertiary labour markets have access to their material jobs, mobility itself is a path through which workers’ material culture develops every day.

The case of the UK: the general context

It is safe to say that in the West generally, and particularly in countries and cities seen as the centre(s) of “globalisation” we have witnessed unprecedented hostility towards immigrants; and the more vulnerable the group, such as refused asylum seekers (the vast majority are refused) and undocumented immigrants, the greater the degree of hostility and neglect. At the time of writing, in the UK, there are hundreds of thousands of people waiting for their immigration status to be regularised. Nobody seems to know how many unregulated migrants there are, but estimates vary between 600,000 and approaching one million people. According to Gordon et al. the population of irregular migrants could be up to 863,000 people at the end of 2007. The study also estimates that about two thirds of irregular migrants lived in London at the end of 2007 and that the number of refused asylum seekers in London with irregular status increased by around 131,000 since 2001. (Gordon et al. 2009).

Many have waited for years, some up to ten or 14 years to receive a clear message from the immigration authorities, others for even longer. This paper reflects part findings of longitudinal research, based on detailed case studies, conducted over 12 years. The cases are split between single males and families, with 5% being single females and three minors. The research followed refugees and asylum seekers and undocumented migrants, from arrival in the UK, until status resolution or deportation or voluntary return or departure to a third country.

Placed in a national context of reduced state support and benefits for working people and students from a crisis-ridden state and crumbling social services, a large number of irregular and/or undocumented migrants have little or no access to health care, education or any financial assistance. In the UK, currently, financial support to refused asylum seekers, making up the bulk of the cases, is minimal or non-existent. But the recent history of immigration policy by the UK state is outstanding by any measure. Rated by its own internal inquiry into the immigration policy and practice by the Home Office in 2006, as “not fit for purpose”, the newly formed body of the UK Border Agency (UKBA) came under serious criticism again, years later and indeed throughout its existence. In 2008, for example, a report by the Parliamentary Committee condemns the UKBA’s record on a long list of factors and indicators ranging from the Agency not knowing how many “illegal” immigrants enter or leave the country to extreme delays in dealing with asylum cases resulting in the costly business of putting hundreds of thousands of lives on hold for years and sometimes well over a decade, who could have been active tax payers all these years (Parliamentary Ombudsman 2010).

During the course of research, more than 5 percent of cases received their “indefinite leave to remain in the UK”, up to three years after they had left the UK voluntarily due to the prolonged period of waiting and a number had actually informed the Home Office that they were leaving the country. And in 2012, the Home Affair’s Select Committee, again using the same terminology “not fit for purpose”, heavily criticises the performance of the UKBA on familiar grounds, including not having been able to deal with the pile of unresolved immigration and asylum cases now amounting to 119,000 files. (Home Affairs Committee 2012)

The list of “failures” of the UK immigration system is noted by a wide range of NGOs and campaign groups, but, for the purposes of this paper, reference to official governmental reports that persistently express disappointment at the performance of the immigration system is sufficient and pertinent. As stated in the main introduction, the focus of this paper is to consider the role of the state in facilitating greater and greater and more acceptable exploitation. In the case of the UK, although unlike the case of Mexico above, the state is dealing with foreign nationals and international borders, we can witness increasingly active participation by the state in assigning the most vulnerable people in society to greater vulnerability.

Refused asylum seekers, for example, who are neither removed by the state nor given the right to work openly, nor given financial or other assistance, are also likely to be assigned to a thriving shadow economy. The shadow workforce that the state hands over to this underground, unregulated labour market is exactly a shadow, with no rights, civil or legal, and no identity, let alone employment rights and a minimum wage. In fact, irregular migrants are acknowledged to be part of such an economy and contribute about 12.3% to the UK’s GDP. (Migrants’ Rights Network, 2009).

Here we wish to point out to a greater context in which this negation of rights appears, taking the examples of corporate and business related migrants, and those not attached to multinational corporations but to human smugglers or other illegal brokers of visa arrangements. Again the case of the UK is a clear example alarming polarisation between different groups of migrants and their post migration life chances. The case is discussed further below with this greater context in mind.

Increasing vulnerability, increasing exploitation and poverty

The link between immigration status and migrants’ rights is well established. “…the UK immigration policy therefore plays a key role in increasing vulnerability of migrants to forced labour when their basic rights are compromised or non-existent. Much recent UK immigration and asylum legislation has consolidated a long established link between immigration status and the rights of migrants” (Dwyer, Lewis, Scullion, and Waite 2011) Given that, as illustrated earlier through official admission by governmental and parliamentary accounts, the administration of immigration policy and practice is incompetent, economically unwise in every way, then how does the state or society expect the refused asylum seeker or the irregular migrant to survive? How do these hundreds of thousands of people feed their families, pay rent, pay for medicines sent to them from back home, as they have no rights to health care, have children and bring them up?

Again, the case of the UK is outstanding. In the words of the British Red Cross, commenting on the plight of asylum seekers in 2008: “Some of the circumstances that the British Red Cross have witnessed in dealing with destitution (in the UK) have shown a degree of sufferening and inhumanity that if we as the world’s largest humanitarian organisation witnessed them in a different environment, such as an area of natural disaster or a conflict zone, we would be shocked into making an emergency response.” (Still Human, Still Here 2010)

The Shadow workforce and the role of the State

How does the state create and maintain a shadow workforce that has no rights, no identity, is always faced with the prospect of a raid, of total instability, and deportation, and who will work under any circumstances, including those of forced labour, just to survive and to avoid shame, hunger and destitution? (See for example: Dwyer, Lewis, Scullion and Waite, 2011).

Several migrant and human rights organisations in the UK have been documenting numerous cases of forced labour, violence and emotional abuse suffered by immigrants not only at the hand of international traffickers and UK employers who benefit directly from their underpaid or unpaid labour and their financial servitude but also within receiving communities and families, who sometimes demand excessive pay backs in return for their “hospitality”. (Migrants’ Rights Network 2009)

In the course of this research, in the majority of the cases, refused asylum cases worked to survive. Wages of £1.30 – £3 per hour in restaurants and construction sites were not uncommon. Some 70% lived with family, fellow workers, or close friends, often in appalling conditions. The mere fact that they simply could not live on £5,05 a day (current rate of payment by the state to a refused asylum seeker) or were too proud to beg or to be become homeless, made them more than willing to do any job, for almost any wage. The state openly acknowledges that this phenomenon exists and facilitates it through refusing the immigrants either amnesty: or legalisation; and denies them the right to legal work; and if it ceases them working illegally might deport them immediately or at some stage or never.

There are, as discussed earlier, several ways in which the state plays a key and direct role in constructing, controlling – including violent deportation of captured immigrants, with fatal consequences in some cases – and supplying fresh and increasingly vulnerable source of cheap or almost free labour to an economy based on immigrant toil in its centres of attraction such as the City of London and similar locations, with their millions of restaurents, hotels, bars, museums, night clubs, offices, construction sites and the like. In fact, 90% of low-paid workers in London were not born in the UK (Evans, Herbert, Datta, May, Mcllwaine,   Wills 2005).This constant and increasingly desperate supply is also secured through the UK state refusing to open up tier-3 migration to poor workers from poor countries, who might enter legally and fulfil menial jobs into which undocumented workers and asylum seekers are pushed in order to survive (since 2008 the UK’s employment-based immigration system covering migrants from outside the European Economic Area and Switzerland has been split into 5 Tiers, of which Tier 3, originally intended for unskilled migrants working in low paid and menial jobs, has never been operational and is currently suspended).

This fundamental contradiction is beyond explanation by the traditional theories of labour market operations or the well-established principles of human and civil rights, and is blatantly hostile to the most vulnerable people in society. Moreover, bearing in mind, the general dichotomy of international migration as context we see with more clarity the extreme polarisation that exists across the spectrum. The corporate and or business-related migrant enters the globalised labour markets of the UK, freely, and is secured financial, career and cultural advancement, the best of local and international educational, housing and health facilities available privately, by the transnational company. These economic migrants, assumed to be highly skilled and scarce locally (Sakho, H. 2001, pp 38-50), enter the UK to safeguard specific corporate values. They do not have to separate from immediate or extended family. To the contrary, their links with family and friends are maintained and often financed by transnational corporations. Equally importantly, they enjoy local and international security and respect. At the other end of the spectrum, the pull factors of migration are hard to see but for the natural desire of human beings to flee persecution or war or unbearable economic or cultural poverty for a freer or better life – perceived or real –, at least for their children; and to help their families and friends back home (Sakho, H. 2012).

The findings of this research are in line with an increasing canon of work pointing to the plight of undocumented workers, or those pushed into poverty by immigration authorities, such as refugees and asylum seekers. Loss of money to the smuggler, loss of life on the way, detention or deportation on arrival, prolonged periods of uncertainty, no legal or social identity, living and working in fear, and remaining open to exploitation, disrespect and hostility, in addition to disproportionately poor physical and mental health amongst this group, are experienced by the vast majority of this group, sometimes in their multitude and in the extreme. Between 1988 and 2009, the number of recorded deaths of immigrants trying to enter Europe stood at 14,944 people (Fortress Europe 2009); and the tragic deaths in February 2004 of 20 or more migrants brought in to pick cockles who met their deaths at the shores of Birmingham in the UK is an example of losing one’s life within the country.

The State also maintains and fuels the shadow economy by pushing the refused asylum seeker to become the “illegal” migrants directly into the bottom of the pile of unprotected and voiceless mass of already vulnerable workforce and is thus also responsible for creating false competition over some of the worst jobs and working conditions. And as legal entrance for poor workers into these worst jobs is not available, the reverse order may also occur: the migrant in search of a low paid job has no choice but to claim asylum as the only option for natively unwanted work.

A further and key way in which the state actively encourages such exploitation is through the language of legal and ideological hostility and misinformation about the burden of such migration to the native economy and society. The British state repeatedly praises itself in the media on having been successful in creating a “hostile environment” to which “bogus” refugees and asylum seekers will not be drawn. Such hostility, which cannot stem from either the objective needs of the UK economy, or the necessity of the UK state to fulfil basic human rights, is inevitably justified through the image of the “other” who is always here and always to take something valuable which is not theirs; British jobs. This image is repeatedly portrayed in the media, as well as in official and increasingly other accounts.



This paper has presented two cases based on long term, participative research in two very different locations of the world, and aimed to demonstrate that despite differences in geographical scales of movement and the problems associated with each case, migrant workers in the two geographies are increasingly at risk of harm and insecurity.

In the Mexican case the State does not intervene, leaving its citizens to pursue liquid labour markets of their own volition and at their risk. Here, alienation from the family and the natural environment occurs, as our research shows; and more importantly, such alienation develops into a new culture, a new community, new colleagues, new fellow travellers, new social connections, all away from the migrants’ natural environment and home. In this case, no citizen is arrested or deported; the movement is voluntary, there are no borders to cross. The migrants are, however, left with the only “choice” the market will give them. Their lives over time, become a life devoted to work and surviving to keep the job – a life on the move. With increased feminisation of labour, the issue of safety on the road, particularly at night becomes even more urgent, as women travellers feel the need to rely increasingly on moving with people they know and trust.

The migrants within Mexico may be free to spend most of their time on the road or at work, but they risk serious health and safety issues in the process. They move more than 180-200 kilometres on a daily basis, going up till 3100 meters high and going down to 1800 o 2000 m.u.s.l (meters up the sea level), risking developing high blood pressure, and heart problems, which increase the chances of early death. Problems associated with road accidents and other problems on the road can thus often associated with serious health and safety dangers for them and are not recorded, similarly to the UK case.

In both examples we can see how geographical mobility enabled the reproduction of capital and accumulation to continue (Massey, 1984: 93). In the case of Mexico, concentrating good or better jobs or educational opportunities in the metropolis only, has meant large numbers of people spending disproportionate portions of their lives on the road, and away from home, risking their health and safety and developing specific cultures and ways of life that are not shared with their families, friends and neighbours, and find new relationships founded on the same single basis: the move. In this process, the State may be seen as passive but it can hardly be perceived as neutral agent, because it neither builds the appropriate transport infrastructure, nor acknowledges the sort of movement that is taking place or the consequences it has for those on the move and for society as a hole.

And in the case of the UK, the paper argued that the State has a direct and visible role, through its legal and administrative procedures, which are inevitably backed by xenophobic discourse and categories of negation such as “refused”, “illegal” “bogus” and the like, to perpetuate a permanent hierarchy of vulnerability. Here, the state actively condemns hundreds of thousands of workers – many of whom are highly qualified and most being more qualified than their native counterparts – to almost full exclusion not only from mainstream society but also from those left behind. The shame of telling family and friends that they are destitute in London or that they are now in a British, as opposed to a “home” detention centre, is too much to bear. The undocumented or irregular migrants live without an identity, or any form of protection for very long years, which they will spend working in the shadow economy, always exploited, and commonly in the extreme. Without their labour, London and its many sectors, from retail and construction to tourism and hospitality and many related services would have to be managed and paid for very differently.

In short, for both groups of workers that we have followed increased and normalised risk, exploitation and alienation from family and loved ones mark the fluid labour markets to which migrants are nonetheless drawn in the hope of a better life; be it migrants from the peripheral areas of Mexico, which have been left without any real state-sponsored development and support, but cross city borders legally; or migrants crossing international borders for safety or to do work, which the British state will allow them to do illegally.






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A Diagrammatical Presentation of International Migration in the “Globalisation” Era, here, there, and everywhere…

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Yema – Mother

I couldn’t wait to see her again, but I was so overwhelmed with confusing emotions that I could hardly breathe. The questions I had asked myself for more than a quarter of a century remained the same: was it right to have treated the last day like any other day? Was it right not to tell her I was leaving, that I had to leave? Which would be better for her: to lose her son forever, or not to see him for… years? Would I ever see her again?

She would definitely be much older now, but how much older? I had heard that her memory had been fading, but had prayed and hoped that I was still part of it. Will she recognise me without me introducing myself? It had just been far too long. 28 years is far too long not to see your mother. I always remembered the last time I saw her as if it was yesterday. I looked at her with the intention of memorising every detail on her face, every wrinkle, every perfection and imperfection, the exact location of every mark of history on her already broken face and spirit. She had already lost dear ones to repeated genocides, wars and dictatorships. Now, it was just myself and a sister left.

I gathered the courage to open the door and to go in, thanking my god for my sister, who had looked after her for so long, who had kept me informed of her deteriorating health, and who had now brought her to a “safe place” to see me. But more importantly for preparing me, just in case I could not be remembered after 28 years…

There she was. Sitting with her head down. I could hear my own heartbeat, and just tried to take enough breaths to be able to hold back the tears. She looked up, and once she did, the picture I had memorised on that last day vanished. I said “shlama yemi”, and she replied, “psheyna bruni” and smiled. The gentle smile that had not changed at all brought back the picture. My heart sank! So, she does remember me after all. At that moment, nothing else mattered. She remembered me, which was all that I could wish for. Looking down again, my mother sank back into her own world. I thought she can’t be indifferent or unexcited, so maybe she is just exhausted, a natural thing at her age.

Those moments of silence that followed seemed to be as long as the lost 28 years. I had to try again. “Yemi, do you remember me?” Looking up again, she smiled. “I think so. Yes, of course I remember you!” “Only, your name, I am not sure about your name.” “Sami, yemi, it’s Sami. Can I do anything for you? Do you need anything?” “Sure, help me take a good hot shower, will you?” Would she have asked me to give her a shower if she didn’t remember me? Maybe she would have asked anyone? No, that would be impossible, not my mother.

Time pursued its old cruel habit of flying away when most precious, ruthlessly and without mercy to even its own history of sluggish passage in the last few decades. It was time to say goodbye. Would I ever see her again?

A month later, news of my mother’s death arrived. I knew, at my age, that feelings of despair, shock, sorrow, resentment, regret and more might naturally follow such loss, but confusion? What was I so confused about? Why did I feel like a little boy again? And I heard her loving voice: “ Always remember my boy, I have done my very best to be a good mother to you. And a good mother will always be her children’s best friend. Always remember best friends are like angels; they are there even if you can’t see them”.

Dedicated to the esteemed Assyrian artist, Sami Yaghoub, and to all mothers who are forced to separate from their children but continue to give life whether dead or alive, in the MENA region and beyond…


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The following poem is dedicated to all those who are ruthlessly captured, murdered, raped and traumatised for life – forced to flee their ancestral homelands for refuge, displaced and facing an uncertain future for generations to come.

It is originally written in the ancient Assyrian language (Suret), which is their mother tongue and mine. The pronunciation (rtamta) and dialect (leza) will depend on geography and may differ according to original home or diasporic host country.

It reflects the fighting spirit of the Assyrians, the historical inhabitants of Mesopotamia, the Cradle of World Civilisation. The Assyrians might once again be kidnapped, slaughtered, plundered, and raped; their beautiful ancient villages, churches, artefacts and statues ruined. But their spirit, language, culture and history has endured for than 6000 years and will endure, leaving unquestionable marks throughout the world.

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The poem is also presented in Latin script, so that those who don’t read Assyrian script but understand Assyrian can understand it.

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Latin version:

Min yoomit qam khazanakh

Len mseeta d’mansheeanakh

Yan min balee paltanakh

La msawith menee b’ “chyura”

Danee eeleh yaqoora

Rikhqin men atree[i] oo nashee[ii]

Pshineh peshtevan bnoshee

Tkhoomnetin oo dooreta[iii]

Op en rekhqen min beta[iv]

Shoolet shlama basmanah

Ga palakha o oomana

O gatee b’tivil dermana

Gad la hawakh dukhrana

Sniqekh akhji yulpana

Aha eela hamantee

O le shakhlepa hal moti

En shookhlepla, la golat

Yadat letvali persat!

An English translation presented to English-speaking people:

To Shamiram,

My eternal friend, my people and family,

My teacher, and the teacher of teachers,

To the Goddess Shamiram,

To Queen Shamiram,

To Samiramis, to Samira,

To Tel Shamiram (Along the Khabour river, Assyria/Syria)

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An unrhymed English translation:

From the first day I set my eyes on you,

I haven’t been able to forget you

Or exile you from my conscience.

Don’t talk to me about hostility.

My burden is heavy.

I am far from my homeland and people.

For years I have been alone.

I am a Tkhumneta and a mountain woman

Even if I am far from home

The labour of spreading peace is healing,

For the worker and the artist.

And is my own medicine, wherever I am.

So we do not became sacrifices,

We need only learning.

This is my belief:

And it will not change until my death.

But if it does, do not complain.

Know that I did not have a chance!

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In this poem, Shamiram is the guiding light of the poetess’s life and imagination. She is her eternal teacher and role model – never to be forgotten even in the darkest moments. This testifies that the poetess has been in diaspora for time immemorial, bearing a heavy burden on her shoulders, away from her homeland and people. She is a Tkhumneta from the mountains of Hakkari and has been in exile –nonetheless, she attempts to spread peace to workers and artists alike. She believes that to resist destruction, we need only learning. She asserts that this credo will not change until she dies. However, if her mission of universal healing is aborted, she wants to make it clear to Shamiram that it is due to circumstances beyond her control – namely, her own destruction.

[i] Iran (country of birth)

[ii] Lit. ‘my people’

[iii] ‘Dooreta’ refers to the inhabitants of mountains, in this case specifically, the Hakkari mountains, an ancestral homeland of the Assyrian people. The recent ethnic cleansing of Assyrians along the Khabur River in Syria has led to the expulsion and abduction of many Assyrians who possess ancestry in Hakkari. The abductions in particular targeted Tkhumnayeh and Talnaye of the Tel Shamiram village, though not exclusively.

[iv] Assyria / Syria