From Division to Unity: Shifting Perspectives on Working with Migrants

By Brian Dikoff

When I was four-years-old my parents took me and my sisters to a hotel out of the blue. I remember getting very excited when my mum told me we were at a Hilton hotel, which somehow I knew was fancy. I remember there was a wooden table by the window in the room, which I climbed in order to see outside the window. I saw what I thought was two men giving two gallons of water to an incoming mass before they went away. The rest is a blur.

That was May 1998. A riot had broken out that targeted the ethnic Chinese, non-Muslim population in Indonesia. My parents took us to a hotel because the road to the airport was blocked. We were lucky to get the last room in the hotel: it turns out that the incoming mass hadn’t come for water; they had come for us.

I guess in a way I’m lucky that I was too young to remember the scarring horrors of the tragedy where, I learnt later, thousands of Indonesian Chinese people were violently murdered. Women who look just like my mum were systematically raped and then prodded with steel rods before being left to die on the side of the streets.

What I did not manage to escape, however, is growing up within a community whose collective consciousness suffers from immense trauma; a community that has lost any shred of trust in the political system and the government and which, however misguidedly, sees “indigenous”, and brown Muslim people as the barbaric oppressors. So imagine my father’s reaction when I told him that, while I’m spending his hard earned money on my university studies, I am also working to help migrants and refugees including those from the Middle East.

There’s often a heroic narrative attached to charitable work. We see images of a malnourished, crying migrant woman and her children, and we say: “yes, these poor, innocent, victimised people deserve our help”. The problem then arises when – surprise, surprise – we realise that they are not just victims, nor can anyone ever be purely “innocent”. My background and innate prejudices, however, never allowed me to think this way. In fact, when I first started as a volunteer for Migrants Organise there were nights when I lay awake wondering why I had decided to work in this area. There is nothing rational about prejudice, and so I must admit that there were moments when, however unfairly, I couldn’t help conflating the people who sought help at Migrants Organise with those who had persecuted my people back home.

Over time, however, I learnt that the best way to overcome prejudice is through a healthy dose of reality. Once I started talking with the people at Migrants Organise and getting to know their stories, I stopped seeing them in terms of race, colour, religion or nationality. I started seeing them as Hassan, Fatimah, and Mohammad – these wonderfully complex individuals who are not just victims, but also mothers, brothers, doctors, accountants, and students; people who can be nice and pleasant, but also sometimes annoying and frustrating, much like anyone else. And once that shift in perspective occurred – once I saw those who come to Migrants Organise as people – it was easy to finally realise that they are very much in the same situation as my own people: oppressed and denied justice. The only difference is that here and now I can do more than just looking outside the window.

That is why I have been with Migrants Organise for more than three years now, first as a volunteer and now as a member of staff, advocating for the rights of particularly vulnerable migrants through legal casework support, strategic evidence gathering and public engagement events. I know how easy it is to project our own fears and insecurities onto others – so I’m determined to use my skills to support others in gaining the power, dignity and justice that we all deserve.

Brian Dikoff is a Legal Organiser at Migrants Organise. He currently runs the Migrants Mental Capacity Advocacy Project, which offers practical solutions to people who currently lack mental capacity to access the immigration services that they need, and aims to bring about change in the immigration system through strategic evidence gathering, litigation and network building.

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