“Don’t drop it,” I remember my father saying. I am three years old, a burst of
enthusiasm gift-wrapped in a hot pink down comforter, earmuffs, and wool beanie.
I’m stomping around the store in plastic rain boots, carrying a bottle of water as tall as
I am and insisting that I could do it. I couldn’t.
My memory of that day is unreliable, but I know for sure that I dropped the bottle and
spilled what seemed an ocean of water in a nondescript corner-store somewhere in
London. The accented storekeeper shouted something in anger, but I couldn’t hear
him over my teary wailing. I suspect my father paid for the bottle anyway, because not
long after, we left the store. That’s the only memory I have of my first international
I’ve never dreamt of travel —I’ve never had to. My first passport photo immortalized
my two year-old self, and my next was an ode to toothless seven year olds. The world
was never presented to me as inaccessible, and I never perceived it to be. Borders
haven’t ever meant much to me, and they still don’t.
I first discovered that I was an immigrant while reading the newspaper at three in the
morning on a cold winter evening in 2014. It was a slow night shift at a regional
hospital where I worked as an Obstetrics/Gynecology trainee. The women that I cared
for were mainly resettled Iraqi and Sudanese refugees. Many of them had
unimaginable tales of mistreatment on their journey to a new life in Australia, some of
which were perpetrated by my (new) government.
Until that night, I had never considered myself one of “them.” In the paper, I read how
the politicized debate about refugees had become one about migrant workers —a
category I had belonged to before becoming a citizen. Suddenly, in the media, and out
of the mouths of politicians, there was a conflation of issues, and “refugee,” “asylum
seeker,” and “immigrant” morphed into the same “threat to our country”—a country
that I had begun to call my own.
I have always belonged to the world, and the world to me, but that night, I learned to
label myself. Rather, I learned that I had a label. I realized that my story —that I —was
defined on a spectrum of migration. Whether I saw myself that way or not, Australia,
my newest home, would always see me as “other,” but perhaps less “other” than my
My patients, however, were not my first encounter with refugees. One summer, home
after a successful junior year in Australia, my parents and I were driving out of our
gated home when I noticed a procession of people walking along the main road. They
looked foreign—foreign to me, and foreign, specifically, to my country. Their clothes
were different and their features looked… perhaps East African? I couldn’t be sure, but
I knew they weren’t Zimbabwean. We didn’t stop, but neither did they. There were so
many of them. We drove for twenty minutes along the road, and we encountered group
after group of them, walking. Just walking. Hardly any spoke to each other, but they
carried their bags and children and just… walked.
On our drive home, there they were again, like ants, marching in a single file into the
evening. For once, the routine police shakedown disguised as a traffic stop was useful.
“What’s going on?” we asked a bored policeman. “Who are these people?”
“They’re refugees. They’ve been walking from Ethiopia and they’re coming from the
border with Mozambique.”
I was stunned.
“Where are they going?”
“To the refugee camp in South Africa.”
They had walked from Ethiopia to Zimbabwe ? And they were just going to keep
walking? I could barely comprehend what I was hearing. Ever the women’s health
worker, I looked at the women, babies on their hips and backs, bags balancing on their
heads, and I wondered what a journey like that would have done to their bodies, to
their ability to breastfeed or menstruate. I could not imagine it, even as I witnessed it.
I still can’t.
I will never forget how, when I encountered those East African “refugees,”
international affairs crashed into my unsuspecting reality. That memory, and my quest
to understand what I was witness to, is likely the impetus for this piece of writing.
Somewhere in those anecdotes, in the years between them, in the experiences
uninvestigated and unwritten, is a more honest and dynamic story of international
migration than the current narrative. Somehow, I know that I am seen as an economic
migrant and they are seen as refugees. Those definitions and labels have shaped
completely different experiences of the same international system of migration.
The format and tone of this thesis is deliberate. Academic writing, in an effort to
simulate impartiality, regularly uses a passive voice. But academia, as institution and
as discipline, has never been impartial—in fact, it often replicates the structures of
exclusion and oppression that I hope to highlight in my writing. In particular,
academic writing is often inaccessible to those outside of the targeted community, yet
it is among my theses that public policy, and its critiques, should be easily understood
by the public. I wrote this thesis as a series of essays in order to present my arguments
in a format familiar to people of all ages, in accessible language, in the hopes that my
ideas would be discussed and debated with as much vigor around conference panels,
as around kitchen tables.
The right to be read, and thus heard, in academia is reserved for those privileged
enough to access formal credentialing, and the most marginalized rarely are afforded
this privilege without a benefactor. The voices of those whose lived experiences we
study, re-interpret, pathologize, diagnose and offer remedy, are often excluded. It was
a deliberate decision then, to centre the story of a refugee woman, in her own words,
in my examination of the policy decisions that contributed to her experience of
The decision to identify myself as an immigrant, and a woman, in this introduction, is
not incidental. My life as an immigrant influences every position that I take on this
(and every) topic, and my womanhood is as central to this thesis as are the policies I
examine. To separate myself from this examination of migration would be antithetical
to my aim of centering the migrant woman’s experience. My identity as an immigrant
woman is the primary credential that legitimizes my authoritative voice, and it would
have been an abandonment of my thesis to exclude myself. It is through this lens that I
experience, and thus examine, borders as concept, and as lived reality for migrants of
all description. Borders and the policies that define and enforce them are both
personal and political to me, and every migrant who has to navigate them.
This series of essays, then, is a case for the relevance of the female experience. It is an
investigation of the various versions of international migration policy through the eyes
of the women who must traverse it, and serves as both an indictment of policy makers
and an argument for reform.