Displacements, an IMRC podcast series

Conversation with the author: Kim Rygiel, "Fostering Pluralism through Solidarity Activism in Europe"

Episode Notes

Alison Mountz IMRC's Director chats with Kim Rygiel, Associate Director of the IMRC, Associate Professor in the Department of Political Science at Wilfrid Laurier University and the Balsillie School of International Affairs about her new co-edited book with Feyzi Baban, "Fostering Pluralism through Solidarity Activism in Europe: Everyday Encounters with Newcomers", published by Palgrave Macmillan, 2020.

Episode Transcription

Sean Lockwood [00:00:10] Welcome, listeners, to the second episode of the International Migration Research Centre's podcast, Displacements. In our first episode, Alison Mountz, Director of the IMRC, and Kim Rygiel, the center's associate director, discussed Alison's book, "The Death of Asylum Hidden Geographies of the Enforcement Archipelago". In this episode, the roles will be reversed, and Alison and Kim will discuss a new edited collection by Kim and her coauthor, Feyzi Baban, whose new book, "Fostering Pluralism through Solidarity Activism in Europe", was published by Palgrave Macmillan in the fall of 2020. Let's begin with Kim reading an excerpt from the book after which we'll join Alison and Kim's conversation. 

Kim Rygiel [00:00:56] In our own lives, we've spent years living and going between cultures and countries and finding humor, beauty and inspiration in the contrapuntal moments, but also knowing the difficulties, anger, misunderstanding and pain that can also accompany these processes of translation. This book is inspired by the joy, creativity, learning and power that accompanies this exchange of differences from such contrapuntal moments and from the belief that such exchanges are vital to our troubled times. The book highlights writing by academics, activists, artists and members of grassroots movements and civil society organizations that share this vision of the importance of meeting others across our differences and creating together in the process new spaces and ways of being out of a politics of exchange, and particularly in the context of welcoming newcomers into our communities. Many of the book's contributors find their own language to express forms of connectivity, exchange and contrapuntal politics by both exploring other concepts such as cosmopolitanism, conviviality and solidarity and through different forms of expression, including dialogue, multivocality, poetry, drawing and other forms of artistic expression, all of which aim to evoke this idea of living together.

Alison Mountz [00:02:15] That was Kim Rygiel reading from her new book with Feyzi Baban called "Fostering Pluralism Through Solidarity Activism in Europe". It's such a pleasure to be in conversation with you about your new book.

Kim Rygiel [00:02:25] Thanks, Alison. 

Alison Mountz [00:02:33] I'm really excited about this book. You and Feyzi have edited a collection of 11 essays that are really addressing what it means in our daily lives to open communities to newcomers. I especially love the opening line in your book, and I'm going to quote it. You say, This book, like so many of life's endeavors, arises from both troubles and inspirations, end quote. And your book really opens by enumerating these troubles. But you move on quickly to the inspiration. And this is something that excites me about your book as a migration scholar, which is the hopeful counterpoints that you offer. So you're really exploring these movements premised on solidarity, creativity, cosmopolitanism and cosmopolitanism and conviviality. 

[00:03:38] So, Kim, books take a long time to write, and I want to go back to the beginning of this project to ask you about its origin, what motivated you and Feyzi to write this book and do this research? 

Kim Rygiel [00:03:53] Well, I think I'll in my own research, for example, on the Turkish Greek border, which, you know, I've been going back maybe 2009, if not before. While I was looking at border controls, I became really interested and impressed by the actual sort of resistances that were happening. Some of these were larger and some of these were smaller. But for example, I can take the example on Lesbos. We talk about it now after 2015 with people arriving. But, you know, way back people were arriving and there was a really interesting project called PIKPA, which was taking over a summer camp. 

[00:04:33] And everybody was involved in Lesbos. It was the schoolchildren, the schoolteachers, the church, the islanders trying to create a different type of space and a different type of settlement from a camp right? This was an open camp and the people would cook together. And so I think it's been a long time that I've been, you know, looking at projects like this and being inspired. And so this project initially started out of a research project that Feyzi Baban and I started in Twenty Fifteen, which was a five year project funded by the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada. And the kind of overall question was to investigate why and how and under what circumstances some communities were more welcoming than others. And you're right, this was in light of, you know, seeing a lot of the rise, very scary rise of xenophobia and racism happening across European countries, but also in North America and the U.S. and Canada. And also, we should say, in Turkey as well, where we also do both do research. Turkey has been known for opening its borders to some, I think, three point seven million Syrians now. And of course, initial days there was a welcoming. But then over time, people have also started to show, you know, more hostile attitudes towards Syrians as well. And so we are informed by these responses. But we also felt that there's a lot of attention given to to the negative, to the polarization, importantly, to the racism importantly. But sometimes this can give the unintentional kind of effect of making it seem like it's inevitable. There's a sometimes a defeatist attitude. And we thought that actually all of these very you know, maybe some of them are very small, but when you put them together, they actually have quite a larger effect transnationally. These movements that are happening at various different levels that are really resisting this xenophobia and even preemptively saying we don't want this in my community. So we'll start, you know, a kitchen project to welcome newcomers for example, as we saw in Berlin with the Uber den Tellerand project. These were really important moments to draw and highlight, too, when they sometimes don't make it into the news because they're more of good news stories. But we think they're really important to be able to give this critique of this defeatist attitude that there's this overwhelming response of populism and xenophobia. No, that it's not the case. And there are a lot of people speaking out against this, really importantly. And I think we wanted to draw attention to some of the really important work that's being done. 

Alison Mountz [00:07:06] You mentioned the idea of paying attention to small things, and in fact, your book has the phrase everyday encounters in its title, and your contributors are all writing about these everyday encounters or moments of contact to explore this idea of living together. So for our listeners who haven't yet had a chance to read your book, what is it that you want everyone to understand about living together through everyday encounters? What is it that's so important about these small moments of contact? 

Kim Rygiel [00:07:38] There's a great passage by Sara Ahmed in her book Strange Encounters embodied others in postcoloniality. And this passage always stays with me. It's passage in which she writes about the figure of the alien. And she notes that whether the aliens fear to welcome the figure of the alien is always, quote, abstracted from the relations which allow it to appear in the present. And the only escape from this is through what she says is the encounter, or a meeting which involves surprise and conflict. And I think the book starts out from this premise of the importance of this encounter. We can't know what the outcome will be, and it may not always be a positive response to meeting others who are newcomers or others who are different in our circles. But without that encounter, certainly we can never get to know one another. 

[00:08:28] And I think research shows and there's so many stories we've heard about along the way where people who initially felt uncomfortable or weren't quite sure about, you know, the image that we see often in the news, refugees or newcomers or somebody who's different, that they might feel questions, skepticism, even fear. But once they got to know them, once they had moments where they actually just got to know them as people, their perception totally changed. So we had, we heard stories about people who maybe had, you know, negative perceptions of refugees, for example in Germany, who ended up through conversations, end up hosting those people in their house, or going to a church meeting just to question the newcomer and then finding out that actually they were very similar and had a lot of similar walks in their own life. And so we heard a number of these stories. And so it made us really think about the appreciation of getting to know one another and a lot of the organizations that we discuss in the book. And also, many of the contributors are themselves people working in these organizations, along with artists, activists who are really involved in a very everyday way, speak about the importance of this. 

[00:09:46] So, for example, one project Uber den Tellerand in Berlin, in Germany, the origins of this was simply, as we were told at the very beginning of it, that middle class people, for example, might not be of the orientation to go into the camps and sort of meet refugees coming in to Berlin, let's say. But if they could organize a dinner where they had one person who is a newcomer, refugee, who is a chef cook along with a local Berliner cook, and then a number of these people were invited, they actually paid money for, you know, for the dinner and they came together and eight or nine people would, you know, have a conversation, have a wonderful meal and then actually get to know each other. There was a way of breaking down certain boundaries that might not have been possible otherwise. And in this case, there was a sort of a class awareness to start the project. 

[00:10:37] But this project eventually unfolded into creating mobile kitchen hubs that moved around Germany and elsewhere. And the idea was really like bring people together over the sharing of food, over the cooking of food. They created cookbooks, for example, with different people's recipes to support the organization. And then people could come to get to know one another. And that ended up creating a number of spill off projects from doing basketball games and yoga together, to having dance parties to even creating sort of more work mentorship projects. So it really started from something very small, which was sharing a meal together and then grew much bigger. And so a number of the organizations, I would say, really are focused on this importance of meeting one another. And then beyond this, I would say, and this is where a lot of the artistic projects become really important in terms of trying to create a space together, create something new, a new space, and think about through that space, how do we share that space with others who come into our community anew. 

Alison Mountz [00:11:41] As a geographer, I'm especially drawn to all of the thought in the book around meanings of space and the places where we live together. And speaking of that kind of conviviality, I want to talk for a moment about writing itself. I know we often think of writing as a solitary act, but in fact, I know that this book, this text, is the outcome of years of dialogue and collaboration. So I wonder if you could tell us a little bit more about the process from which this book emerged. 

Kim Rygiel [00:12:18] The book comes about from both, I would say, a political and normative commitment to this idea of living with others across our differences and across our maybe cultural boundaries, but also comes from really a personal interest. So maybe I can say something first about that. I mean, Feyzi and I have both personally lived our lives in between cultures, not only as Canadians, but Canadians with stories of immigration informing our backgrounds. But also because we have friends and family in Turkey and, you know, we live our emotional and our material lives in between these cultural spaces. And really over the years, we've had many conversations about this. And it's actually that kind of intercultural translation which has provided a lot of laughter, a lot of love and pleasure, but also then at times very difficult, difficult processes of translation as well for us. And so it's something that can both bring a lot of pleasure, but also can be very difficult, but something that we both really value as being essentially really important to the richness of life. And so that idea comes from that sort of life commitment. But then I think in terms of politically, there's the research project I mentioned, but also we were inspired, we were at a workshop, I believe you were actually at this workshop as well in Germany. And at the end of the workshop, there was a coming together of the participants in a round circle and a microphone was passed around. And one of the things that struck us was, I mean, there was a hesitation on a lot of people's parts and I think for good reasons, in terms of thinking about how we build solidarity across different positionalities. And of course, that sensitivity comes really importantly out of awareness of our different positionalities in terms of power relations and where we're embedded in that, and not wanting to speak for or to take over space from others. But there was a moment in the conversation in which this long time activist who had been involved in the anti-apartheid movement in South Africa spoke out and really kind of gave a critique to that of us working in our silos and saying, how do you think, you know, we would have ever ended the apartheid movement had we not worked across our differences? And I think that was a really important kind of moment for us that also said, you know, we really do need more than ever today with rising polarization to really focus on this politics of connectivity and again, to to really highlight and draw attention to the work that's being done. So that was also part of it. 

[00:14:55] And then I would say that part of the book also you can see the wonderful contributions here by a range of people who are really speaking in their own voices, whether they be sort of more scholarly pieces, whether they be sort of more activist pieces, pieces for example, on Solidarity cities, some of the work that's being done in Berlin around conviviality and fighting some of the the racism that happens, particularly in certain places in Germany, in Dresden, for example. And other other pieces which are written by artists who have found their own language, such as the piece that's by Kunt Asyl, a creative platform that brings together a variety of people, but started in a project in Dalheim and started in Dalheim with newcomers. And the idea was about can we, you know, build a space, a shared space to live together? And so they're using in their piece, you know, drawing and poetry and dialog. And a couple of the other pieces also draw on dialog, right. This notion of having a conversation and writing a piece about it. So meeting these great people who were doing great work, we wanted to really bring their voices into this conversation and to show about how some of the ideas we talk about and maybe more of a scholarly level like cosmopolitanism or conviviality or even Said's contrapuntality, which Feyzi and I talk about in the book, how these ideas are actually not necessarily kind of theoretical or abstract ideas, but they're actually being practiced every day on the ground in these various different organizations and formats and languages. 

Alison Mountz [00:16:38] Wow, what a what a history this project has. I was at that workshop, that conference in Germany, and so much happened there. And it's amazing to think, as you write in your introduction, that this entire enormous project is one long ongoing dialog, joining, of course, many other enormous dialogs happening and activities happening around the world. It reminds us academics of the importance of coming together to speak because so much can happen when we when we meet and collaborate. And speaking of living together, your coeditor, Feyzi Baban is a faculty member in the Department of International Development and Politics at Trent University, and he is also your life partner. And so I wanted to ask what it was like working together on this book. 

Kim Rygiel [00:17:37] That's a that's a great question. As I mentioned, it's, you know, the dialog that comes into this book or at least the commitment happens, you know, as part of what we have been having conversations about for years. And, you know, again, through our many stories, which we take a lot of pleasure and humor in, in terms of particularly traveling back and forth between Turkey and Canada and some of the experiences of translation we have had in things that happen and trying to explain that to each other and to our families and friends. 

[00:18:11] And, you know, it's interesting because the the the work evolves over, you know, that's not necessarily a set time when we sit to write. It happens also over dinnertime conversations or in front of the TV or our love of film, for example, we often we learn a lot through film particularly, but through other art forms. And so I think that has also informed really our attention and wanting to highlight the important role of the arts in terms of being able to bring, you know, create spaces across difference. And yeah, so it's been a process that, you know, it's reiterative. 

[00:18:50] It happens over a long period of time, through many conversations, some small, some big and and then sitting down to put this together. And of course, I should say, you know, it also comes from the exchange of, you know, traveling and meeting people. And this has been so important. I think both of us really enjoy people and meeting people. And again, the contributors are all people that we met, you know, working on this sort of SSHRC project. But who just we got along so well with, they seemed to really understand our sort of our commitment to wanting to express the importance of opening communities to newcomers and the work that is needed in that, but also some of the creative ways of doing that. And so we ended up through that process actually hosting two workshops. One was at Humboldt University in 2018, and then another one was the following year in June at the Balsillie School in twenty nineteen. And in these workshops we brought together people to present on these ideas. And so from the first workshop, Barbara Caveng actually from Kunst Asyl, I think really made an important intervention in terms of the importance of the way thinking about the way we speak and the forms of communication and sort of giving a critique to academic language to say, well, why can't we also speak through art, through poetry, through performance, for example? And so we've tried to include some of that in the book. And then we tried to build that into the June workshop where we actually had hosted a whole arts event to open up the workshop in honor of World Refugee Day. 

[00:20:32] And so that involved, for example, some contributors, for example, like Thomas Bush and Sabina Cooper Bush, who run this organization that then hosted this Mahallah festival, which is a traveling arts festival. But in the process of it, they do, they build work with artists and do a lot of documentary work helping newcomers learn the skills of documentary making so that they can tell their own stories. And so they showed one of their documentaries as well as part of that and a number of great organizations, Kirkayak, I could mention in Gaziantep, which has been so essential in terms of opening up space for Syrian artists and for making a space where Syrian and Turkish people can get to know one another as artists and as people. They run a kitchen project for women as well. So a number of these people and organizations that we met who have really inspired us. So it comes about also through that. 

Alison Mountz [00:21:30] You know, above all, I think your book is really, it emerges from and is also a call for transnational forms of solidarity and ones that, as you know, really focus on the small, sometimes quiet, everyday politics of connectivity and exchange. So, for example, the work of artists and activists involved in grassroots movements. And I'm wondering if you could talk a little bit more about these kinds of solidarity and perhaps give our listeners an example to show why these are so important. 

Kim Rygiel [00:22:06] Yeah, thanks, Alison. That's a great question. In terms of the attention to, you know, what may we call the smaller, quieter moments or activities, and I'm not sure that, you know, all of the contributors would necessarily agree with that, but I guess what our our intention was there was that we spend as particularly we both are in the field of political science and there tends to be a lot of attention to sort of lighter moments of politics, protests in the street, you know, more formal social movement organizing in order to protest some of the xenophobic and racist border controls that we see. And, of course, these are important. And, of course, we're building and speaking to that literature. But we also wanted to draw attention to say that, you know, transformation and change also happens in different spaces that sometimes are away from that eye and sometimes they're not as loud and and, you know, not as much in the street.

[00:23:10] So the fact that you can make change by coming together and creating a cookbook or that you can, one project that we came across, although not discussed, only informed us, was a woman artist in Istanbul who had worked with in this case, she was working with Syrian newcomers and she brought them around a table. And as they started to decide what kind of art project they wanted to draw and she was doing actually it ended up being a large textile piece that ended up showing at the Biennale. They ended up talking about the stories about what it meant to be new to the city of Istanbul, whether that meant coming from outside of Turkey or whether it meant coming from a rural area into Istanbul and a big city. And through that conversation, they started to create their art. So, I mean, in that example, it's not only the end product of the art, which they ended up showing, as I said, at the Biennale, they end up sometimes they get sold and they raise money for the women. But it ends up being a creation of a community. It ends up becoming one of self transformation and one of recognizing your space in the city and hearing from other women how they navigate the space and some of the hardships and also creating relationships of solidarity, as one example. There are other cases, for example, one of the chapters talks about in the book, a chapter by Birte Siim, Susie Meret on Trampoline House in Copenhagen. 

[00:24:37] And Trampoline House is an organization that, of course, does advocacy around refugee rights. But it also is a living space that's created quite self-consciously for people to come together, both local and newcomers. And they have certain ground rules of the House, no sexism, no racism, for example, on homophobia. But other than that, people really have to learn to live together. And that involves challenging some of their prejudices, some of their their own, you know, assumptions to find ways to live in an everyday house together. And that becomes a really transformative project. And as a part of that, they had also developed this art space, which would host art that was either by newcomer artists or that was dealing with issues around migration and art. And so I think projects like that are really important. They're small and they're micro, but they really become the spaces that we live in and being quite conscious about how do we live with each other and is there a way to transform relations that, where there might be more sort of hierarchy or power relations to be able to create more relational ontologies with one another. 

Alison Mountz [00:25:53] I'm so glad that you ended with an example of trampoline house, because I think it's an organization that really puts art at the center of the politics of migration. And that's something I really appreciate about your book, which is that it also centers art in a lot of different ways and as a topic of conversation and study at the center of social movements. And in fact, at the center of your book, there are these beautiful artistic representations and also just conversations about all different art forms, visual, culinary, textual, film and so on. 

[00:26:27] So I wanted I want to as we kind of end our conversation, talk about where you end the book and ask you a couple last questions. You really end the book talking about briefly about Covid and about the moment that we live in and a global pandemic. And I wonder what your reflections are on both the place of art in the politics of migration and where we're at right now in a pandemic that on the one hand, requires that we live a part of the same time that we're all needing to live together. 

Kim Rygiel [00:27:07] You know, that's a great question. Thanks, Alison, I yeah, it's such a challenging moment right now. And I mean, I think, like a lot of people have brought to our attention, this current moment really makes us reflect because it brings to light really a lot of the inequities in our society that exist. And we know that, you know, not everybody is affected by Covid equally. It affects the most vulnerable populations more than others. And it also has brought to attention the fact that, you know, some of us have the luxury to have a home in which we can shelter down and while others cannot. And of course, we see situations like what happened in Moria, for example, with Moria burning down. Some say, in relation to just the complete horrific conditions that were there. And then covid on top of it happening in Moria. And how do people isolate how people, you know, even follow sanitary protocol when you're living in a space like that? Right. When there's one water tap for I can't remember the exact number, but something like twelve hundred people. So it really has highlighted all of these moments. And we're all hunkering down in our own spaces and we're all feeling isolated. But it reminds us of how important it is really to be connecting with each other. Right. It's really, I think, also highlighted at the same time the importance of relationships. The importance of building good relationships with friends and with family, and how how essential that is to our to our life and that we're not disconnected from each other. What happens in when, you know, part of our society affects all of us. And so it really highlights the importance of relational ontology, which I think we sometimes, you know, the current moment we're living in, I would say a lot of the politics, a lot of the political theories we work with, even those that sometimes, you know, seem progressive, do not necessarily take relational ontology seriously. And I you know, I would mention that feminist theory has been for a long time paying attention to the importance, of course, of thinking about relations in relational ontology. And I think this is a moment for us to really think that, think through that, really seriously and to to work much more in that space. 

[00:29:27] And I would say in terms of also, you know, it's been very interesting in terms of a number of the projects that are in the book written about if I take Mahallah Festival, for example, this is one where Mahallah Festival has been held in Istanbul. It has also been held in Malta. And there were plans to have another festival right before the pandemic. And of course, it shut down. It was not possible. And they moved to an online platform. And of course, some art forms maybe lend themselves better to that. 

[00:29:57] But in terms of teaching people how to make documentaries, to then be able to tell their stories and then to be able to show those those documentaries to a larger audience. So both a workshop and then connecting to the community, the dialog that happens around the making of the films in which people learn about each other, and then the actual sort of public screening of the final events that has been able to move online just wonderfully. And what has happened is they've found that it's even it's exploded. Many more people have been interested. And it's because of the the remote environment. They've been able to extend the boundaries of those who participate. So it's been actually a very positive experience for them, despite the initial kind of fear that they would have to shut down. So I guess I guess there's a little bit of what you've been asking me, but it is a it is a really important moment where where we have to think about how we reach out to others and the type of relationships that we build. 

Alison Mountz [00:30:52] That's really inspiring, Kim. I'm so grateful for you coming together with us at the IMRC today to talk about your new book. Congratulations again. I really hope everyone gets a chance to read this book. And it's been a pleasure to discuss it with you. Thank you. 

Kim Rygiel [00:31:07] Thanks Alison. 

Alison Mountz [00:31:14] You've been listening to my conversation with Dr. Kim Rygiel about her new book with her coeditor, Feyzi Baban,"Fostering Pluralism through Solidarity Activism in Europe". Please join me for our next conversation in the podcast series Displacements, which is a series sponsored by the International Migration Research Centre, where I'll be talking with Dr. Irina Aristarkhova about her new book, "Arrested Welcome".