Published on 7th Mar, 2023
SCI Fellow Teresa Buczkowska, recently selected as an Obama Scholar, reflects on her journey as a migrant and as an activist supporting the human rights of others.
Migration is a story of permanent movement. We leave one place but we never truly arrive at the destination. As migrants we have to rebuild and redefine who we are in a new reality. When I became a migrant 17 years ago my new identity as an Eastern European migrant woman came with a prescribed position in a social order. That is the trade off for the dignified standard of living that migrants search for. My qualifications or life aspirations did not matter, my accent did. To fulfil the desire to be involved in something that both had value to me and valued my personhood I turned again to volunteering and activism. I was an activist back home in Poland, and that was one of few things that I could still do on my own terms in my new home, Ireland.
Saul Alinsky in his book ‘Rules for Radicals’ says that people act not on idealistic perception of the world but on self-interest that is framed in a system of their personal values. The system of personal values of every migrant woman activist that I worked with is based on her fundamental belief in dignity and agency of her personhood. Activism is the platform where we can realise that self-interest of protecting our dignity and agency. That is the cornerstone of my activism too. I came to this realisation when listening to a panel discussion the Power of Migrant Women at the Immigrant Council of Ireland’s National Integration Conference 2022. I was seated at my desk listening and looking at the composed faces of the panelists making statements rooted in trauma. Their story of healing their wounds through activism is my story, and it is a story of every one of my fellow migrant women activists. Their stories of needing to be seen as a person that has a value is a story of every of my fellow human beings.
Migrant rights activism is placed in a structure of immigration regime that compiles both the State apparatus as well as the civil society. In that regime the prevalent narrative presents migrants as either villains or victims leaving very little space for our voices. Even though migration is not a crime our presence is curbed by restrictive states’ immigration and citizenship laws. Even though migrant rights organisations recognise our dignity, often they see us through the prism of our victimhood, not personhood. Migrant activism is about carving out a space for our own narrative and leadership. The Library of Migrant Women project that was part of my Social Change Initiative Fellowship seeks to expand the space for migrant women voices to talk about our migration experiences, activism, leadership but also trauma and healing. The aim of that project was for us migrant women to be seen through the value of our personhood. To be seen through the prism of our own stories told in our own words. The goal was to be seen.
The first time I felt seen as a migrant woman with agency was when the Immigrant Council of Ireland offered me a full time job after completing my internship with the organisation. The second time I felt seen was when the Social Change Initiative invited me as a mentee to their Mentoring Programme. Ever since these two institutions provided a platform and networks through which I could access learning and support. I think it goes without saying that we cannot underestimate the value of being connected to well-established partners, networks and platforms. Being recognised in a public space by a reputable institution is a valuable resource for advancing our activism for social change. I would have not been able to achieve the progress in my work on my own, and those two institutions and people connected to them are an essential part of my story. The unspoken heroes of my activism journey however are other migrants, and especially migrant women. They have trusted me with their time and stories to help me create stronger networks and platforms to advance migrant rights and I hope that with my work I have given justice to their contribution to my journey.
I am on the move again, figuratively and literally speaking. I have moved countries, and I am moving forward with another idea that started germinating during my Social Change Initiative Fellowship. My time during the Fellowship was to explore the concept of migrant leadership. As I embark on the Obama Scholars program I want to take a step further. I want to explore the question of how can we transform our democracies to be inclusive and equal by creating a supportive ecosystem for migrant leadership? As Saul Alinsky said ‘Denial of opportunity for participation is denial of human dignity and democracy’.