Our ‘Mygration Story’ series tracks the family histories of staff and fellows at UNU. The aim is to show that many of us owe our lives and careers to the courage of migrant ancestors. People who left their homes to build safer or better lives — for themselves and for their children. With this monthly series we want to show that migration is not an historical aberration, but a surprisingly common element in family histories worldwide.
I was born in Aachen, a child of a German mother and a Palestinian father. As a German, I am the owner of the most ‘powerful passport’ in the world — a passport that grants me the freedom to travel and visit the most beautiful places around the globe. Yet, my Palestinian roots were seeded in Gaza, which is sometimes called the world’s largest outdoor prison. It may be this dichotomy between mobility and immobility that shaped my values and worldviews and also the way I am living my life: somehow like a transnational migrant, where home means more than one country, but also the precious feeling of being on the move.
My grandmother Elisabeth Bauer was born on 27 December 1924 in Imgenbroich, a small village in the far west of Germany, about 30km south of Aachen. Despite being close to the Belgian border, the village was initially spared the destruction, death and displacement of the Second World War. It was only in the late summer of 1944 when the Allies reached the western border of Germany, bringing with them the constant pounding of cannons.
The notice of evacuation came overnight and within hours my grandmother and her family were forced to flee, leaving their home and belongings behind. Since forced displacement is mainly related to fear, the loss of home and uncertainty, I was surprised by the words of my grandmother. While showing me a picture of herself on the road, she said: “We had nothing, everything was destroyed – it was a wonderful time”.
My grandmother spoke of the solidarity they encountered in the north of Germany, the friendly family who gave them shelter on their farm, the joy she had while working in an office, where she was earning her own money for the first time in her life; and the butterflies in her stomach, when she slipped out at night to meet the boys from the village. In the testimonies of my grandmother, the memories of displacement were marked by freedom and adventure, rather than fear and uncertainty.
Escaping the outdoor prison
My father Ismail Ragab first saw the light of day in a bunker in Beit Lahia, north of Gaza, where my grandparents had found shelter at the start of the Palestine War. On 29 November 1947 the United Nations passed a resolution, partitioning Palestine into a Jewish and an Arab state — an act that marked the beginning of the ‘Nakba‘ or ‘Catastrophe’ for the Palestinian people. My father was thus born into a life under occupation, shaped by conflict, repression and a lack of rights and opportunities.
Poverty takes many forms, and for my father the lack of economic perspectives was aggravated by the restrictive Israeli occupation and a lack of personal freedoms. When he finished school, the only way to make a living was as a day labourer in Israel, where he worked long hours under harsh conditions. From an early age my father wanted to escape this simple life in Gaza, and it was this aspiration for freedom and new horizons that drove him to migrate to Germany.
In 1970 Ismail left his village on a study visa to Germany. “I had good fortune and I took the opportunity,” he said, when describing his decision to migrate. Luck was something my father frequently referred to when talking about his migration experience. He was lucky because he received a stamp for a work visa, which allowed him to work alongside his studies and to send money back home; lucky because he was granted a scholarship to study medicine; and lucky because he found good friends and my mother, who made him feel at home in Germany.
In the current debate where migrants and refugees are either portrayed as passive victims or a dangerous threat, one easily forgets the human face of migration. What the testimonies of my father Ismail and my grandmother Elisabeth have taught me is that mobility can be a fundamental component of human freedom. If we understand human development, as defined by Amartya Sen, as the freedom of people to lead the lives they aspire to live, then mobility can enhance their capabilities to do so.
Through his migration my father was able to study, become a doctor, and enjoy the political freedoms of Germany. For my grandmother, the flight was not just an escape from the violence of the Second World War, it was also a liberation from restrictive social norms — a process of emancipation and empowerment.