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.
When people ask me where I’m from, I pause. I take a deep breath and try to decide if I should give the long story or the short story. I was born in Abergavenny, a small town in Wales. When I was one year old, we moved to Hong Kong, and spent an amazing 10 years living there.
With the Hong Kong handover looming, my parents started to consider options for where to go next. After living in such a bustling city, my dad wanted us to have space to run around. And after getting used to the sub-tropical weather in Hong Kong, we couldn’t face moving back to the gloomy weather of the UK. Our family eventually ended up emigrating to Cairns, in northern Australia. You couldn’t get much more different from Hong Kong. Although it took about a year, we ended up settling down and thriving there.
Just before my last year of high school, our family moved to Adelaide in southern Australia. It was in Adelaide that I completed my high school and tertiary education. I obtained my PhD in Computer Science in Australia, and then decided on a bit of a whim to move to South Africa to take up a post-doctoral research position in the field of ICT for development. The two-year position turned into a lectureship and then, a number of years later, into a professorship. I guess Grahamstown was the first place that I (rather than my family) actually settled: I got married, my husband and I bought a house and we now have two kids.
Despite the fact that I lived in South Africa for the same amount of time as I lived in Hong Kong, I never considered myself South African. If you ask me my nationality I am either Welsh, Hong Kongese, or Australian, but never South African. Perhaps it was the fact that my formative years were in these former countries. Or perhaps it was the fact that it was the first time that I (instead of my parents) had to go through the arduous processes of obtaining work permits that made me feel like the government really wasn’t that welcoming of foreigners. Last year my husband and I felt like it was time for an adventure, and we were lucky enough to move to Macau with our two young daughters, to work at the United Nations University Institute on Computing and Society (UNU-CS).
The other side of the coin
Throughout my childhood in Hong Kong, and now my daughters’ early years, we have been privileged to have been looked after by some amazing Filipina domestic workers (Rebecca when I was young, and now my daughters are cared for by Ana Liza). These women were (and are) amazing. Each of them had a story about how they and their families had valued education. Rebecca was an engineer, and Ana Liza is a registered nurse. However, because they happened to be born in a particular part of the world, the job opportunities that we would take for granted were not available to them.
To support their families, they took the tough decision to move to Hong Kong and Macau, and take jobs that they were overqualified for. What I find saddening is the general attitude towards these amazing women – at bus stops, waiting outside schools to collect the children, and just walking down the streets. At best they are ignored; on other occasions they are verbally and physically abused.
When I think that most of the people who are now parents in Macau were themselves raised (at least in part) by migrant domestic workers, it makes me confused. What can we do to challenge this widespread undervaluing of the role that migrant domestic workers play? Can we help these women to create support structures for each other (formal and informal; virtual and physical), to feel safe, valued, and appreciated? A space where they can seek help and provide assistance to others in similar situations? What about other people, who have also migrated away from their own support structures and are now in dangerous situations?
For me this is an exciting space to work in, and it represents the basis of one of the research groups that we are forming at UNU-CS. I want to understand how low-skilled migrant workers can use technologies to improve their situation, or the situation of others. Maybe this is because I too am a migrant worker, and understand what it is like to leave support structures behind. Regardless of the reason, I’m excited to see what happens next in my own migration story.
The opinions expressed here are the author’s own; they do not necessarily reflect the views of UNU.
Flickr / Kirill ΞΚ Voloshin