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 series we want to show that migration is not an historical aberration, but a surprisingly common element in family histories worldwide.
I am one of the latest people in a long line of around 130 years of continuous migration in my family – a privilege to which I owe many of my accomplishments.
My mother is Iranian and my father is German. Although I was born in Germany, I was still a baby when my parents decided to migrate to Paraguay, where I grew up until the age of 11. After that, we moved to England, followed by another move to Zimbabwe, where we stayed for four years. Finally, we moved back to England, where I finished my high school education.
All this moving around meant that by the time I was 18, I had lived in three vastly different countries and was raised in a multi-cultural home. Being exposed to these varied cultures – which at times seem opposed to one another – has shaped my identity, making me both an insider and outsider to almost any group of people with whom I interact.
My maternal great-great-grandfather, Mulla Assadollah, left Iran in the late 1800s and migrated to Turkmenistan. His motivation was primarily religious since he could not freely practise his faith in Iran. Mulla Assadollah’s daughter, Zivar, was my great-grandmother. She died young in Iran, leaving my grandfather, Shoallah Aghdasi, motherless at the tender age of nine. As a teenager, my grandfather chose to migrate from his village of Seisan (northern Iran) to Tehran, the capital of Iran. He married my grandmother, Sanaiyeh, who was herself the great-granddaughter of a Georgian migrant in Iran. In 1973, my grandparents migrated to Beirut, Lebanon, which was then known as ‘the Paris of the Middle East’. But in 1976, as the war escalated, they again migrated and settled in the small town of Rugby in the Midlands of England. My grandfather lived there for the rest of his life, only recently passing away in the Covid-19 pandemic – a few months shy of his 100th birthday.
My parents met in England and shortly after getting married, decided to move to Germany. My paternal great-grandparents were French Huguenots who migrated to Denmark due to religious persecution. In time, my great-great-grandfather became the official painter for the Danish Royal Court, which started a succession of professional painters in the family. My paternal grandmother’s Rembrandt replicas were so accurate, art historians and critics struggled to tell them apart from the originals. Eventually, my ancestors settled in Hamburg, where my father was born and raised.
Neither of my parents was a diplomat, nor did they work for large multi-national corporations as many people (not surprisingly) tend to assume. They simply believed in the value of exposing their children to different cultures and ways of life. Perhaps most significantly, they raised us with the principles of the Bahá’í Faith which centre around the belief that our humanity and noble nature is what unites us as a society, despite diversity in culture, race, religion and other factors. To this day, Bahá’ís continue to be persecuted in Iran.
By the time I was an adult, the concept of migrating and leveraging my experiences to serve society’s marginalised groups had become the most natural and familiar aspect in my decision-making process. I chose to study in London and Barcelona and later worked in Colombia, Egypt and South Africa, before finally settling down in the Netherlands. I have had the luxury of being able to move around the world with ease and relative comfort without having to consider any obstacles to my freedom of movement or access to work. This is no coincidence. My privilege and opportunities are thanks to the steps and sacrifices made by my ancestors – plus being born into a family that gave me a passport to the world, both literally and figuratively.
I decided to study Human Rights Law and took a special interest in Migration Studies, especially after working with refugees in Cairo. A cursory glance at data on migration trends shows that a steadily increasing number of migrants around the world are either forced to flee their homes and seek asylum in another country or migrate in search of better economic prospects to provide for themselves and their families. Whether forced or by choice, it takes courage to adapt to new surroundings and to seek opportunities for study and work – especially when there is no immediate access to support networks or family, as many migrants find.
I am not blind to the challenges arising from differences in cultures and means, often resulting in tragic outcomes for countless migrants. I have dedicated my career to this topic. Yet, my own experiences have convinced me that there are aspects within humankind that elevate our identities beyond our differences. Regardless of a migrant’s culture, race, ethnicity, religion or gender we share the same fundamental desires – to find a purpose in life; to seek fulfilment in the deepest sense; to enjoy good health and access to basic needs; and to see our children prosper in safety and with opportunities.
The differences in culture within my own family and in the different countries we lived in were often acute. Yet, any challenges I may have faced as a migrant led me to acquire a crucial life skill: grit. It is a quality I have come to appreciate beyond measure and one which I recognise in many migrants I meet. Regardless of the type of migrant, they tend to be resilient, creative and for the most part eager to contribute to their host societies. I may not have a single national or cultural identity, but I do consider myself lucky to identify as a migrant.
The opinions expressed here are the author’s own; they do not necessarily reflect the views of UNU.
UNU / N. Hinrichs; Flickr / G. Sopakuwa