Hamidou and I travel past a plastic-covered landscape that hides rows of strawberry plants, a scene that the Spanish refer to as un mar de plástico, a sea of plastic. Hamidou, a slim, fit, twenty-three-year-old man born in Senegal, moves about Spain looking for work, first picking pears near Barcelona and now hoping to pick strawberries in Moguer, Huelva. Hamidou has lived in Spain for over a year—having taken a dangerous boat ride from coastal Mauritania to the Canary Islands. Because of Spanish law, he, like many other migrants, has no chance of living a legal, regular life until he has lived in the country for three years.

This is not Hamidou’s first stay in Spain; he made the risky trip in 2007 but was deported to Mauritania. In 2009 he tried again and says, “This time I have been more lucky.” Having been transferred from a detainment center in the Canary Islands to a Red Cross center for immigrants in Madrid, his search for temporary work has led him to yet another center in Sevilla.

Spain winks and nods at irregular migrants, acknowledging their presence, but forcing them to live below the radar—in a situation of vulnerability and social isolation. They exist as second-class citizens for three years as they search tirelessly for jobs simply to survive, and perhaps earn a little extra to send home to their families. The atmosphere of exclusion results in the cheap labor that allows for the inexpensive year-round Spanish fruits and vegetables found in grocery stores.

When Hamidou and I arrive at Moguer’s main plaza, immigrants from Romania, Poland, and at least a dozen African countries sit on walls and benches waiting for the strawberry picking to begin. This year’s harvest is late because of Spain’s unusually dark, cold winter. Hamidou meets with a farm owner and agrees to return with a friend’s residence documents to qualify for work. The owner will rent him a bed in a shared, cramped flat with thirteen beds—each costing €140 a month. Hamidou tells me he can live frugally, making €36 a day, and send money to his wife in Guinea. But when we return on a rainy day, the boss says there is no work, to come back another week. Hamidou gives him a sad look while simultaneously not looking him in the eyes, and bows his head; the Stuart Little mouse on his yellow cap hides his face.

I am observing firsthand in Spain, as in the United States, that the same government and economic structures that contribute to dislocation also encourage the dislocated to fill low-wage, vulnerable jobs. Hamidou and the various immigrants I work with and befriend are indicators of the health of our current, interconnected, global economic system.

Moving about Spain, I meet displaced peoples from Mauritania, Morocco, Senegal, Western Sahara, Ecuador, Colombia, and Peru, but my home base is the Centro de Acogida in Sevilla where I met Hamidou and other migrants and failed asylum seekers.

Facing a towering fortress Europe, most African immigrants say they intend to stay only long enough to receive a residence permit allowing them to travel more freely between their home countries and Spain, as well as providing a legal way to seek jobs in other European Union nations and to make money to send back home. In 2008, Spain granted asylum to only 151 people out of 4,517 seekers.

Driving back to Sevilla, Hamidou waves to African tissue vendors who purchase economy-size packages of tissues that they divide into small personal-size packs for sale. These men also had risked dangerous sea journeys and now struggle economically by selling disposable tissues from a highway median to motorists.

When I was growing up, the only time I heard the word asylum was in the context of mental illness; the term seemed antiquated. As I grew older, I heard this word less often until the late 1990s when the International Rescue Committee opened a chapter in my hometown to resettle refugees seeking asylum, and I became friends with refugees in school, on soccer teams, and in the community. By then, I viewed asylum as a productive process: refugee families found jobs, rented and bought nice homes, achieved high English proficiency, started new businesses, sent their children to public schools and then on to Virginia’s public universities. Asylum seemed a new start, a way to escape persecuted and dangerous lives.

Before departing on this Watson journey, I was primarily interested in how communities welcomed refugees and migrants, but every day I confront a universal truth of migration: no one wants to feel forced to leave their homes. Many would like to return home, but are ashamed that they have been “defeated” by the expensive journeys of migration that also have cost them years when they could have advanced in an occupation or enjoyed family life.

I have only been in Spain since the first day of 2010, having spent the early winter months in Sweden and Denmark. While living in Denmark, I forgot sometimes that there even was a sky: instead, shades of grays and blues blend into  each other — asphalt, ocean, lakes, bicycle paths, concrete buildings, wind turbines, sand dunes all smudging together. To most of the Danes and Swedes I met, newly arriving asylum seekers were hidden away, like their sky. In Denmark, unlike Spain, it is rare to find undocumented migrants living in society. Denmark’s asylum seekers or irregular migrants generally live in small-town centers waiting to receive asylum and resettlement, or to be deported. An appeal of an unsuccessful case could take as long as fifteen years.

To visit to Samir in Denmark’s Sigerslev asylum center, I need to travel on a Red Cross bus. I am going there for a party to celebrate an Afghan man’s recently granted positive asylum status. When I arrive in the nearest town, Samir is waiting for me. We hug and shake hands. Using body language learned from Afghans, I put my hand on my chest and bow my head slightly, thanking him for inviting me. He talks with me in his best American (southern) accent that he learned while working on USAID projects with US officials and the military. His shiny black hair always looks wet and his face is constantly speckled with the same density of stubble. His static features seem sadly fitting for his static immigration status: four months in Copenhagen waiting for an initial interview; he is in Phase II.

The scale of migration from Iraq and Afghanistan amazes me: Afghan and Iraqi refugees account for half of all refugees under the responsibility of the United Nations High Commission for Refugees. One out of four refugees in the world is from Afghanistan. A small percentage of the refugees from societies spun into constant fear of local or international military forces make it to Europe, each paying human smugglers at least $15,000 to arrange for transport to European Union countries.

My interpretation of asylum is changing. I see “progressive, developed” nations implementing policies and procedures to isolate asylum seekers. I observe substance abuse and emerging mental illnesses that exacerbate the almost universal identity questions associated with migration. I detect that space for the displaced is delineated and deliberate. Denmark places asylum seekers in centers far from its main cities, often in old psychiatric hospitals or military bases, always with a buffer between refugees and towns — it may be a forest or agricultural land. Often the asylum seekers are allowed to come and go on their own, but the remote locations of the centers may require taking several buses and trains to reach a city.

On the crowded Red Cross bus taking us to the Sigerslev asylum center, guys from Afghanistan, Zimbabwe, Syria, Iraq, Nigeria, Iran, Eritrea talk loudly and thrust arms in the air as they speak. They all want to know what I am doing, asking, “Are you a photojournalist?” At the center, Samir and I walk through a gate to enter the compound where a Red Cross flag droops from a tall, metal pole. We pass rows of brick buildings in a tree-dotted courtyard to the last building where Samir resides.

Through glass windows and doors many residents stare, trying to figure out who I am. Inside, Samir introduces me to his roommate Kandahari whose black irises swim in constant tears. He is called Kandahari because he is the only one in the center from Kandahar. He receives a call on his cell phone.

Afterwards, Samir knows the look on his roommate’s face and asks, “What’s up?” Kandahari whispers something, then throws his head in his hands. When he lifts his head, his eyes are red and glassy. Later he has horrible dreams and shouts and gasps and thrusts in bed until morning. The floor lamp covered with a red cloth beams a soft glow in the corner of the room, but it is not enough to calm the memories and images that haunt him.

That night, men dance and play pool, laughing as I clumsily handle the cue. By three or four in the morning, I fall asleep on the bed of a guy who stays with a sister in Copenhagen. Waking the next day, I hear Kandahari boiling water to make me a cup of instant coffee to go along with a delicious mixture of finely crushed nuts, fruits, cinnamon, and sugar. “This is good morning food for the brain, makes you ready to start day,” a friend comments.

On the train back to Copenhagen the day after the party, Heshmat, the man who received his positive asylum status, reflected on what his new status would require: “We all have three personalities: the personality we think we have, the personality we’d like to have, and the personality we think society demands from us. Now, I’m trying to work with these three.”


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