The half-day journey from the US seemed significantly shorter. As Emirates flight 232 began its descent, I looked out the window to catch my first glimpse of the United Arab Emirates. This was my first international flight in nearly 20 years. I started to tremble as my long-awaited alternative to “living in the gray” – the colorless existence of the “paperless,” shrouded in fear and hidden in the shadows, was becoming a reality.
While still only a child, I embarked on a journey that would present unequal amounts of adversity and triumph. For two decades, I embraced the privilege and simultaneous pain of a life lived solely within the borders of the US. I received a world-class education and enough freedom to turn a seemingly crippling challenge into an opportunity. But limits were placed on my ambitions. I eked out an existence by embracing two versions of myself – one fully American, until documented proof of such was required, then suddenly transformed into the other, an undocumented immigrant. As an “American,” I’m allowed many roles equally – woman, entrepreneur, of Nigerian origin, engineer, American. But the minute it’s known that I’m an undocumented immigrant, the “undocumented” label screams loudest of all. This paradox of the undocumented American is one I share with millions of other “dreamers” – named for an immigration legalization aimed at granting legal status to young immigrants who have grown up in the US, most with little memory of their birth country – American in every way but paperwork. That was my life before Dubai.
On landing I followed the signs to Customs, doing my best to live this thrilling moment while projecting confidence I didn’t feel. I smiled while praying the customs official couldn’t see through me. He barely looked up as he gestured for my Nigerian passport – a relic from my life before becoming undocumented. His absent minded perusal of me was strangely comforting. Along with my passport, I had him an 8 x 11 piece of paper that was my UAE visa. Each second felt like an eternity as I chided myself for printing my visa in black and white, certain the absence of colour diminished the visa’s authority. He reviewed the documents and waved me in. How easy it was to step onto foreign soil and all it took was this piece of paper. At that moment, the authority embedded in that piece of paper seemed to me beyond belief. My entire adult life has been devoted to chasing after that same printed authority – a piece of paper that recognizes me as a person, not an illegal act; a piece of paper that acknowledges and accepts my residency in the only country I call home.
This struggle for acceptance is not unique. Around the globe, millions of people of different nationalities and socio-economic status are confronted with – or have been at some point – with the transnational phenomenon of migration policies that defer dreams and separate families.
That first night in the UAE, I reflected on the life I had now stepped away from and the providence of this opportunity to start anew. It began with an invitation from Professor Klaus Schwab, Founder and Chairman of the World Economic Forum, to join the Forum’s Global Agenda Council on Migration. Amazed and humbled that my work on migration policy had come to the attention of this international institution despite my being confined to the US, I welcomed this opportunity to share expertise acquired through helping to shape US immigration policy and the unique knowledge that comes from working daily with immigrants whose struggles I shared.
When I read that council members met yearly at the Summit on the Global Agenda in the UAE, with the 2014 Summit less than 3 months away the world seemed to tilt off its axis for a moment. A hundred thoughts raced through my mind, including the one I had been conditioned to hear the loudest, “you can’t, you’re undocumented.” But just as quickly I knew that I absolutely had to go this time.
Although this was not my first invitation to travel outside the US, but this invitation was different – it made me defiant. Defiance not as applied by a rebellious teenager but that which yells no more! No more waiting. No more missed opportunities. Not a moment longer of living in the grey. Despite being new, untested and previously inconceivable to me, defiance armed me with a single-minded determination – to gain distance from my past as someone driven by a constant search for redemption from the “sin” of pursuing a better life. As months became years, and years became decades, redemption was dangled before me by well-intentioned policy-makers, advocates, lawyers and family members as the hope for a better tomorrow. “We are so close” – those words soothe pain and stall time. They are repeated by so many, myself included, to comfort the despondent undocumented immigrant yearning to break free from the paralysis of a life repressed. All the stolen pieces of life – ambitions quashed, opportunities lost, the pain of missing the final moments of my father’s life without a chance to say goodbye – had finally given way to a strength that demonstrated its might through defiance.
To serve on the Forum’s Council was an opportunity to rejoin civilization in a way I had nearly forgotten, to venture beyond my by now self-imposed prison to help solve problems that stretched beyond my known world. Ironically, the Council had been tasked with promoting globalization of labour by encouraging governments and business groups to remove barriers to international talent mobility.
As the Summit date drew nearer, the barriers to my participation seemed insurmountable. I withdrew three times due to delays in processing my travel approval. Words cannot express the heartbreak each time I had to cancel, or the tenuous hope that surged with each reprieve. Exactly three weeks before the Summit, the longed-for approval on paper arrived.
On the first day of the Summit I participated in a private dinner for the Global Citizenship Commission hosted by former British Prime Minister Gordon Brown. Discussion topics included climate change, modern slavery, gender parity and, of course, migration. I shared my story with Mr. Brown as one of the people he had spoken of, who daily strive to find solutions for themselves and their communities and whose strength is born out of resisting the powerlessness that comes from struggling through untenable situations.
I clearly understood the privilege of this meeting with Mr. Brown and the value for decision-makers of direct exposure to those working on and grappling with the issues they hope to draw attention to. From a previous opportunity I had to speak at the White House in the presence of the President, I could clearly see that world leaders understand, as all policy-makers must, that including those affected by an issue shows an authenticity of purpose grounded in reality. Such exposure as a tool of social change allows for good governance and citizenry.
When it comes to migration and for the benefit of integration, seeing is believing and understanding. Policy-makers can’t afford to rely solely on statistics and second-hand accounts to shape political posturing, which far too often contradicts the economic and social realities of migration. The opportunity to be heard and have an impact sustains me, but it also strengthens my community and its determination to take up its cause to effect change. Exposing leaders in government, business, and civil society to the realities of those living in the margins of society, and their unrelenting pursuit for pieces of paper they hope will heal the scars of a life lived in the shadows, is essential.
Emboldened by purpose, I became comfortable on foreign soil. I felt like I belonged. I was fully American. I was fully foreign. But most of all, I was fully me. No barriers, no hesitations, I seized every opportunity to work with fellow council members and enjoy the company of new friends. I had retrieved something that had been lost – a sense of normalcy and the assurance that I would make it back home. And I did.
Undeniably, the Dubai experience was a turning point in my life. The Forum’s invitation to help collaboratively develop pertinent insights and solutions to address a global challenge helped to unravel the power of that paper. The simple demonstration that a black and white piece of paper could usher me into a new land unnerved me. More significantly, it had also challenged me to become aware of the power I had given up in pursuit of another piece of paper.
Yes, there is power in having the right papers and clearly certain papers are needed. But when we focus on the importance of having pieces of paper, we miss the real lives they represent – the moments of joy lost to frustration. The innovations lost to a lack of access. The years lost to unbreachable distance. No life should be should be lost to fear or lived in the shadow of a piece of paper. I know mine will certainly never be again.
The Summit on the Global Agenda 2015 takes place in Abu Dhabi from 25-27 October.
Author: Tolu Olubunmi, Special Adviser to the Chairperson, The Africa-America Institute, a member of the World Economic Forum Global Agenda Council on Migration
Image: A migrant holds his passport and a train ticket in Freilassing, Germany September 15, 2015. REUTERS/Dominic Ebenbichler