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Worlds Together, Worlds Apart: Demystifying Illusive Borders

From left to right: Sunaina Maira, Ather Zia, Christine Ahn, Azza Falfoul, Nayrouz Abu Hatoum, Ingrid Vaca


On Valentine’s Day, the Mellon Research Initiative in Comparative Border Studies hosted a major event at the Manetti Shrem Museum: a roundtable featuring five leading scholars and activists whose work complicates our understanding of borders and borderlands. Above all else, the roundtable emphasized how only “expressions of love and caring can produce solidarities across borders,” not prejudice, fear, or violence.


Each member of the roundtable delivered a presentation highlighting their work. The first to present was Ather Zia, Assistant Professor of Anthropology and Gender Studies at the University of Northern Colorado-Greeley. Zia focused on the border conflict between Pakistan and India, particularly in the Kashmir region, where an unofficial border, the “Line of Control,” or LOC, separates Kashmiri living in India from those living in Pakistan.


Zia emphasized how the LOC acts as a “psychic border” that perpetuates death, disappearances, human rights abuses and violations, and the rape of women. Though the Kashmiri people do not recognize the LOC as a border, and often have family living on both sides, they are forced to build their lives around the LOC and the violence it creates.

Indeed, Pakistan and India are so invested in the LOC that entire economies have developed around its maintenance, roles which are often filled by Kashmiri living on either side.


The second to speak was Nayrouz Abu Hatoum, a visual anthropologist and visiting fellow in the Department of History at Utrecht University who focused on “the Israeli apartheid wall in Palestine.” Her talk focused on visual representation, primarily via photographs, of the wall Israel built to separate itself from Palestine. Photographing the wall, she argues, produces a testimony of a situation that Israelis don’t want to see.

For Palestinians, photographs of the wall symbolize resistance against Israel. The wall, like the LOC, is not an official border but a militarily imposed structure that functions as such. The way it fragments Palestinian society and creates multiple borders where none used to exist highlights, for Abu Hatoum, the impact of a colonizing state.


Next to present was Christine Ahn, International Coordinator of Women Cross DMZ and co-founder of the Korea Peace Network. Ahn began by criticizing Vice President Mike Pence and Prime Minister of Japan Shinzō Abe’s negative reaction to the handshake that occurred between North and South Korea at the start of the Winter Olympics.

For Ahn, this was indicative of how the United States and its allies are responsible for stoking the conflict between North and South Korea. She argued that it is important to remember that the Korean War divided Korea into what it is today, and that the United States and South Korea have done much to vivify the dictatorial military regime existing in North Korea via aggressive military posturing conducted since the 1953 ceasefire.

In light of the Trump administration and its threats against North Korea, which Ahn sees as an example of how “the gloves have come off of U.S. empire,” Ahn called for transnational solidarity in favor of creating a lasting peace and unification between North and South Korea.


The penultimate speaker was Azza Falfoul, an activist from Tunisia involved with Alarm Phone and Watch the Med, both of which assist North African migrants attempting to cross the Mediterranean and reach Europe.

Alarm Phone is a 24/7 hotline that receives calls from refugees in distress in the Mediterranean sea, while Watch the Med demands safe passage for migrants seeking asylum and denounces human rights violations against migrants.

Falfoul noted how both services have become even more important in light of EU leaders setting up a fund in 2015 to pay for “border security” aimed at blocking African migrants. This was done, Falfoul argues, without consideration for why there is so much undocumented migration from Northern Africa. Focusing on Tunisia, Falfoul revealed how devalued currency, draconian financial laws, and anti-democratic policies have pushed Tunisians to send their children to Europe as an “investment” towards their futures.  

Despite this, Europe holds little sympathy for Tunisian migrants. Falfoul showed how Italy in particular refuses to grant asylum to Tunisians, labeling them economic migrants and sending them to detention centers, where they are then deported back to Tunis. For Falfoul and other members of Alarm Phone and Watch the Med, creating transparency is the key to progress: Europe must be more forthright with how they are dealing with North African migrants.


Last to speak was Ingrid Vaca, cofounder of DREAMers Moms USA International, an organization which supports immigration reform, the curbing of mass deportation, and the reunification of families separated by deportation.

Vaca noted that DREAMers Moms is especially concerned with helping mothers who have been deported and separated from their children, arguing that such cases reveal the depravity of deportation and the extent to which it destroys families.

One of the central goals of DREAMers Moms is thus to assist children who have lost parents to deportation. They also provide access to legal services to deported mothers who are seeking to re-acquire access to the United States.

Vaca ended by imploring that we should all recognize the humanity of the deported, and that the southern border of the United States should not work to artificially separate families.


The roundtable closed with a brief group discussion featuring all of the speakers. They agreed that what they are fighting is a war against misrepresentation, and that providing historical context to intractable border conflicts is key to mending them. In the end, it is clear that a lack of humanity and common decency led to these tragic situations. An equally strong effort in favor of love and compassion will be required to reverse course.  


– Nicholas Garcia, DHI Graduate Student Researcher and doctoral student in the Department of History


This page was last updated: July 26, 2018



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