Border Reflections

In this blog I want to write about travel, international mobility, borders, inequalities and privilege, as a form of personal reflection which I hope will lead into a wider conversation on this topic. So please share your ideas!

The direct reason for addressing this subject is that I have been awarded a Kilroy Foundation grant, which is for “young individuals pursuing studies, an internship and/or volunteer work abroad”. I am really grateful for this grant, and I would like to make use of this moment to discuss the deeper meaning behind this opportunity to live abroad. I have an uncomfortable feeling about the inequalities that are implied in ‘the choice’ to travel and living abroad, as this is not a choice for everyone, and it is not always a positive experience. 

I am somehow embarrassed by my freedom to travel and volunteer abroad, especially while making personal connections to people who are immobilized and denied the opportunity to move around freely. 

I would like to discuss this inequality of movement through the example of the Kilroy grant that I received. My critical thoughts are aimed at addressing this situation, with the hope of improvement, even though that may seem too ambitious, as this is an inequality that is deeply engrained in our systems, both in thought and practice.

This is what the Kilroy Foundation writes on its website:

“The intent of the Foundation is to help develop individuals and communities around the world through travel and education. We want young people to have the opportunity to discover and experience global diversity, minimize any form of prejudice and maximize interest and involvement in the global community. This we do through our KILROY Foundation Grant scheme – awarding grants to students and young individuals”

It’s important to acknowledge that the Kilroy Foundation is fully funded by Kilroy International, in its own words: “a company focused on helping students and other young people to explore life through travel and education abroad”. I have done some research on the background of the company. It was established in 1991 in Denmark, and has been extended to Belgium, Finland, Iceland, The Netherlands, Norway, Sweden and Poland, which are also the nationalities that are allowed to apply for the Kilroy Foundation grant. Kilroy has many local ‘sales points’ in these countries. I actually remember that there is one in Groningen, the city where I grew up, next to the main university building. When I was going to the city center, I would sometimes check out the story front and look at the travel advertisements they had put up, which promoted trips to ‘Australia & New Zealand’, ‘South America’, but also for some educational programs abroad. It always fascinated me, as I have been interested in ‘the world’ outside of the Netherlands from a young age. I would complain to my mum that I had never been outside of Europe before and that I wanted to go further away. She always said: “Don’t worry, soon enough you will be traveling everywhere!”

And she was right. In my last year of high school, I was selected for the international finals of a geography competition in Kyoto, Japan. In my first year of university, I participated in the ‘Going Glocal’ program, which aimed to cultivate ‘global citizenship’ and included a one-month visit to Namibia. The mission statement of this program, which was organized by my university, sounds quite similar to the Kilroy mission: “The Going Glocal programme is a pioneering effort in education and research on global citizenship in The Netherlands. It aims to foster education geared towards social responsibility and the exercise of critical citizenship across the education system from university students to school children.” I remember this stay in Namibia as an exciting, but also confusing and frustrating time. In the university course preceding the program we had learned about neo-colonialism, the dangers of development aid and the problematic implications of ‘white guilt’. It taught me in many ways to be more critical about traveling to other countries, thinking about my own positionality as a white young European female university student with access to financial support to go abroad. It confused me that the interactions with young people in Namibia were presented as an ‘exchange’, while they did not have the opportunity to visit the Netherlands. Eventually, half a year later one of the leaders of the youth organization ‘Young Achievers’ from Namibia’s capital Windhoek did get invited for a conference at our university and his ticket and stay in the Netherlands were sponsored. Still, the fact that this felt so special was more of an proof that this was an exception to the rule that young white people can visit African countries but young black people cannot ‘just’ visit European countries as they wish.

Recently, there was a case of two young Senegalese men who came to visit family members in the Netherlands and Sweden. They had obtained a Schengen visa which allows its holders to travel within most of the European Union. However, at the Swedish borders, they were arrested and detained by the border police, who did not believe that they were merely going to Sweden for a short visit, but accused them of wanting to ‘illegally’ immigrate to the country. They were kept in detention for weeks and then deported back to Senegal. See the story here. At least this case led to some attention in the media, and questions where asked to the European Commission, but this is not a exception, this is the racial reality we live in. A few weeks ago, I attended a keynote speech by Nicholas De Genova at a migration conference in Istanbul. The title of the speech was ‘Anonymous Black and Brown Bodies: The Productive Power of Europe’s Deadly Border’ and argued that this violent border is not an accident, no unpredicted emergency or tragedy: it’s a predictable result of the EU border policies, “a cruel fact of postcoloniality”. 

I wrote down in my notebook, reflecting on this speech: “The border is not just the physical border, or the line on the map, the border is also constructed, imagined, created. The border can also be an idea, a narrative, a practice”. The Turkey-EU deal that I wrote about in my last blog was presented as a way of ‘saving lives’, as the European Commission writes on its Agenda on Migration: “The decrease in irregular arrivals has been confirmed throughout 2017 and the first months of 2018, while work is ongoing to save lives, tackle root causes, protect Europe’s external borders, and further strengthen cooperation with international partners”. For me, the European border policies are the cause of deaths at the border and the immense suffering that illegalized migrants have to go through. I say ‘illegalized’ and not ‘illegal’, because I think that no human can be illegal and freedom of movement is a human right. The Schengen Area is promoted as “Europe Without Borders”, as can be read in this brochure that aims to promote travel and tourism across the EU: “The creation of the Schengen area is one of the greatest achievements of the EU and it is irreversible. Now, free movement makes Europe smaller and unites us. Enjoy and cherish this right. Jump on a train or hop in the car and visit your neighbours. All this is possible without giving borders a second thought”

What happens if you do give borders a second thought?

How do borders affect people in different ways?

Who benefit from borders?

Who suffer because of borders?


Think about it.


Traveling the world is seen as something positive, but only for certain people. My experience of traveling and living abroad has been so valuable, and at the same time it also feels uncomfortable. Maybe I can call it ‘privilege embarrassment’. This is what I also felt while taking a ‘gap year’ (yes, that’s a privileged choice) after finishing my Bachelor degree. I was somehow embarrassed by my freedom to travel and volunteer abroad, especially as I was making personal connections to people who are de facto imprisoned in Turkey, not being able to return home, but also not being allowed to move to other places. I felt ashamed to express my thoughts, as I knew it would not help the situation in any way. One time I remember a Syrian friend just lost his job as a teacher in an unofficial Syrian school in Istanbul, because the Turkish government was closing these schools down. He was feeling frustrated and didn’t see a future in Turkey, so he was considering to try to go to Europe. This was the fall of 2016. He talked about it with me, that he knew a guy who could bring him in contact with smugglers to take a boat to Greece. I basically begged him not to do it, as it would be so dangerous in many different ways. I also tried to explain that he might not make it to Western Europe but get stuck on the Balkan route, where living circumstances were really horrible for refugees, in some places even worse than in Turkey. In the end he decided to stay in Istanbul and eventually found another job. But I still felt somehow embarrassed to talk to him like that, it felt patronizing. It should be his own choice to move somewhere. It felt it was too easy for me to say that it was risky, as I didn’t have to walk in his shoes and live his life.

I have had many of those thoughts, that it’s so unfair and I was just feeling powerless and embarrassed with my privileged life. I tried to talk about it with people, but they always say I shouldn’t feel like that, because it doesn’t make a difference anyways. I have heard from some other people who were in similar positions that they felt the same way as well, like from a Dutch friend who did her research at an NGO in Lesvos in Greece. We talked about this a lot. The feeling that you can leave whenever you want, while your friends have to stay there, as they are labelled as ‘immigrants’ or ‘refugees’. The privileged freedom of working for free as a volunteer, because you have the financial means to do so. So do we fool ourselves by saying that we are helping others, while we are actually just doing it for ourselves? To travel, to meet people, to live abroad, to experience something that you might not experience ‘at home’, to explore new places, have new experience, but only the ones that you enjoy, because you have that freedom of choice? My friends who are Syrian, Egyptian, Iraqi, Palestinian are also traveling and having all these experiences, but they are more likely to have negative experiences than I do. And it’s usually not that they chose to travel, but were forced to leave their country because their live was in danger and there were no future opportunities because of all the violence and conflict. Of course living abroad can also bring good experiences, new friendships, new paths to discover, also for people who are forcibly displaced.

I can’t help but feel uncomfortable about our inequalities. I guess on a political level it’s good to be aware of these issues, but then when it comes to a personal level I don’t know how to deal with it. What can I say? “Oh, it’s so unfair…” How is that going to change anything? So I am kind of struggling with this feeling of being powerless while becoming increasingly aware of this horrible injustice that this world does to so many people. That’s why I can never be thinking about traveling anymore in a careless, purely excited way, like: “Oh great, I am going to visit another country for pure fun!” Now I think about, I have never felt that way exactly when traveling, I think I have always had some awareness that I had opportunities other people didn’t have. But those people were always far-away strangers. Now I know people personally who cannot travel because of their passport, or lack of passport, because of their nationality, their ethnicity, because they are somehow seen as a threat, by a system that has contributed to destroying their countries. But I also learned through talking with my Middle Eastern friends that they don’t want to be seen as victims. And ‘refugee’ is a word that symbolizes victimhood. People want to be seen and treated in their own right, with their own unique life story, personality and skills.

Now this brings me back to the Kilroy foundation, which I recognize has a genuine ambition to address the inequalities of this world, as the head of the foundation (and the Kilroy company) expressed:

We in KILROY are a group of people interested in developing individuals and communities through travel and education. We want to make the world smaller without minimizing its diversity. We want young people to discover and experience that diversity. We want them to come back home – able to share their wider perspectives. Minimize their prejudices and maximize their interest and involvement in the global community. We, in our part of the world are a privileged few. It is not our purpose to look at the underprivileged and feel sorry for them. We have to support them to become whatever they want to be. Any citizen of the world should have an opportunity to fulfil their dreams – and the most important stepping stone in doing this is access to education. In addition we want to motivate even more young people from our part of the world to go abroad to learn through education or project work”

I think this is a great and ambitious statement. It would be great if everyone could fulfil their dreams. I would like to point out, however, that without addressing the inherent inequalities in our system, we cannot get to that point. Even if everyone in the world would have access to education, this still does not take away from racism, sexism and the many other ways (consider for example ableism, classism and heterosexism) that people are restricted in reaching their full potential.

You might think these are to many ‘-isms’ and I should not see problems everywhere. Just last week my Swedish friend Maja tried to have a conversation about gender with two young French men we had met on a trip to the south of Turkey. They seemed to feel threatened even by talking about the topic, or having to engage with a self-proclaimed feminist. One of them basically said: “Of course there are things to improve, but they shouldn’t make an issue of every little thing, it’s tiring”. I am wondering if he ever considered that it is also exhausting for people to make others aware of the ways they experience inequality and oppression.

Every day I am trying to learn more, become more aware, practice my critical mind, be more brave to speak up. And I also try to be ready to be criticised by others, as I acknowledge there is always something to improve.

I don’t think we have to be scared for change. I have changed my mind on many issues over the last years. I am still trying to figure it out, hearing new stories, considering new perspectives. And while this process might be confusing, uncomfortable and sometimes painful, I think it is also a beautiful path of discovery.

What does it mean to be human?

For me, it means that I want to have deeper conversations, feel intense connections, look people in the eyes when we speak and practice courage, patience, truthfulness and compassion to myself and others…(and other life lessons that I am slowly discovering)…

What does it mean for you?

One thought on “Border Reflections

  1. I want to write a few things about your definition of what it means to be a human. There have been times when I have strongly felt like that way about being a human. I considered being a human like a Cartesian ego – a mind that did not need to be connected to anything like society, politics, culture, history, not even a physical body. This for me was a more universalistic, humanistic and liberating conception of what it means to be a human. But then, time passed and for some reasons my conception has started to change… It’s been a few years that I have been thinking of humans as inherently social, cultural, political and perhaps most importantly historical beings. Is this a more narrow minded, nationalistic, or suppressive way of thinking? I am not sure. Maybe it is even more liberating. It liberates you by making you connected, by making you rooted, by making you stranger, by making you part of something bigger than you. But recently, I started to feel the more universalistic, cosmopolitan urges in me again… I don’t know. Maybe to be a human is always being pulled by these two forces – local and universal, history and eternity, land and earth, ties and freedom, etc.


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