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From the inside of non-EU to EU migration and the traumatic Dutch immigration system, towards space-holding practices for prevention.

  • Sep 06 2021
  • Jess Henderson
    is a writer, researcher, author and artist from New Zealand. She is the author of Offline Matters (Amsterdam: BIS Publishers, 2020) and founder of No Fun magazine ( She is a Senior Researcher at the Institute of Network Cultures and is currently running a transdisciplinary research lab on burnout with the School of Commons titled Band of Burnouts (

Drawing upon the impactful work of What Would an HIV Doula Do? (WWHIVDD?), a similar framework and infrastructure of care and knowledge could be erected of doulas versed in the immigrant experience, and for facilitating those who are undertaking it with being there whilst the immigrant is going through the immigration processes. WWHIVDD? puts it well when they articulate their understanding of a doula as “someone who holds space for others during times of transition.” When reading their work, it appears time after time that much of it is transferable to other situations of transition—immigration is but one such instance. If we think of immigration as also 'a series of transitions in someone's life that does not begin'—with arriving in a new country and the effective labelling of 'immigrant'—'...and does not end with'—a change of status or with accomplishing another level in the ascending sequence of tasks, exams, paperwork and/or further status updates. A particularly poignant document from the collective suggests “Twenty-One Questions to Consider When Embarking on AIDS-Related Cultural Production"[1], which were born out of a conference with a title borrowed from a quote from the wonderful Lisa Diedrich: "illness and how we do illness is political."[2] How We Do Illness is directly transferable to the immigrant context and experience, as so much illness results from the undertaking of these (systemic) processes. Immigrant burnout is but one psychosomatic manifestation of these processes. WWHIVDD?'s list of questions presents a "non-exhaustive series of questions (...) meant to be provocations and not put forward with the implication that there are correct answers." Hallelujah, quite literally tears fell on my reading of their contemplations. As I see the turn of my own work towards geopolitics, to the immigrant experience (specifically as a non-EU citizen coming to the EU, for now) and to the many iterations that are surfacing within the umbrella term of 'burnout'—it feels like an increasingly important, necessary practice to recognise that addressing these issues within a cultural production context requires querying and producing 'litanies of queries', like their “Twenty-One Questions”, from which practices of both reflection and awareness work might emerge. Like HIV/AIDS work, the contemporary immigrant experience has an intersectional legacy alongside its lived reality that needs consideration and incorporation. Another zine from WWHIVDD? titled “What Does an Uprising Doula Do?” [3] opens with a passage that breaks and expands my heart every time I read it:

“One of our core guiding values is that everyone - including our staff, volunteers, and participants - is worthy to give and receive love and connection."

Oh, how revolutionarily different our immigration processes would be, if only they could be guided by such an orientation. Though we cannot expect the official systems to offer us any such values, the very potential of conceiving of immigration doulas appears to open pathways towards more humane, sustainable and survivable ways of 'doing immigration', which, like illness, is done, and the way that it is done is indeed political. Taking inspiration from WWHIVDD?'s  “Twenty-One Questions”, the successive list aims to lay out a non-exhaustive range of questions that can be applied to the realm of cultural production in relation to immigration-related work. And, like WWHIVDD?'s list, these questions desire to be taken as provocations and understood to be without the implication of having correct answers. 

When attempting to compile a resource like this, one must keep in mind an awareness that those living through the immigration process and living with the varied and precarious statuses of 'immigrant' are often underemployed and underrepresented, in key institutions and the positions within them (such as museums, academia, galleries, and other cultural and research institutions, to name but a few). Some of the following questions come directly from the original exhortation, with little change besides moving their focus from HIV/AIDS to immigration. Others are entirely new and have been conceived from a standpoint of a personal experience where one foot sits in the precarious immigrant position, and the other in that of the precarious cultural worker. Let's see if this thought experiment can be as effective in engaging with the complexities of immigration and immigrant experience as the wonderful original resource.

Twenty-One Questions to Consider When Embarking on Immigration-Related Cultural Production:

  1. Are you an immigrant living with an immigrant status?
  2. As cultural producers working on immigration, how do we engage with the fact that we are participating in the creation of history and documentation/sharing of present, lived lives?
  3. Who are your people? Who are the artists, activists, friends, and lovers that act as both sources and recipients of your power, energy, and insight?
  4. How do you define inclusion? What does community mean to you?
  5. How are we incorporating the ongoingness of migration and immigration into our work?
  6. How to best honour the labour of activists, artists, and other cultural workers who are living as immigrants? How to best honour the labour of those who are living as immigrants who are not cultural workers?
  7. How do mental health, body politics, trauma, coping, and addiction figure into current representations of immigration and immigrant lives?
  8. How do gender, race, class, sexuality, religion, geography, poverty, disability, and other aspects of who we are, how we live, and how we are perceived impact how we understand and broadcast about immigration?
  9. What is at risk for you, personally, in creating immigration-related culture? What is at risk for the audience?
  10. How do we make clear that any expression of immigrant-culture is just a sliver of a sliver of the larger conversations about immigration?
  11. How do we factor in the politics of our collaborators and partners?
  12. How might we unpack the ways in which the state has influenced our understanding of immigration?
  13. How do we account for the ways in which immigration keeps bodies entangled and vulnerable? How do we account for the immigrant and non-immigrant bodies that are inextricably entangled and vulnerable?
  14. How do we relate immigration to illness and social conditions? How, if at all, are we educating on immigration in relation to illness and social conditions?
  15. How does our immigration-related work relate to the people who live as immigrants today? Last year? Last century? Tomorrow?
  16. How do we consider the relations between forced and unforced migration and immigration? How do we account for the multiplicities, differences, and similarities? Where do the varying degrees of citizenship come in, including those cases of natural-born citizens?
  17. Is the cultural production of immigration-related content a form of activism? Is it always?
  18. What are the ways in which we can learn, reclaim, and signify transitions and movement? Not just the transitions and movement of people, but also of ideas, tactics, ways of being, and experiences of living?
  19. How can we keep the physicalness of bodies, such as aging with illness and manifestations of chronic stress, at the forefront of our theorising and intellectualising about immigration-related cultural production?
  20. How are we pushing back against the fact that people living with geopolitics are often positioned as the content of immigration-related culture, but are less frequently shown as the producers or even the audience of that culture?
  21. How do we seek out the perspectives and experiences of people and communities living through immigration who may not already be part of the conversation?

This list has already been helpful for opening discussion towards dealing with cultural production in relation to immigration and immigrant experience. It also lays breadcrumbs towards potential 'answers' to the question of What Would an Immigration Doula Do? The list could be far longer, bursting with ideas and thoughts delineated directly from experiences on the inside of immigration processes, and more heart-work to dream upon. It's hard to imagine having someone to hold space during that transition, to be there through the darkest parts of it, a listener with understanding, compassion and knowledge to provide light and care along the way. This is the beginning of a new project on my side, that of following the steps of the work provided by WWHIVDD? into a new, situated infrastructure that supports and gives space to the immigrant experience and provides prevention of immigrant burnout, depression, chronic illness, suicide etc., for a more livable, more survivable future for immigrants coming to the EU from outside of it. This is not to say that I don't believe work needs to be done on a policy level to effect real change and to prevent all of the above from within the systems themselves. Work is certainly needed, and without that level of removal of embedded violence there is only so far that any space-holding company, like a doula, can hold for us. However, policy change is arduous, taxing, slow and draining. In the meanwhile, a function like an immigration doula could hold space during these transitions to minimise their embedded afflictions of trauma and pain, and shift the short-term towards a more survivable process that impacts the long-term effects of it.




Perhaps if somebody like me had had access to an immigration doula, the damaging cycle described at the beginning of this text would have been intervened in long ago. Perhaps it wouldn't persist as an everyday experience. Perhaps somebody could have held space and provided the guidance to believe and feel that one can "allow yourself to feel the pain without identifying with it." For now, disassociating from the pain remains a coping mechanism that only works sometimes—it is closer to a way of micro-managing burnout on a daily basis than a greater framework for moving out of the (psycho and somatic) trauma altogether. My story of displacement, sickness, and suicidal effects, is not unusual among immigrants. It is but one of countless tales that are living all around us, either unspoken about or unheard. I have since left the Netherlands during the pandemic, where I lost work and struggled to pay rent, food and obligatory health insurance as the government handouts didn't equate to the price tag of my living in Amsterdam. 

Able and willing to leave the society that never made me feel at home despite my own efforts to find a home within it, I was fortunate to receive an opportunity to study in Switzerland that I felt obliged to take, since living in the Netherlands only felt more difficult by the day;  antithetical to the supposed immigration trajectory, which is expected to get easier as time goes on, especially after a decade within the new country. 

Being an auslander again is hard. It surprises me how it never gets easier. But my experience so far in Swiss society has been soothing. Everyday interactions have been kind and thoughtful—this is my personal experience so far, not a definitive judgement of immigrant life in Switzerland. People appear pleasant to one another, acting with discretion and with thoughtfulness. For instance, if a stranger bumps into you in a public place, they immediately turn around and apologise with a kind smile. This is an aspect of humanity that was normalised in my upbringing but I noticeably had lost faith in and almost forgot to rely upon whilst living in the Netherlands. In Amsterdam I became used to everyday interactions being microaggressions, opportunities for confrontation, and generally frustrated and tense. Maybe that was just the way I was seeing things. Moving to Switzerland has given me enough room to breathe and to feel, which allowed me to arrive at meditating on thoughts around What Would an Immigration Doula Do?

Immigrant burnout, mental and physical health ( ideally to be seen holistically), concepts of resilience and guidance through the flaming bureaucratic system are all areas of work within which I have struggled to find companionship. Hopefully, gathering the energy and strength to write these words on paper might function as a stepping stone towards more deep, hard work as a collective. These twenty-one questions can act as an aid for carrying us all forth, immigrants and non-immigrants together towards a generative path of understanding and creative intervention in the lives of immigrants. They also provide how cultural production might play a role not only in awareness, but also in the prevention of the darker aspects of immigration processes for the immigrants living them. I'm tired, stressed and sick of living through this over and over again. I am not alone. All of this lies in the shadow’s want for illumination. It wants a full overhaul. 

*A note to readers with legal experience: the writer is seeking assistance with EU-policy regarding the practice of denying dual citizenship. If you are a lawyer or know of somebody with experience in this field, please get in touch with

  • Footnotes
    [1] What Would an HIV Doula Do?. "Twenty-One Questions to Consider When Embarking on AIDS-Related Cultural Production." How We Do Illness, 2018. https://tc3
    [2] Diedrich, Lisa. "Lisa Diedrich." By Jesse Miller. Full Stop. Last modified August 2, 2017. https://www.full
    [3] Muhammad, Abdul-Aliy A., and Pato Hebert (Eds). "What Does An Uprising Doula Do? Zine." ONE Archives Foundation. Last modified March 9, 2021.

    Jess Henderson, Coping Fella, 2021
    Jess Henderson, Guilt Fella, 2021



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