There is nothing like finding yourself unable to get out of bed, alone in a foreign country, to make you realize how vulnerable a migrant is. A flash of panic strikes through your mind. Then, some unexpected lucidity born out of the urgency of the situation reemerges to make you start listing your options.
My first thought is: ‘Make sure you have the phone and the charger next to you.’ If need be, with a phone, you can call an ambulance, your employer, or one of the couple of friends you have made in the short amount of time you have spent in your host country, which reassures me. This line of reasoning, however, relies on a number of assumptions I can have. First, I own a phone (a smart phone to be precise) that works. Migrants often find it difficult to find affordable and available to them calling (let alone data) plans. I was lucky to have a savvy friend who recommended a plan that I could both afford and that was available to migrants without a permanent status like me. Second, I can call an ambulance without prejudicing my status in the country. Were I undocumented, I would have had second thoughts about calling any institution that could potentially report me to the authorities. Third, I have an employer who I can be pretty sure cares about my wellbeing. I can imagine a number of possible employers for whom migrants are replaceable. Fourth, I am fortunate to have met people who I can trust in this situation, which is far from certain for many migrants. Last but not least, I can communicate, imperfectly but reasonably well, in the language of my host country. Such skills are more difficult to acquire than one may think.
Still, I do not call an ambulance because I do not have a health insurance plan yet and am therefore worried about the cost. I do not call my employer either because I do not want to be a bother. Neither do I call my friends, for the same reason. Honestly, ‘Please, come help a “cripple” [sic]’ does not sound like a solid ground for building new relationships at this moment. [I do realize the previous sentence is loaded with problems but I wrote it for the sake of complete openness. It reveals the strength of the ethos of independence people like me depend on. It also suggests a fear of repercussions in case of violating this ethos.] While lying in bed though, and after also experiencing an earthquake that makes me hold on to the edges of the bed thinking this may be the end of it all, a friend sends me a message asking if I am OK. Messaging back and forth with him cheers me up. I still do not ask for help but I search for it on the Internet. The smart phone allows me to look up information and come up with a plan of action.
During the recovery period while mostly stuck at my apartment, I realize how much I love my “plastic”. I really do love it. It provides me with food, cabs, and visits to health care providers, my basic necessities right now. In all seriousness, banking is a privilege. Opening a bank account as a migrant is close to impossible. I got turned down by every bank I visited but one. They only accepted me in that one because of my contract with the university. In exchange of about $8 a month, I can have a checking account with a debit card, hallelujah! As the financial officer of my center warns me, it is dangerous to carry lots of money, so I need a bank account. Once the promised check for two monthly salaries and the moving installment finally arrives, I will need to deposit it somewhere. Otherwise, I would need a bodyguard. If not, the money would be stolen, she insists.
The large check amount that worries the financial officer of the center is due to the fact that almost two months after my arrival, I still have not been paid. I will get paid eventually, I trust. My contract is with one of the most respected institutions in the country. It just takes a long time to get an ID card, then get registered with the tax agency, and then get the payment cleared through all the relevant institutions. The part of my mind that monitors the possible advent of worst-case scenarios can’t help asking though: ‘How can you get home if need be?’ The continuously and inexorably decreasing amount of my savings makes the answer to this question more and more worrisome. I wonder how many migrants do not get paid as promised. I wonder how many suffer financial insolvency and find themselves stuck in situations they cannot get out of. Meanwhile, I have a “home” to go back to, that is the country I was born in is peaceful, so I can return to it; and I have a family that could take care of me in case I need it, as much as I would hate being a burden to them.
I marvel at the fragility of the body. At one moment, you are strong and healthy and the world is open with possibilities. At the next moment, you find yourself weak and in need of care. Then, you grasp the full significance of systems of welfare. Again, migrants have the least access to these systems. How do they make it? I cannot begin to imagine that. I still do not have medical insurance and I worry about it. The insurance works through reimbursement, so if I were to get it now, I would still need to pay for the insurance and for the doctor’s visit, and it would be long before I see any reimbursement funds. Given the limited resources left in my account, I choose to just go to the closest doctor without an insurance. Which brings me back to my appreciation of “plastic”. Of course, when I get paid, I will get the insurance. Until then, any further medical care that is needed will have to wait.
While on the topic of bodily weakness, why not bring up another pleasant issue, that of sexual harassment, which women migrants face in disproportionate numbers. Again, I am lucky. I have only experienced two “minor” incidents, and the second one could have happened to any local woman. In the first instance, after a series of unwarranted personal questions that could not have been needed for the Internet contract, the cable guy declares his love for “the Bulgarian”, which in its Spanish pronunciation has a double meaning (also meaning “vulgar”). ‘Thanks, man! That was impressive.’ I stare at him incredulously unable to produce a coherent angry response in this still new foreign language. The second instance also stuns me. An elderly guy with a cane waits for the metro next to me. I offer him the right of way upon the arrival of the train. He refuses it and then plants himself unnecessarily close to me, given that the train is not crowded, way too close. I use my bag as a separator before anything else could happen. He then leaves the train at the next station. Note to self: Don’t be too nice to strangers; if you are, remain vigilant. But really, when did niceness become a sign of weakness and a perceived indirect permission to be harassed?
For the reader who made it thus far, I do not want to leave you with the impression that my experience as a privileged migrant has been all negative. The truth is, Chile is considered one of the most hospitable places to migrants. The country wants them and tries to integrate them. People are really nice to you. “Americans” [sic] (all citizens of the Americas are Americans according to South Americans) come here to fulfill the “American dream”. A permanent resident status, which makes you almost equal (excluding voting) to any Chilean citizen, can be achieved in a record time in comparison to other countries, particularly the U.S.
The general point I try to make is that, as difficult as this period has been for me, I have it easy in comparison to most migrants. With fewer resources, fewer trusted personal connections, and less access to the welfare system of their host country, migrants are a vulnerable population (in case you did not already know that).