cities in an era of migration

(Montreal) I’ve had opportunities to visit several cities since July and have enjoyed watching migrants in those spaces.

In Cordoba, Spain, the cathedral was once one of the world’s great mosques. I watched many Muslim visitors, especially young Francophone Arabs. I wondered how they interpreted this space, with its Islamic heritage and its boldly Catholic symbolism. (In a terrible act of vandalism, Charles V dropped a cathedral right in the middle of its coolly harmonious aisles.) Meanwhile, Grenada now has a mosque for the first time since the renaissance, serving its substantial and growing Moroccan population.

Forty-five percent of Augsburg’s population consists of migrants. I heard second-hand about an African migrant’s strong critique of structural racism, which reinforces what I have learned on other recent visits to Germany. (I was in Weimar last November.) However, superficially, Augsburg appears to be a lively and diverse city in which people from many part of the world–including, now, thousands of displaced Ukrainians–interact quite productively. It’s also nice that Augsburg doesn’t seem to draw many tourists, despite being very attractive and interesting. That means that the diverse population seems committed to the place. For instance, they are rapidly learning German.

Iceland’s national citizen population is about 366,000, and each year before the pandemic it was receiving about 2.3 million visitors (counting the ones who stayed at least one night). Meanwhile, citizens of the Schengen zone can easily get Icelandic work permits. As a result, Reykjavik has turned into one of those global transit zones, where a sample of the world’s wealthier countries–plus a few refugees–parades through public spaces, being greeted and served by people who are almost as diverse as the visitors. Although Dubai is Iceland’s opposite in many other respects (from climate to politics), it is another example of this category.

Now I’m in Montreal, which I always enjoy as a bilingual city that is also a magnet for migrants from the whole world. I love the “bonjour hi” greeting, which invites one to respond in French or English. (As someone whose French is not bad, but is generally much worse than the locals’ English, I’m not sure what is expected of me.) I also enjoy watching the trilingualism of many recent immigrants. The men who served me my “shawarma poutine magique mix” communicated amongst themselves in Arabic, and with their customers in rapid-fire English and French. The actual dish combined tater tots, shawarma meat, hot sauce, cheese, and fresh parsley in an apt melange.

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About Peter

Associate Dean for Research and the Lincoln Filene Professor of Citizenship and Public Affairs at Tufts University's Tisch College of Civic Life. Concerned about civic education, civic engagement, and democratic reform in the United States and elsewhere.