A lifeworld is the reality in which an individual interacts and which they have the power to change. However, in order to be able to alter their lifeworld, the individual must have freedom and options for action, as well as others around them who are engaged in the process. Biographical interviews with young Georgian education migrants in Germany, conducted online at ZOiS during the Covid-19 lockdown, show how the social impacts of the pandemic have influenced migrants’ subjective individual lifeworlds and transformed their everyday lives. The respondents include married and employed graduates with permanent residence, unmarried students and short-term scholarship holders. Common to all respondents is that lockdown has changed their lives and shifted everyday reality online; through their computer screens, their daily experiences are now focused on two countries simultaneously. Although they have opted to migrate, they are still strongly drawn to, and feel a close connection with, their country of origin. Many also feel obliged to support their families – a feeling which the crisis has reinforced. As one female interviewee explains: “Because I live between two worlds, I often make time to spend with my parents. They are elderly. They need my care and affection and I need the same from them. They give me the love that is lacking in my life here.”
Many of the education migrants surveyed say they feel their “wings have been clipped” since their freedom to travel has been severely curtailed by the coronavirus restrictions. Migrants attach great importance to mobility as a way of maintaining contact with friends and family over long distances. They create new social spheres by connecting their country of origin with the host country, resulting in an interaction space that is independent of borders and geography. They thus operate at the interface and constantly move between two worlds. However, the pandemic has made this far less straightforward. As a consequence, the migrants have lost control over their own destinies and are forced into immobility. This weighs heavily on their sense of responsibility towards their families at home. As one female interviewee says: “The worst thing that has happened to me as a migrant during this time is that the borders are shut, which means that suddenly, I can’t go home. This inactivity is like a nightmare.” Many migrants see their homeland not only as the place where they grew up but also as a vital source of positive, nurturing feelings. An interviewee explains: “I have to fly home to my parents often in order to recharge. They give me love and affection. Without that, I feel empty.”
Thanks to digital media, the migrants can connect with their families online despite the geographical distance between them – to be in two places at once, as it were. Nonetheless, they attach great importance to visiting in person: “To maintain a sense of wellbeing, it is essential to have that physical contact, to be able to give each other a hug,” says one of the respondents. For many, the uncertainty surrounding when they might be reunited with their families causes great anxiety. In addition, longer-term education migrants with families of their own in Germany want their children to be able to visit their home country with no restrictions, to have regular contact with grandparents and learn the language.
For sociologist Hartmut Rosa, the pandemic is the most radical decelerator of our time. Linking in with this, the interviewees with short-term residence permits often talk about the slowing of opportunities. For many, their stay in Germany was meant to be a time of personal and professional development. Time limits apply to residence permits and study plans and must generally be strictly adhered to. For these students, the uncertainty caused by the pandemic puts the entire experience at risk by preventing them from taking up the internship offered to them, for example, or by narrowing the social environment so that no new networks can be formed or skills acquired. Here too, many of the respondents feel that life online is no substitute for the real world. Granted, as a result of the restrictions, they have time to cultivate more virtual contacts in both the host and the home country, but personal connections and interaction are critical to their experience of living abroad. As one female student explains: “I have a scholarship for two semesters in Germany. As a result of the pandemic, I have lost an entire semester at the university. […] Now, I’m just sitting at home and trying to complete my research as best I can.”
The interviewees anticipate as yet unidentified social and economic consequences for themselves and their host and home country. As they see it, although everyone is affected by the pandemic, the social impacts of the crisis – and popular perceptions of it – are likely to vary from country to country. Many interviewees talk about how the everyday experience of the crisis has strengthened their ties with family back home. The online sharing of daily realities has become the norm, with mutual concern sharply increasing and taking place multilocally. There is often a sense that “we are all in this together”. In such an unprecedented situation, they feel obliged to engage in transnational solidarity, both here in Germany and back home with their families.
Sociologist Diana Bogishvili is a researcher at ZOiS and a PhD student at the Berlin Graduate School of Social Sciences, Humboldt University, Berlin. Her PhD thesis looks at the impacts of social remittances by Georgian migrants in Germany on society in the country of origin.