For more than a week, I’ve been holed up in a friend’s place in Oxford recovering from a nasty flu, following talks that I gave last week at a UNISON event at Oxford Brookes University and at Wadham College, University of Oxford. It was after my talk at Wadham College that I became unwell. A friend who attended the talk suggested that I go the A&E and get checked out. It was near 10pm and I wasn’t too thrilled at the prospect of going to the A&E so late at night, but I knew that whatever was wrong with me needed medical attention.
After 5 hours in the hospital, a number of blood tests and being hooked to a saline pack in order stop me from further dehydration, the doctor said that I had a bad virus in my system and needed complete rest. The doctor was adamant that if I didn’t stop “running myself ragged” I would have serious health problems down the road. Prior to getting the flu, I was ill from the middle of December until the middle of February with bronchitis, having two different prescriptions of antibiotics given to me to help get me back on my feet. Of course, the antibiotics helped me to get better, but they left me completely depleted and utterly exhausted. By that time, I had begun the Justice4Sanaz University Tour having traveled from Leeds to Coventry to speak at the University of Warwick. In my heart, I knew I needed to properly recover from bronchitis, but my head was telling me that if I didn’t go on tour now I would be loosing much needed momentum for the campaign.
At the various universities that I have spoken at, people are surprised to learn that I run the campaign all on my own. I wear many hats throughout the day: fundraiser strategist, PR guru, blogger, campaigner, organiser, researcher, and para-legal expert.
If you think being a full-time activist is daunting, try doing all of those tasks each and every day while homeless! If I am not searching for ways to expand the campaign, I am finding ways of keeping myself off the streets.
It is not surprising that I deal with a high level of stress and anxiety, with little to no mental health support and often no understanding and compassion from fellow activists.
And stress can make you incredibly sick and affect your physical health. Last March, I was hospitalised for 2 weeks at Leeds General Infirmary (LGI) with a condition called functional limb weakness, finding myself partially paralysed from the waist down and being able to walk properly without the aid of crutches or at times needing a wheelchair. During the time of my diagnosis, the neurologist explained that functional limb weakness can occur if one is dealing with high levels of stress and anxiety in their life. Learning that my condition was stress related wasn’t surprising at all– at the time, I was dealing with an on-going eviction from the University of Leeds that I found myself in and out of court every 2 months, campaigning for Justice4Sanaz, followed by immigration matters, and finally awaiting a decision from the OIAHE. All of these these factors were stressful on their own, but together made it completely unbearable for me and my body was letting me know in a very direct manner that it could no longer take the enormous pressures anymore.
It would take an additional 7 months for me to finally be able to walk a distance without pain, having to use crutches or without the ‘pins and needles’ sensation I always felt in my legs that made walking so uncomfortable and awkward.
Activism is hard work and especially so for Black or women of colour. We often find ourselves marginalised from white activist spaces, told that our issues need to “wait” or that they aren’t pressing enough. In the three years that I have been campaigning, if I had a pound (or dollar) for every time I was told by largely white student activists that my case was an “individual issue” I would have had at least have enough to fund my own legal team by now!
Even now, with 9 student unions that have passed motions of solidarity with the Justice4Sanaz campaign, it is disheartening that I have to constantly remind these student unions that they need to show tangible support to the campaign. Simply passing a motion is not enough. While some student unions have been proactive like SOAS, who are organising a fundraiser for Justice4Sanaz, others student unions like King’s College London, Royal Holloway, the University of Bradford, and the University of Bristol have done absolutely nothing to provide real support to this campaign. The sort of message that these student unions are sending to this campaign, but to all non-EU international students is best said by a former international student activist who was recently graduated from Exeter University:
“There is rarely ever any solidarity for international students, who routinely face these sort of funding cuts, not to mention the visa issues that come with them. I’ve been involved in local student politics for years as an international student and always had to watch my step because I never felt like my “comrades” would support me should the worst happen.”
It’s no wonder why I feel tremendous levels of stress and anxiety each day. Not only do I have to contend with living in constant limbo, homelessness, campaigning on thread-bare resources, but realising that if push comes to shove, the student unions that have passed motions of solidarity with Justice4Sanaz, claiming to support the campaign may never actually provide any support other than “paper solidarity.” Again, what sort of help is that to a campaign like this?
When I hear someone reiterate that line from Audre Lorde that self-care is a political act, I often ask who will take over the campaign while I take time out for myself and engage in some much needed self-care? Self-care is only a luxury for those who have the time, the means and the money to disengage. For people like myself, everyday one must hustle and find ways to stay alive, stay safe, and most importantly, avoid being on the streets.
What I am dealing with is something that no free education activist can even fathom being put through.