Some words in the English language have a strange quality – they can get under your skin and physically irritate you. Like "foreign bodies". The moment I hear foreign bodies, I think of dust in the eye, fishbone in the throat, or a broken matchstick in the ear. Aargh.
Now, with a newsletter and website named Foreign Bodies, Fiza Pirani is challenging these images that we automatically associate with whatever we think is an unwelcome intrusion into our spaces. Her focus: immigrants and refugees.
Born in India and a resident of Atlanta, Georgia, via Saudi Arabia, Pirani is a journalist who wants to create a new narrative around the immigrant or refugee experience. Her goal: "de-stigmatise mental illness and vulnerability" in this community through storytelling.
I discovered Pirani on Twitter, where she has been canvassing for subscribers to help her project sustain itself. On the Foreign Bodies website, crisply designed with a little UFO in the logo, I read some beautiful stories. One I particularly liked was about an immigrant from Pakistan going back to Karachi after years and suffering the shock of a world permanently altered by climate change. There was also Pirani’s own story about the survivor’s guilt that haunts so many second-generation immigrants (it’s a feeling familiar to even me, a migrant in my own continent-size country).
I had not seen a platform quite like this, dedicated to the unique angst of the one community most parodied in western popular culture. At The Correspondent, our journalism is also all about building communities of concern and care. And of course, Pirani’s choice of mental illness as a beat that deserves its own home reminded me of my own story. I became curious and emailed her.
She wrote back: “Personally, I’ve always felt groundless, like I’m floating over imagined borders to be claimed by whoever will have me. There’s always been something about being a migrant that made me feel like an ‘other’. It left me feeling misunderstood in nearly every aspect of my life – until I connected with fellow immigrants and next-gen immigrants at Emory University.”
Working for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, Pirani once got to tell the story of a father’s grief following the suicide of his teenage daughter. She also experienced the healing effect the act of telling the story had on him. “It got me thinking: I don’t know if an immigrant father would open up to me the way this father had. Immigrant families, at least the families I know, would keep it all quiet. Never speak of such horror.”
Having lived with depression and suicide ideation herself, mental illness is also a personal subject for Pirani. So in December 2018, with help from a fellowship at the Carter Center’s Mental Health Program, she started Foreign Bodies.
“Overwhelmed by the myriad voices I heard during my fellowship reporting and underwhelmed by inadequate scientific research, I realised [that] it just didn’t make sense to lump all immigrants and refugees under one umbrella. I also realised that a lot of the (limited) academic research and news coverage around immigrant mental health wasn’t really being written for, well, immigrants.”
She decided that Foreign Bodies will be “digestible and relevant, something that gave fellow immigrants struggling with their mental health or wellbeing a kind of digital home or launching pad to feel a little more understood”.
Not every issue of the newsletter is necessarily relevant to every reader or immigrant, Pirani says, but there’s something for everyone, immigrant or not. “For example, we had an issue about cultural weight talk, in which my South Asian brother, who lost around 170lb in college, opened up about the anxiety that came with his weight loss, something that was lauded in our family and community.” She adds that each issue also features helpful resources, links to studies and, whenever possible, information for clinicians.
From a one-person show, Pirani now has the help of two copy editors and fact-checkers, including Nieman Lab staff writer Hanaa’ Tameez and travelling journalist Farahnaz Mohammed.
What you can do to help
Pirani wants Foreign Bodies to become self-sustainable so that she can start paying her crew. “We are all women of colour in an industry that hasn’t historically been too friendly to us, especially when it comes to pay gaps. The last thing I want to do is to take advantage of someone’s talent and work,” she says.
To get there, Foreign Bodies needs new subscribers. Pirani has funded the project with her fellowship receipts and personal investments and is now in the middle of transitioning to a model that will be fully dependent on paying subscribers. “It’s definitely scary, but I hope readers find Foreign Bodies to be a worthy lil’ investment,” she says.
As we head into 2020, if you believe a platform such as Foreign Bodies must survive to give voice to the world’s increasingly embattled “outsiders”, do consider supporting her by becoming a subscriber. I will too.
Have a great end to 2019, wherever you are, and thanks for being with me this year. Until we meet again in the new year, be well.
If any of the issues raised here resonate with you or someone you know, please know you don’t have to suffer in silence. Seek help.