Students taking “Introduction to Critical Refugee Studies” this semester will host a series of events next week to raise awareness about refugee issues and critique conventional representations of refugees.
The class, a seminar cross-listed between the Ethnicity, Race and Migration and Women’s, Gender and Sexuality Studies programs, was instituted this semester after the instructor, Quan Tran, was made a lecturer in ER&M. It is the first course at Yale to explore critical refugee studies, a growing multidisciplinary field that examines the social, political and cultural critiques of refugeeism. Since February, the class has been coordinating events to comprise “Rethinking Refugees Week”, which will include a teach-in discussing key themes from the course, a tabling session and photo campaign on Cross Campus and an interactive art activity mapping students’ homes alongside those of refugees. The events were created by students in who opted for end-of-term service projects over research papers.
“Critical refugee studies is not only a theoretical endeavor, but also something that’s generative for students to test out some of the ideas in class,” Tran said. “The service project is an opportunity for students to translate what they learned and foster a different kind of thinking about refugees.”
Tran said refugee studies is traditionally more geared toward the legal aspects of refugee migration or humanitarian care. Critical refugee studies, Tran said, complicates popular understandings of refugees and complements other refugee studies courses already offered at Yale, such as “Migration, Memory and Law” and “Refugee Law and Policy” — courses both offered last fall. Tran added that critical refugee studies is unique because it highlights the agency of individual refugees and provides an alternative to top-down perspectives.
Ishrat Mannan ’17, a student in the class, said planning the events has given students in the class a better introduction to refugee representation and related issues.
“Students are given a chance to feel empowered by the role they can take, whether that is contributing to advocacy, raising awareness to their peers and the community or investing time and energy to refugee causes,” Mannan said.
The teach-in, scheduled for April 20, will address representations of refugees as threats and victims. Participants will watch videos of certain refugee narratives followed by small-group discussions where participants will discuss keywords including complex personhood, human rights and the citizen/refugee binary. Eric Phung ’17 said taking the course has taught him how to reframe discussions on refugees and has encouraged him to open similar modes of thinking to others interested in refugee discourse.
A photo exhibit — “(Re)presenting Representations: Refugee as Visual Subject” — will be on view during the teach-in and other events during “Rethinking Refugees Week”. The photos come from advocacy groups, media outlets and humanitarian photographers, and will have been edited by students to critique visual representations of refugees.
“These are narratives of pain, loss or victimhood, or of threat and otherness that erase not only the nuance of refugeeness but also the agency of refugees,” Catie Liu ’18 said.
The next day, students in Tran’s course will be canvassing across campus through a photo campaign. They will also collect signatures to encourage Yale to increase recruitment of undergraduate refugees and encourage the Connecticut Legislature to accept more refugees and strengthen infrastructure for refugees’ transitions. Next Friday, “Stories Without Borders,” an interactive art project, will be held on Cross Campus. Participants will randomly select and read a brief text written by a refugee. Then, they will draw a line from their home to the refugee’s homeland on a borderless map.
Daad Sharfi ’17 said the purpose of the project is “to compel students to reimagine refugees as individuals with complex personhoods and unique stories, using the voices of refugees themselves.” Not only does the activity ask participants to engage with refugees’ personal voices and self-representation, Sharfi said, but it also helps students “begin to consider the role that borders and nation-states play in our impressions of refugeeness.”
Many of the student organizers interviewed emphasized that “Rethinking Refugees Week” wants to spark conversation about conventional media representations of refugees as helpless victims. Sharfi said that the mainstream media rarely provides a platform in which refugees can assert themselves, adding that it is important to engage with narratives in which refugees own their self-representation.
Harper Loonsk ’18, co-president of the Yale Refugee Project and former intern for the International Rescue Committee, emphasized that working on refugee-related issues and taking refugee-related classes is and has always been relevant — “yesterday, last year and last decade.”
“Each of these [displaced] peoples and their countries have experienced complex and prolonged violence, which has led to the forced migration of millions of people,” Loonsk said.
Integrated Refugee & Immigrant Services, a New Haven-based organization dedicated to refugees in the community, resettles approximately 200 refugees each year.