The Forgotten Refugees

The Forgotten Refugees

With the refugee crisis reaching global proportions, Sophia Balakian focuses on the least publicized refugee community—Africans


Proud Camp Nubar alumnus and Cambridge-based cultural anthropologist Sophia Balakian is currently researching transnational refugee resettlement and the systems that govern these policies. Now completing her post-doctoral fellowship at the Academy for International and Area Studies at Harvard University, Balakian is working on her book about the plight of African refugee communities, based on her field work in Kenya and the United States. The subject couldn’t be more relevant and instructive at a time when refugee issues are prominent in the news media but not all communities are covered adequately. Balakian fills in the blanks. 

Q.What led you to study the refugee communities of African countries in particular?

A. My interest in refugees and displacement was largely rooted in my own family history and story. As a descendant of survivors of the genocide, I grew up around a lot of stories about survival and displacement and adaptation. As someone who participated in the cultural and social life of the Armenian community growing up, primarily through Camp Nubar, I was really interested in how a community defined this identity out of this traumatic past, what that meant for a community generations later. Those questions really animated me and my interest in cultural anthropology and social issues, but my specific interest in refugees and displacement largely came out of the narratives I grew up around about my family. The book that I’m working on right now is about refugee resettlement systems.

Q.Which regions of Africa does your work focus on?

A.I work between Nairobi, the capital city of the east African country of Kenya, and the U.S. Kenya is a huge host of refugees from around east Africa, central Africa, and the Horn of Africa. Many of these folks live in refugee camps, and many of them live in the capital. Often, they live between the capital and refugee camps. 

Q.What aspects of the refugee experience do you research? 

A.I study displaced people, who are living in Nairobi, mostly from Somalia, and the Democratic Republic of the Congo. My focus is the humanitarian and political systems that work to govern and aid refugees, and that bring refugees to a third country. Not their home country or their country of first asylum, which is Kenya, but a third country, which will grant them a path to citizenship. I focus on U.S. policy, and how refugees navigate these complex systems, which are often designed to keep them at bay. On one hand, these are systems that purport to aid refugees, but refugees have very little recourse to these systems, or ability to access them on their own terms. One of the questions that drives my research is, why, in this age, are refugees treated with so much suspicion and mistrust?

Q.What key insights have you gained from your work in African communities?

A.While programs like refugee resettlement, where refugees are resettled to a country that will offer them a path to citizenship, like the U.S., are outwardly humanitarian, they are also very much structured by national security imperatives and concerns. Refugees’ ability to access these programs and their ability to make demands or make claims or put forth their rights, are very, very, very limited. One of the things I find is that there’s enormous mistrust between organizations that aid refugees, and refugees themselves, and that humanitarianism appears to be increasingly structured by or undergirded by, security concerns in an age of war on terror and securitization. 

Q.What are the main challenges in reuniting refugee families?

A.One of the questions I pursued in my research was the introduction of DNA testing in reunification cases. I explored what happens when families formed out of the crucible of war and death, displacement and violence, are required to fit a biological nuclear family model. What I found in that case is that refugee reunification programs can disrupt families as much as they reunify them. And this wouldn’t be unfamiliar to a lot of Armenian families, the families that have escaped civil war and violence are often much more complex than a simple biological nuclear family. 

As we see family separations on the U.S. Mexico border, and other issues coming up in immigration policy, there are certain themes that are coming up more publicly. The introduction of DNA testing in the U.S. refugee family reunification program first came up in about 2008, and then was seriously implemented in 2012. That was a period when the U.S. refugee program was not much in the public discourse, and that’s changed a bit since the current administration. We’re hearing a lot more about refugees, I think, than we did five or 10 years ago. 

Q.How has your work impacted your worldview?

A.It is emotionally and psychologically challenging working with folks who often seem to be in very hopeless situations. In other ways, you see that people are very resilient and despite a lack of the rights and protections that are theoretically guaranteed by citizenship, people are finding ways to make do. There’s pain and suffering, but there’s also resilience.

Banner photo: Balakian in her office at Harvard University in Carmbridge, Massachusetts. Photo by Noah Willman

Originally published in the 2020-05-01​ issue of AGBU Insider. end character

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