May 22, 2014

Georgetown Researchers Offer New Perspective On Urban Refugees

Researchers at Georgetown are taking a new approach to scholarly research on refugees through the Urban Refugees Project at the Institute for the Study of International Migration (ISIM).  The project seeks to better understand the conditions refugees face in urban settings across Jordan, Lebanon, and Malaysia, their experiences, and the policies that affect them.

At ISIM, researchers are making sure to not only study refugee populations that make the latest headlines, but also refugees who fled or were expelled from their homes years ago and continue to linger in cities around the world without current media attention.

Urban Context

ISIM, collaborating with the Center for Contemporary Arab Studies, both under the School of Foreign Service, received funding from the U.S. Department of State’s Bureau of Population, Refugees and Migration to explore the growing significance of cities to refugee populations as destinations, sites of humanitarian aid, and places of increased interactions with other populations.

While most research on refugee populations has focused on comparing the experiences of one ethnic refugee group to another, the Urban Refugees Project introduces a new methodology of comparing the experiences of refugees to those of the native urban poor. 

“Refugees’ experiences are often determined more by the flavor of the locality, rather than the refugee population itself or the UN convention that is meant to provide assistance to them,” said Elzbieta Gozdziak, director of research at the ISIM.

The research team hopes to better understand the factors that contribute to refugees’ experiences in order to produce more informed policies. 

Human Insight

While influencing important policy discussions, the project’s ethnographic approach also brings to life the human stories behind refugees’ experiences. 

CCAS professor Rochelle Davis and ISIM research associate Abbie Taylor published an article on Syrian refugees in Jadaliyya, an independent online publication by the Arab Studies Institute. The article documents refugees’ responses to the question, “What do you miss the most?” They spent the summer of 2013 gathering data to inform a larger report on the lives of Syrian refugees and their urban host communities in Jordan and Lebanon. 

Gozdziak and Avie Aziz (MSFS’08) deepened their personal connections with refugees in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, by successfully training members of several refugee populations to become research assistants. The refugees’ bilingual and bicultural skills enhanced the depth and the integrity of the research, while the refugees themselves were able to be involved in “the transformative power of research," according to Gozdziak. 

The Rohingya, for example, a refugee population that is no longer featured on the front pages of international newspapers nor has any rights in Malaysia, are empowered through this work, which gives them a voice and an opportunity to connect with those in power.

 “We are learning a lot about ourselves and our own cultural narratives in this work too,” said Gozdziak.