Working inside a refugee camp: An interview with Roua Atamaz Sibai
By Sitashma Parajuli
The term ‘refugee’ isn’t just a four-credit course or a CAPA talk for Roua Atamaz Sibai like it is for many of us here at this campus of Bennington. Roua, a native of Syria, also a second-term sophomore, has seen how her own family, friends, and fellow citizens have been driven out of their homeland in the past four years because of the violent conflicts that have transpired and branded her people as refugees.
As a student of architecture and urban planning, her interest in emergency urbanism, which deals with structuring and managing refugee camps, therefore, doesn’t come as a surprise when considering her identity, her history of working with internally displaced people within her home country, and her desire to understand how structures and spaces affect human life. “It is the link between my academic interest and what I feel most fulfilled doing,” she says. To understand the reality of a campsite, and to see what efforts humanitarian organizations have put in to address the surge of people in host countries, Roua decided to look for opportunities in an actual refugee camp for her Field Work Term. “In my past experiences of working with displaced populations,” she explains,” I was too young to be given work other than talking to children and helping them in schools to teach some English, but now with more than a year of being in college, and having experienced working with an architecture firm during the summer, I felt that I was more skilled and prepared for real work.”
In Lesvos Island, Greece, she found herself working for an organization called Movement On The Ground, who was responsible for constructing one out of the three camps on the island, providing electricity, building tents for newcomers, or transfers from different camps, and providing clothing. Although she wasn’t given work that directly related to site planning or designing, she was still able to immerse herself into the community. She says, “My work involved a lot of community outreach and organizing, and I remember particularly certain events our organization hosted like ladies night, which brought women around the camp together and they’d sing songs, and dance and just be together in the same space, and that brought a lot of joy to them.”
On being asked about how she felt her position as a Syrian, but not a ‘refugee’ like the rest, affected her interaction with the collective, she says, “There’s a lot of guilt I felt while I was there. The fact that I was from the same country, but not in the same position as they raised a lot of questions. I remember being asked, “How did the paperwork look like for you? How are you studying in the US?” But I had to remind myself that it wasn’t easy for me either, but I am where I am, and there’s not much I could do about that, except help them the best I can.”
Her mother tongue, Arabic, helped her fill the gaps made by the lack of proper translating services in the camp and she claims, “made people comfortable around me and talk to me on a more personal level.” That too posed some challenges as it raised certain expectations, like, for example, when she would be handing out clothes to the families as part of their monthly ration, “they would tell me that as a Syrian I should understand their problems and give them more clothes than to the others. But I couldn’t do that because the camp isn’t only comprised of Syrians, there were also Afghans, Iraqis and people from elsewhere who would not get their portion, and that wouldn’t be fair.”
Spending weeks, months, and even years in a refugee camp, one of which has been deemed ‘the world’s worst refugee facility’ by many is a lived reality of thousands of people today on the island, and one can only imagine the physical, mental, and emotional toll this has on the refugees who quite literally have been stripped down to ‘bare life’. The toll also extends to humanitarian NGOs and INGOs that support the people who have otherwise been neglected by the rest of the world. Even as a volunteer, Roua worked six days a week, for almost twelve hours every day, which she describes as- “exhausting in every manner but I knew our work impacted people every day. The responsibilities that are put on the shoulders of these NGOs to make decisions on such a large scale is terrifying, but their work truly impacts people’s lives.”
Roua has come back to Bennington a little dazed, her experience still quite unprocessed, but she’s more motivated than ever. She explains, “I may not be living in Syria, but that was a small way by which I was able to give back to my country, to my community, and when I’m done receiving my education, I want to be able to give much more.” As she bid farewell to the Lesvos island five weeks later, she also bid adieu to her family in Homs, Syria for the next two years, since her student visa expires this year, and she is to remain within the borders of this country to avoid risking her education, as imposed by the Executive Order put in place in 2017, which bans Syrians from entering the United States until further notice.
Studying Migration through Space: An Interview with Emily Mitchell-Eaton
By Soumya Rachel Shailendra
The classroom, for Emily Mitchell-Eaton, is not simply a workplace, but also a space for radical feminist expression. A critical political geographer by training, Mitchell-Eaton is constantly interested in exploring the relationship between space and structures of power. And she brings the radicalism of her discipline to her classrooms, by encouraging her students to actively participate in facilitating conversations on migration, diaspora and the spatial extents of the U.S. empire. Drawing on theories of bell hooks and Paulo Freire, Mitchell-Eaton says, “Knowledge is a collective endeavor and we cannot be single authors of a story.”
Mitchell-Eaton received a P.h.D. in Geography with a certificate in Women and Gender Studies from Syracuse University in 2016. Her research drew her to the Marshall Islands, where she examined the legality and subjective notion of citizenship produced by the Compact of Free Agreement (COFA). On the mainland, her research is focussed in Springdale, Arkansas, where Marshallese immigrants find employment in the poultry industry. “We can look at these contexts, to see large stories of empire through small towns in Northwest Arkansas, which are distant from imperial decision-making centers,” she says. She is currently working on her first book, New Destinations of Empire: Imperial Migration from the Marshall Islands to Northwest Arkansas. She explains, “Earlier we were concerned with studying the economic drivers of migration at the scale of the nation-state, but today we know that there are different kinds of migration.” Examining migration through a postcolonial lens has been central to Mitchell-Eaton’s work, as she is determined to remind herself and others that the age of imperialism has indeed not ended.
She believes that the importance of migration studies has grown today with the resurgence of white supremacy and white nationalism. She claims that “an urgency has rejuvenated social justice movements to analyze migration through various frameworks” and that geography gave her “the language and tools to think of home, belonging and diaspora”. In the Fall of 2019, she will be teaching a class on geographies of despair and grief, where she will be examining these concepts in relation to diaspora and migration in greater detail with her students.
On being asked about the importance of teaching migration studies in Bennington College, Vermont, she says, “Although it may seem that we are far away from borders, migration is still an important issue here, especially because we have a burgeoning international student population.” She also acknowledges the contribution migrant scholars like Karl Polanyi have made at Bennington, which has highlighted the school’s effort to maintain a conducive intellectual environment for refugee academics.
Mitchell-Eaton’s students leave the classroom with a deeper conception of the complex relationship between space and power. She is touched on seeing her students take ideas from migration studies into their practices as dancers and artists. “I’ve never taught at an art school before, I’ve never had dancers and visual artists in my classroom, so it has been really overwhelming to see how critical geography can influence their work and thinking,” she says.