New book centers refugees and displaced people as historical narrators

Jan. 31, 2023

The “refugee crisis” or “migrant crisis” remains a perennial feature of the media and news landscape. The very intransigence of these so-called crises belies the fact that they are enduring features of our bordered world. A new book, “The Right to Research,” edited by Kate Reed, a doctoral student at the University of Chicago, and Marcia Schenck, professor of global history at the University of Potsdam, situate refugees and displaced people as the subjects of history, instead of the marginal refuse of the main event.

“The Right to Research” features nine essay by refugee and host-community researchers from across Africa, Europe, and the Middle East, all of whom conducted their research under the auspices of Princeton University’s Global History Dialogues course: Gerawork Teferra, Ismail Alkhateeb, Lazha Taha, Phocas Maniraguha, Muna Omar, Aime Parfait Emerusenge, Richesse Ndiritiro, Sandrine Cyuzuzo, and Alain Jules Hirwa. Chapters address topics such as education in Kakuma Refugee Camp, the political power of hip-hop in Rwanda, women migrants to Yemen, and the development of photojournalism in Kurdistan.

“Refugees and migrants are not only historical subjects, but also historical narrators in their own right,” Reed said. “Displaced people who live in the interstices of our exclusive citizenship regimes have distinctive perspectives, experiences, connections and concerns that deeply inform the questions they ask about the past and the ways they answer them. If we are to take seriously the notion that everyone should have a right to research or a right to systematically inquire into and interpret the past, it requires both epistemological and material transformations in how historical scholarship is produced. Exploring those transformations was fundamental to this collective project.”

Global History Dialogues is a one-of-a-kind online course that brings together learners from all over the world with the goal of fostering empathy, promoting civic engagement and changing higher education’s approach to historical research and knowledge creation. The course curriculum includes lessons in collecting oral histories and the opportunity to present research projects to classmates and to the public; this reciprocal model means students learn a more nuanced, interconnected history informed by their peers’ unique perspectives.

Global History Dialogues is one of two online, open-access courses delivered by Princeton’s Global History Lab (GHL), an innovative experiment in humanitarian higher education. In 2020, the GHL partnered with the Open Society University Network (OSUN) to focus its mission on expanding access to higher education to students and faculty on the margins; in the 2021-22 academic year, nearly 500 students enrolled. In addition to undergraduates at 27 partner institutions, including universities in emergency zones like Ukraine and Afghanistan, GHL collaborates with NGOs, like the Whitaker Peace and Development Initiative in Uganda and the OSUN Hubs for Connected Learning Initiatives in Jordan and Kenya, to engage learners college-age and older who are shut out of higher education due to their status.

The editors consider “The Right to Research” as a contribution to an ongoing conversation about what it means to become a researcher. “To us, that means understanding refugees, migrants, and other marginalized groups not only as historical actors, but also historical narrators,” Schenck said. “Our hope is that the essays in this book spark interest about what it means to do history and how closer attention to the ‘conditions of production’ of historical knowledge affect that knowledge and its circulation. A right to research also includes being received by one’s audience as a historian with knowledge and insight to contribute. The book’s readers are an integral part of this ongoing conversation and of the process of creating more democratic forms of historical research.”