Working in Conflict

Princeton students, faculty and staff respond to the global refugee crisis.

By Leda Kopach

Maya Wahrman ’16 arrived in Camp Azraq, a Syrian refugee camp in Jordan, not knowing what to expect. In the middle of the hot desert stood miles upon miles of neatly aligned white metal barracks visually representing order and calm, in sharp contrast to the violence from which most of the camp’s inhabitants had fled. Only the barbed wire fencing and Jordanian police patrolling the grounds and positioned at checkpoints indicated that the 32,000 people in the camp weren’t free to leave. They were free to learn, however, which is the reason why Wahrman, a program assistant focusing on forced migration in Princeton’s Office of Religious Life, and her colleagues had traveled to the refugee camp.

They were serving as peer advisors, helping to facilitate an online global history course that Jeremy Adelman, the Henry Charles Lea Professor of History at Princeton, was offering as part of a Massive Open Online Course (MOOC) and the University’s Global History Lab. In addition to the Camp Azraq location, Princeton colleagues also served as tutors in refugee camps in Amman, Jordan, and in Kakuma, Kenya.

“I’m very excited to be sending this team to these refugee camps,” Adelman says. “Teaching refugees reveals the possibilities and limits of universities as humanitarian agents. I want my students in Princeton, Geneva and in the refugee camps to learn from each other – to learn global history globally, in the most inclusive way imaginable.”

Wahrman and her teaching partner, James Casey, a doctoral student in history at Princeton, arrived at the camp through a partnership with InZone at the University of Geneva, an organization that offers multilingual communication and higher education in communities affected by conflict and crisis, and with support from CARE International, a local NGO that facilitates education for refugees and other projects in the camp. Before leaving Geneva, Wahrman participated in a required two-week humanitarian education training program offered by InZone to prepare for the trip; Casey had previously participated.

They arrived at the camp in late August to meet their students and to get the class started. For the week or so they were there, they set up the classroom provided by CARE, prepared their curriculum and selected their students. There was a limit of 20 students per class, so luckily all who applied – 15 men and four women, ages 18 to 45 – were admitted after passing the entrance exam. One woman approached Wahrman indicating that she wanted to take the class but would be unable to complete it because of another obligation. 

“I told her that she was welcome, but that she wouldn’t be able to earn her certificate of completion,” Wahrman says. “She let me know that she just wanted to learn,” a sentiment that was shared by virtually all of the participants, Wahrman soon discovered.

Since the students had limited English-speaking skills, classes were conducted in both English and Arabic (both Wahrman and Casey speak Arabic) and were focused on acclimating the students to the online course and providing basic information on how to learn history and read historical sources, building a foundation for learning for the rest of the course. Students used WhatsApp to communicate with each other and with Wahrman and Casey when they returned to the States. During the semester, the two communicated with the students, answering questions and helping the students work on their projects. 

“The wonderful thing about going to Camp Azraq with the course was that I was given this important experience without being in the way or becoming a tourist in people’s suffering,” Wahrman says. “Instead, we arrived in the camp to help prepare students for this global history course, and for that reason they were excited to receive us. It is by luck of the draw alone that I am their teacher, and not the other way around. I am glad to have met these students, happy to be able to connect with them through our world’s shared history and the wonders of modern technology despite the fierce constraints and regulations they live within. I am so grateful to be able to learn from them in return, while bearing witness to the cruelty and random misfortune of having to become a refugee from your home.”

Reaching in refugee camps is just one of many ways that Princeton is supporting, working and learning about refugee communities.

This past fall, Princeton students who enrolled in Adelman’s global history course on campus had the opportunity to work with local – mostly high school students who also applied to take the course in a reduced version format. The tutoring was made possible by Princeton’s Community Based Learning Initiative in partnership with the Office of Religious Life and the Global History Lab. Princeton students met regularly with the refugee students to help them learn global history while building new relationships.

ORL has been actively seeking campus partners and opportunities to support area refugee families and youth while serving as an institutional leader in bringing together policymakers and agencies to discuss important issues affecting these groups.

In addition to outreach projects such as visiting asylum seekers in detention centers and working with Central American unaccompanied minors in the English Language Learners class at Princeton High School, ORL invites refugee families and students to visit campus. The office organizes fun social events so that Princeton students and area refugees can meet in a relaxed environment and try to find common ground and establish new relationships.

It also works closely with local partners such as Interfaith-RISE, a resettlement site in Highland Park, and Refugee and Immigration Services at Catholic Charities, Diocese of Camden to develop programming that directly supports local refugee communities.

“We cannot think about how to respond to a problem without doing so first in a way that is intimate and local,” says Matt Weiner, associate dean of ORL. “While we think about the problem of refugees in a larger intellectual, international and policy-based way, we also turn to those closest to us, and try to do so with students to model a way of responding – to learn a way of responding as we go.”

On a wider scale, ORL finds like-minded partners to create conferences to discuss big ideas around migration and refugees. In the past year, the office has partnered a second time with the Community of Sant’Egidio, an international Catholic grassroots peacemaking organization, to curate a major 300-person conference, Seeking Refuge: Faith-Based Approaches to Forced Migration. It also partnered with the International Rescue Committee and the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops Migration and Refugee Services Department on an Interfaith Policy Forum, which brought together an intimate group of leaders and policymakers to discuss the role of religion in U.S. domestic refugee integration.

“With everything we do, ORL’s overarching question is always: What does it mean to be an office of chaplains in a secular university that serves students as it responds to the world?” Weiner adds. “We are always asking how to live with and for others and responding to the refugee crises is one way to answer these two questions.”

New Migration Research Community at PIIRS

Last year, a new PIIRS Research Community was created to study contemporary migration issues. Initiated by Sandra Bermann, the Cotsen Professor in the Humanities and a professor of comparative literature, “Migration: People and Cultures Across Borders” brings together scholars across the university and across disciplines such as history, language, culture, religion, and many more. “Our group aims to facilitate a multidisciplinary discussion that can educate and inform, and where possible, provide new frameworks for mitigating conflict and inequities,” Bermann says. The group is working to develop a team-taught course which will be a result of the research and collaboration. 

Reporting on the Front Lines of History in Greece

Alice Maiden ’19 was struck by how willing the refugees in Lesbos were to speak to her classmates during a course offered last summer, “Reporting on the Front Lines of Greece.”

“One man took an hour and a half train from the Oinofyta camp into Athens for a two-hour interview,” says Maiden, a philosophy major from Asbury Park, New Jersey. “Another man sat and painstakingly typed his story to me through Google Translate. Some people living in Moria pulled me aside because they saw I had a notebook and was with the group of journalists visiting. People living in poor conditions wanted to be heard, especially after being in those conditions for so long.”

Maiden and five classmates traveled to the island of Lesbos and to Athens, Greece, for a course led by Joe Stephens, the Ferris Professor of Journalism in Residence at Princeton and an award-winning investigative journalist with The Washington Post. The five-week course combined classroom work with field reporting to learn what it takes to cover developing world events, like the Syrian refugee crisis and the financial collapse in Greece. The students had weekly assignments that included writing articles, producing videos and taking photos.

“I wanted to find a way to study the refugee crisis this summer, whether through this course or otherwise,” Maiden says. “Within the ‘refugee crisis’ are so many complex issues overlaid across every area of study – politics, history, philosophy, anthropology, economics. In pursuing the truth as a journalist, the questions that arise are those that a humanities education tackles. ‘What is a border?’ ‘What is the priority for those stuck in the limbo of camps?’ ‘What does it mean to embrace a new nation?’ I can’t imagine a more effective way to understand the lessons from my humanities and philosophy classes than to see their application in this world event shaping the present and future for generations of people.” 

Read more about the class and the students’ reporting on their blog.

Onur Günay shares how his early life in Diyarbakir has shaped his academic and artistic work.

I grew up in Diyarbakir, the symbolic capital of Kurdish insurgency. Located in southeastern Anatolia, Diyarbakir is a city that has been both politically oppressed and economically marginalized throughout its modern history. Like Palestinians, Kurds are one of the largest ethnic groups without a state. Thirty million Kurds are divided between the borders of Iraq, Iraq, Turkey and Syria.

I started my studies in business, but a radical and decisive turning point for my interest in social sciences, politics and state violence in Turkey was the street protests following the funeral of four Kurdish guerillas in Diyarbakir in March 2006. More than 300,000 people participated in these protests and took over the city for two days. The police killed 10 people whose ages ranged between 8 and 78, and arrested and tortured more than 500 people, mostly children. Justifying the killings by accusing the protestors of being “pawns of terrorism,” Turkish officials explained Kurdish children’s involvement in “terrorism” in terms of their “socio-economic underdevelopment” rendering the ethno-political core of the Kurdish conflict invisible. The unbridgeable discrepancy between my friends in Diyarbakır, who participated in the events, and my friends in Istanbul, who were eager to see them as terrorists, motivated me to become a social scientist.

After finishing my masters in sociology, I serendipitously met two American-Armenian musicians, Onnik Dinkjian and his son Ara Dinkjian, who came to perform in Diyarbakir. They are incredibly talented musicians. Onnik Dinkjian is one of the most influential Armenian singers with his unique style of singing, evoking Anatolian Armenian sound in America. He is considered as one of the last representatives of Anatolian Armenian music. His son, Ara Dinkjian, is a highly celebrated figure of the world music and one of the top oud players in the world. The melodies they sing were those I heard in my childhood in Diyarbakir, melodies of despair and hope. We immediately became close friends.

Onnik’s family fled the genocide of 1915, first moving to Syria, Lebanon, France and finally to New Jersey where they settled. While I was personally interested in documenting the afterlives of violence, Onnik and Ara wanted to tell a hopeful story. We started researching their lives, and what began as curiosity developed into a documentary that has been viewed and discussed around the world at 40 international film festivals, in universities and various film festivals throughout Europe, Turkey, the United States, Canada, and of course, at Princeton multiple times. Without funding, my co-director, Burcu Yıldız, a Turkish ethnomusicologist, and I finished the film, “Garod,” after three years with the support of our friends. 

It’s a story of longing – longing for a land that lost its people, longing for the homeland, longing for a time that is eternally lost. The film portrays the lives and the musical stories of Onnik and Ara using their trip to Diyarbakir, the family’s lost hometown, as the central narrative arc. 

My doctoral research is about another story of forced migration. Throughout the 1990s, war brought about a sudden passage to urban life for millions of Kurds. Pursuing a policy of counterinsurgency, the Turkish state evacuated around 4,000 villages and displaced more than 2 million rural Kurds in this period. Istanbul was already host to a sizeable Kurdish population that had come to the city for its economic potential, making it one of the primary destinations for the displaced. Today, Kurds make up 17 percent of contemporary Istanbul’s total population, corresponding to almost 3 million Kurds. This number makes Istanbul “the world’s largest Kurdish city,” as the saying goes among Kurdish migrants. Today, two-thirds of the Kurdish population in Istanbul comprises the urban working class. Moreover, hundreds of thousands of Kurds move each year between the Kurdish region and Turkish metropoles in search of temporary jobs and daily wage-labor.

My dissertation is based on two years of fieldwork with Kurdish migrant workers in the service and construction sectors of Istanbul’s economy. I focus on war-displaced Kurds who have settled in urban neighborhoods of Istanbul and chronicle their daily routines as they adjust to urban wage-labor. I analyze the factors shaping Kurdish migration patterns and the ways in which those migratory patterns intersect with Turkey’s changing socio-political and economic landscape. My writing foregrounds how Kurdish migrant workers articulate their ethical understandings of self, community and rights in relation to their struggles for economic survival and social mobility – all this in the context of dramatic economic restructuring and the rise of political Islam in Turkey. The ethnic difference that makes Kurds into targets of political violence is made and remade through their introduction into the labor processes and class relations that fashion cosmopolitan urban spaces. My research shows how ethnic and cultural differences are recast through labor, as these differences mark migrant Kurdish men’s bodies, sexualities, life prospects and senses of belonging in the city.

Onur Günay is currently a postdoctoral fellow at Harvard University Mahindra Center for Humanities where he is transforming his dissertation into a book manuscript to be submitted for review at a major academic press.

Additional Articles