This Spring, Community Refugee and Immigration Services (CRIS) welcomed graduate student, Sophia Balakian, to its resettlement office. Sophia, who was working with CRIS to complete her graduate study field research, is pursuing a PhD in anthropology at the University of Illinois.
Sophia has always had an interest in history and social sciences. As an Armenian-American, many of her relatives fled Armenia as refugees during its time of crisis. Hearing anecdotes of how her ancestors came to the United States fostered her interest in migration and the plight faced by refugees.
As an undergraduate, Sophia studied anthropology. While working towards her Bachelor’s Degree, she had the opportunity to conduct research in Nepal. During her time abroad, Sophia worked with and studied Tibetan refugees. It was her experience in Nepal that led her to begin her pursual of a PhD in anthropological research. With a growing interest in East Africa, Sophia began learning Swahili. Her project developed from there, taking her to Nairobi, Kenya to continue her study on refugees, where she lived until she began working with CRIS. Sophia left CRIS in August to return to the University of Illinois, her home institution, to teach and finish her dissertation.
Lizzy Thomas: What is the focus of your research?
Sophia Balakian: My research deals with the complex intersection of a variety of governmental and nongovernmental institutions involved in the resettlement process and how refugees, specifically in Nairobi- mostly Somalis, Congolese, and Rwandans, are managing this really complicated and often opaque process. It’s about how it shapes their lives, and how they, in turn, shape it. More specifically, what kinds of pressures, good or bad, it puts on family’s systems. I’ve come to Columbus to understand it more on this side. So, I have been talking to people who are waiting for a relative to join them here either through sponsorship through the AOR or because somehow their families were separated in the process.
LT: Was there was anything that surprised you in doing your fieldwork?
SB: I think what is surprising, is that it is an enormously complicated process, more so than I could I have ever anticipated, especially in family situations. There are patterns, of course, but there is also so much variety in what you see and what can happen to people.
I don’t know if I would call it surprising, but something that is super challenging is that people often do interviews for so many years and in that context interviews are tests. To interview people about those experiences is very fraught and very complicated because they are coming from a background and a lifetime where the interview genre of discourse is one in which they are powerless. Ideally, an anthropologist wants the people they talk to to feel empowered. To feel free. This is maybe a way to get their voice out there into the world. That would be an ideal circumstance. In the context of where I have done my research, those things are rarely true because people who have refugee status are disempowered, and the people who are typically interviewing them are in a position of power and of decision making. So trying to disassociate that is actually impossible. So trying to deal with how to make the best of that very difficult position is a big challenge.
LT: When you are explaining this work to people, why do you say that it is important?
SB: I guess there is the big picture and the nitty picture. The big picture to me is that US resettlement is very complicated, but the best thing to me is that you are giving an opportunity to people who do not have legal status as a citizen. To be a refugee in the places I know, certainly in Kenya, is to be a second class member in every way. And since we live in a world that is structured by nation-states, I think that every human should have the protection of a state. Since that is the only entity that really has the power to protect people as legal, political, social and physical beings, I think everyone should carry citizenship or be on a path to citizenship. I think the U.S. resettlement program is important because it is making a movement in that direction. Unfortunately there are just way too many refugees in the world to be accommodated by the United States, but it is important for thousands of people to be on a path to citizenship.
As far as the more local-everyday work, I think that a great part of the US resettlement program is the voluntary agencies in so many cities who are here to help people. There is just so much that people need when they arrive, and that is something I couldn’t overstate enough. People are resettled through this humanitarian program. There are so many things that they need in order to fulfill their own lives, to become independent, and to become a part of their societies. From applying for their initial benefits, to helping to find work, to getting people connected to all the other institutions that they need to survive. It is just essential.
LT: Has working with refugees and studying anthropology influenced how you conceptualize your own national identity?
SB: I think it very humbling to see those who are hustling every day to build a new life in this country. I think my sensibility of the US as a people is different since coming to CRIS. Seeing people come every week, widens my perception of who we are as a country.
LT: What’s after CRIS?
SB: After CRIS I will be moving back to the University of Illinois, where I have been working on my Ph.D since 2009. After two years out in the field, I will be back at the university to write my dissertation. I will also be teaching. I’m looking forward to it. After two years, hours and hours of recorded interviews, thousands of pages of field notes, I’ve got to go do something with it. So whats next is writing my dissertation, and hopefully it will be a book, and you can all read it!