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DukeImmerse Students Share Stories from Refugee Camps

A group of Kenan undergraduates read personal narratives of Bhutanese and Iraqi refugees

Sophomore Max Ramseyer presents the story of a male Iraqi traumatized by violence in his home country. (At right: Maura Guyler).

This past Sunday 12 undergraduate students in the Kenan Institute for Ethics' DukeImmerse program "Uprooted/Rerouted" recited narratives collected during their month-long field research earlier this semester in refugee camps. Some of the refugees interviewed by the students shared things about themselves they had never told anyone before.

One Iraqi woman described her situation in leaving Iraq for Cairo: "I had to push through for my children. I had to push through for myself. I had to embody motherhood and replace fatherhood, and I did."

DukeImmerse: Uprooted/Rerouted is a program sponsored by the Office of Undergraduate Education that allows students to spend an entire semester engaged in team-based research on the effects of displacement on refugee populations. In addition to field research and reflection, the students take a core set of classes in field research methods and to assist in understanding the social, health and legal challenges faced by refugee communities across the globe.

The students focused their research on Bhutanese refugees in Nepal and Iraqi refugees in Egypt, in part, because these two groups were made a priority for resettlement by the U.S. Department of State. Many members of these refugee groups have resettled in North Carolina.

The stories reflect universal concepts -- such as love, family and identity -- and also cast light on the vastly different situations for the Bhutanese and Iraqi refugees. 

For example, the narratives reveal that many Bhutanese refugees have family and friends in America, and balance hope for success in the West with anxiety about losing their religious identities and sense of community. The camps in Nepal are viewed by the international aid community as a success, with a great reduction in numbers due to successful resettlement.  Many came from rural areas and although they are not legally allowed to work in Nepal, they have been able to receive an education while in the camps .

Yet there is still a sense of anxiety because of bureaucratic delays and deferred reunions with loved ones. 

"I used to inquire time and again. Time and again. And they reply you need to wait for a while. And after I have asked time and again, now I am really tired," one man said.

Like the Bhutanese, the Iraqis were forced to leave because of political instability and ethnic tensions. Similarly, they were not allowed to work in Egypt. However, the Bhutanese were largely agricultural workers from rural areas and the Iraqi refugees are well-educated, formerly middle-class residents of urban areas. 

Recent political changes in Egypt have exacerbated the Iraqi refugees' hopelessness. Violent ethnic strife prevents them from returning home. Of the narratives the students read, several involved kidnapping and torture because of conflicts between the Sunni and Shi'a Muslims.

This is the second year for this program, led by Kenan Institute for Ethics Associate Director Suzanne Shanahan. Some of last year's students continued their involvement with local resettled refugee communities this year by organizing a mentor program for refugee youth. 

Of her experience this semester, sophomore Christine Delp says, "While we have studied the law, politics, and ethics surrounding refugee policy, our research has also focused on how refugees experience these policies in practice. The purpose of the life story interview, our research process, is to give a glimpse into these individual experiences."  

For information on the program and to access the students' research journal, visit the Uprooted/Rerouted website.