Panel on Contemporary Refugees: Statehood, Migration and Identity


On April 30, I facilitated a conversation at Christ Church Neighborhood House on the concept of statehood and its implications for those who do not fit its rigid definitions, including millions of individuals currently seeking refuge worldwide. This discussion gave voice to those who have had to resist notions of statehood, often to save their lives. We also discussed the rhetoric surrounding statehood and its far-reaching implications into such spaces as politics and arts.

I was lucky enough to be joined by four guests: Danielle Bossert, Continuum of Care project coordinator at Nationalities Service Center; Karina Ambartsoumian Clough (born USSR) and Damir Mujković (born Yugoslavia), who migrated from their countries of birth during periods of crisis; and Amardeep Singh, associate professor in the Department of English at Lehigh University.

The Salon Series celebrates the spirit of Elizabeth Graeme Fergusson, an 18th century member of Christ Church attributed with hosting America’s first literary salons. Salons bring together artists of all disciplines with critical thinkers and doers in order to engage audience participants in conversations on contemporary topics.  And I think we did just that:  brought together four excellent panelists who approached the topic from a variety of angles.  My mentor, Deep, writes more about teaching literature concerning refugees and their experiences here.   The panel complemented the “Life After Survival” exhibit co-curated by my friend Diana Morris, who spearheaded the event.


Here is my introduction to the panel.  Jump below the video for a transcript.

Transcript of my opening remarks:

We are here today to talk about the implications of what the word “state” means, what it means when one’s state is collapsing and another state does not want to absorb “others” into its identity, what it means for those asking for new statehood, and what we can do to be allies for those caught in a liminal or in between space while the concept of statehood attempts—and often fails—to be a concrete binary of those who belong and those who don’t.

First, we must consider what statehood even means.   According to International Law in 1900, Georg Jellinek’s definition in General Theory of the State had three requirements: (1) territory; (2) population; (3) government. In 1998, Ian Brownlie in Principles of Public International Law modified the legal definition and changed the criteria to territory; population; recognition by other states, eliminating the idea of government with an eye toward resistance movements and decentralized governments.

As the concept of nation is bound to come up as well today, I would not be a good postcolonial scholar if I didn’t mention Benedict Anderson’s notion of nations as imagined communities. He argued that “In an anthropological spirit, then, I propose the following definition of the nation: it is an imagined political community – – and imagined as both inherently limited and sovereign.

We know that the lines drawn on a map are imagined—sometimes nature has provided boundaries that correspond with these lines—but for the most part, those lines have moved, have come from discussion, war, treaties, colonization, and a variety of other disruptions to those people living on or near those lines. Imaginary constructions or borders cause anxiety in those wanting to preserve a notion of “statehood” or “nationhood,” for as we all know those lines are fluid, porous, requiring “enforcement” and “protection.” We have all, sadly, become too inured to calls to “build a wall” such as Trump’s campaign promise couched in language of anxiety and fear: “they are making a fortune, Mexico is making a fortune off the United States, it’s becoming the new China in terms of trade — they’re killing us at the border,” “I’m gonna say, ‘Mexico, this is not going to continue, you’re going to pay for that wall,’ and they will pay for the wall.”

But beyond our borders, think about the images we see of women, men, children pressed up against barbed wire in Turkey, on the Serbia-Hungary border, and in Calais, France. Children’s bodies are being passed to strangers on the other side of the wire. Men hold other men from train windows to help strangers get across a drawn state line. Walls made of bodies stop other bodies from crossing a state border. In the past year, the world has watched the devastating consequences the ideas of nations, borders, and states have on people who do not fit into neat categories, who solely want to survive and are willing to do anything for their families’ safety. The UN Refugee Agency estimates there are 10 million people in the world who are stateless. These are not people who are deemed refugees. The UN High Commissioner for Refugees offers the following numbers for our consideration today:

“The latest figures available show that the number of refugees of concern to UNHCR in mid-2015 reached an estimated 15.1 million refugees, the highest level in 20 years.

They live in widely varying conditions, from well-established camps and collective centres to makeshift shelters or living in the open.

More than half of all refugees of concern to UNHCR live in urban areas. They all await one of three possible solutions: repatriation, local integration or resettlement.”

In 2015 Almost 4000 migrants died trying to cross the Mediterranean. Syrian refugees were double in number over the next refugee population, Afghanistan, coming into Europe last year. 1.3 millions people claimed asylum in 2015, 500K of them in Germany.

We are here today as part of the “Life After Survival” exhibit that just left the United Nations and is co-curated by my friend Diana Morris Bauer who has relentlessly worked to ensure the stories of young boys during World War II and their ongoing struggles and victories live on. “’Life after Survival” shows how a small international group of volunteers — the United Nations Relief and Rehabilitation Administration Team 182 — worked for the benefit of young Holocaust survivors in Kloster Indersdorf, a convent near Dachau. There, they established the first international children’s centre for unaccompanied and displaced children in the American zone of post-war Germany. They provided food, shelter, medical care and helped young people reconnect with their relatives or migrate to Israel.” Today, As we see images of children being separated from their families in the current migration crisis, we are wise to remember that we have been here before, though we continually swear “never again.”

We considered the following questions during our conversation:

What do nation and state mean to you? How has your experience complicated these terms for you?

How are you or others resisting the concepts of nation and state? How does art play a role in such resistance? What is the role of creativity in this discussion?

How do current discussions of migration in the political and policy realms impact us as a nation?

How do we engage in productive debate about the issues of migration, nation, and identity? How do we teach others how to talk about these concepts?

I hope such a conversation continues as we move into another election cycle and, more importantly, as we watch the human migration and resilience occurring all over the planet and commit to alleviate worldwide suffering.


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