Soon after the Russo-Georgian War, Elizabeth Dunn (IU SGIS Associate Professor of Geography and International Studies) found herself in a displaced persons camp in Georgia. From 2008 through 2013, the Fulbright Scholar spent part of every year living among the estimated 28,000 people permanently displaced from their homes in South Ossetia, “wedged between past and future,” as Dunn observed, “in an interminable, grinding present.”
As a panelist discussing “Displacement, Stories, and Communities” during the Art and Refugees Symposium April 6, convened by SGIS’s Center for the Study of Global Change, Dunn reminded those gathered that of the 66 million displaced people in the world, two-thirds are internally displaced. Exiled from their homes, but remaining within their homeland, IDPs’ next stop is often a makeshift arrangement. Nonetheless, the average length of a refugee’s stay in camp is 17 years, according to Dunn, the author of the forthcoming No Path Home: Humanitarian Camps and the Grief of Displacement (Cornell: 2018). $1 billion of humanitarian aid poured in to assist the IDPs from South Ossetia within the first year, but the people among whom Dunn lived, she explained, consistently reported an “experience of nothingness.” The disconnect between the humanitarian solution and the personal experience of the displaced person might be bridged, panelist Yassmin Fashir suggested, by weaving different forms of storytelling into “the master narrative.” The Sudanese refugee and SGIS student advocated for the incorporation of the first-person perspective into academic work, as a way to restore the dignity of the displaced. The International Studies major retold the story of her own transnational experience—one she’d first shared onstage at a Moth Story Slam on the IU campus in February 2016.
The panel was one of three discussions the symposium presented, along with performances and a photography installation, to explore the possibility of “using art as an entry point to more meaningfully and intimately understand the experience of refugees.” At the same panel, Assefa Dibaba, Ph.D. researcher in folklore at IU, reinforced the notion of using creative, and personal forms of expression as a way of preserving the individual experience and demonstrating resistance.
Relocated to the US in 2010 after having been imprisoned in Ethiopia for writing “politically polemical poetry,” Dibaba suggested that “personal stories are not so personal. They are informed by the collective experience.” A scholar of the music and performance practices of resistance among his native Oromo people, Dibaba’s own resistance poetry has been published as The Hug (2010) and Decorous Decorum (2006), among other collections.
As a complement to the Art and Refugees Symposium, photographs installed on a chain-link fence outside the Eskenazi Museum of Art further integrate the voices of the displaced into the narrative. The subjects of Charlotte Schmitz’s Polaroids—fleeing from Turkey to Greece in 2015—wrote messages on her ephemeral portraits and landscapes. “I am strong I can work” writes one young person pictured; “Where am I? Why am I here?” writes Sarah, age 24. The collaborative process of creating these portraits, the German photographer writes, “makes its characters co-authors.”
Schmitz shared her process during another panel during the day, considering “Refugees, Art, and Rethinking Geographies” and also featuring Rahim Alhaj, oud virtuoso & Iraqi-born refugee who lives in New Mexico, and Katherine Silvester, IU Assistant Professor and Coordinator of Multilingual Writing. Later in the day, Alhaj gave a performance at the Eskenazi Museum, an event dovetailing with the College Arts and Humanities Council’s First Thursdays Festival.
A third panel shared “Perspectives on the Global Refugee Regime” with discussants Maurizio Albahari, Associate Professor of Anthropology, Notre Dame; Carmen Medina, IU Associate Professor of Literacy, Culture, and Language Education at the IU School of Education; and Oliver Shao, IU PhD Candidate in Ethnomusicology & Folklore.
A multi-media performance, with writer and lyricist Deborah Haber and documentary filmmaker David Marshall, connecting a true story of post-Holocaust migration and the contemporary plights of millions of displaced people rounded out the symposium’s offerings.
“What can Higher Ed do?” one attendee asked at the end of the “Displacement, Stories, and Communities” panel. In addition to serving as a source for meaningful advice to government and humanitarian groups, Dunn suggested, universities might consider creating centers for refugee studies. She then referred the audience to the work being done on the Bloomington campus by the student-led group No Lost Generation, whose director Lydia Lahey and fundraising chair Marine Brichard elaborated on their group’s efforts on behalf of the children affected by the Syrian crisis.
Co-sponsors for Art and Refugees included the IU College Arts & Humanities Institute, DEEP Arts, the Center for the Study of the Middle East, the Robert A. and Sandra S. Borns Jewish Studies Program, the Inner Asia & Uralic National Resource Center, the Institute for European Studies, the Russian & East European Institute, the African Studies Program, and the Center for Latin American & Caribbean Studies.