Global Studies Center Introduces Lecture Series on Immigrant Experience

Andrea Schmid '17 Contributing Writer 

This spring semester, the Lewis Center for Global Studies has established a new lecture series titled “Security, Forced Displacement, Refugees and Development” that aims to analyze the global influx of immigration in recent years by “bringing together scholars, students and local partner agencies and organizations working with or for refugees and immigrants to explore the complex, social, political and ethical issues that arise when people are forcibly displaced.”

Visiting Professor Dr. Alfred Babo introduced the series on Feb. 12 in the Neilson Browsing Room. A social anthropologist from Cote d’Ivoire, Babo himself is an immigrant. He fled with his family when his ethnic group was persecuted in the second civil war, which broke out in the country in 2011. After sharing his experience of coming to Northampton and how members of the Smith community welcomed him and his family, he in particular thanked Professor of Government Greg White, the speaker for the series’ opening lecture, for the hospitality that he received from the professor and his family.

“I find the task of introducing this series to be daunting,” began White. His lecture, titled “Forced Displacement and Refugees: New Forms in the Global World, New Perspectives,” posed the question, “Why are refugees, refugee policies and refugee studies so important?” He would answer this question by considering prevailing themes in refugee experiences; namely, the “idea of ‘before,’ a past when there was a sense of normalcy.”

White said, “It’s not just about the theoretical or mere academic debate. There are real issues of policy and real issues of social justice. People’s lives are at stake, quite directly, and it’s practical, it’s applicable, it’s real and tangible, and in many ways it’s the embodiment of politics in everyday lives and everyday experiences that we see. We have to look at theories of bodies. Not the body polity, but individual bodies.”

By defining forced displacement as essentially preventing and revoking an individual’s control of their own body and freedom, White emphasized the restrictive experience of forced displacement. He agreed with Orwell’s observation in “Politics and the English Language” that political language “consisted largely of question begging, euphemism and sheer cloudy vagueness.” It can be easy to use such vague language when analyzing and discussing refugee perspectives and refugee studies. White challenges this tendency.

Giving an overview of the typologies and periodicities in the Massachusetts area and finally, the issue of climate and environmental refugees, the lecture was a thorough overview of refugee studies and the prevailing themes and histories that the series will explore throughout the semester. White introduced categories and dynamics that seek to define different experiences or circumstances that refugees and displaced people collectively face in varying circumstances. By distinguishing between a refugee and a migrant, a distinction was made in the nature of the movement and experiences that come with the different ways that people leave their homes and arrive in other states.

White reminded the audience that this phenomenon is not anything new. Immigration and the forced displacement of peoples has existed since the beginning of history. What is different now? Why is it important that we consider the struggles and experiences of refugees? A major factor is the changing climate, which will undoubtedly force millions of people to leave their homes as they fall victim to extreme weather events such as drought and flooding. White concluded his lecture with a focus on the role of climate change in refugee studies and the need to create international policies that will alleviate the effects of these drastic climate changes.

A workshop titled “Being a Student and Immigrant at Smith College: Adaptation to Administrative, Cultural and Religious and Weather Differences” will be held on Feb. 24 at the Lewis Center for Global Studies in Wright Hall. It will continue to shed light on the themes and ideas that Professor White covered in his lecture about the nature of immigrant experiences.