Elena Fiddian-Qasmiyeh on the personal and political in her work with Syrian, Palestinian and other refugee communities across the world

Words by Tatiana Thieme | 04 Nov, 2019

Tatiana Thieme: The work you do seems to dance between academic and activist scholarship. How did you get into it? To what extent has your experience in the humanitarian sector played a role in that dance?

EFQ (Elena Fiddian-Qasmiyeh): When I finished my undergraduate studies in Cambridge, I decided that I never wanted to return to academia. I moved back to Tenerife in the Canary Islands (where I was born) and worked for a couple of years in an accountancy office.

By chance, one of the firm’s clients was a paediatrician who was part of a team establishing a maternal and infant healthcare unit in the Sahrawi refugee camps in south-west Algeria. In a chance encounter over a glass of water, it turned out they needed a French-Spanish translator to help them navigate some administrative processes during their transit in Algiers, en route to Tindouf, a military airbase near the Sahrawi camps. I had had previous experience as a multilingual medical translator, so I accompanied this team of doctors to the Sahrawi camps. It was there that I met and worked with Sahrawi women who were educated in Cuba and had subsequently been leading medical responses within the camps. This became the root of my work in this field.

Having promised that I would never return to academia, I ended up going back to complete three master’s degrees and a doctorate, which involved research with and about Sahrawi refugees living, growing up, studying, and working in Algeria, Cuba, Syria, South Africa, and Spain.

TT: How did your experience of growing up shape your world view, your sense of home and belonging? In what ways has it influenced your work?

EFQ: I was born in the Canary Islands but spent my early life in Ireland before eventually moving to northern England. We moved back to Tenerife when I was 11, and then returned to Oxford, England, where I completed high school.

Although I longed to belong when I was younger, I have never really had a strong sense of either geographical or, given my multidisciplinary background, disciplinary belonging. I no longer miss having roots, or a specific community that fully recognises or acknowledges me as one of their own, whether that’s personal, familial, or academic.

While I have had the privilege of enjoying extensive mobility and movement throughout different periods of my life, the situations I work in are characterised by immobility as part of broader processes of displacement.

A lot of my current work is underpinned by an interest in the encounters that take place when people can no longer move or can no longer situate themselves in relation to the places that they would wish to identify with.

We are especially interested in exploring how people from Syria view and conceptualise the differences in how assistance is (or is not) provided by different actors around the world

TT: You’re focused on two projects at the moment.

EFQ: Yes, the first—Refugee Hosts—is a project I lead with three co-investigators, Alastair Ager, Anna Rowlands, and Lyndsey Stonebridge. We are a very inter-disciplinary UK-based team, which in part is a reflection of our funding. The project is supported by UK Arts and is a Humanities Research Council-led funding project in collaboration with the Economic and Social Research Council.

We also work with a writer in residence, Yousif M. Qasmiyeh [Ms Fiddian-Qasmiyeh’s husband] who was born in Baddawi Refugee Camp in Lebanon, and with a team of locally-based researchers in that country and Jordan. Most have been affected by conflict and displacement themselves and are residents in one or more of the field sites where we’re conducting research. The field sites are neighbourhoods that are “hosting” people who have been displaced from Syria—not only Syrians but also Palestinians, Iraqis, and Kurds who have long lived in Syria.

In Lebanon, our sites include a middle-class urban neighbourhood in Beirut. This counterbalances the assumption that refugees are necessarily poor people who live in deprived areas or informal settlements. The other sites are the Baddawi refugee camp in the north of the country and the area adjacent to the camp, Jebel al-Baddawi, which is a “non-camp” area in one of the poorest urban areas of the country.

In Jordan, we’ve been conducting research in different areas of Irbid, a town only 25 kilometres from the Syrian town of Daraa, and then in two neighbourhoods in the cities of Jerash and Zarqa. We had planned to conduct research in Turkey, but the model of research that we have been using—working closely with locally-based researchers—was considered to be problematic in the current environment. Such researchers and our interlocutors from Syria would have potentially been at risk of arrest or deportation from Turkey. We conducted a series of short visits in Istanbul and Ankara but have had to “de-territorialise’ that part of the research. We have interviewed people from Syria who live in or passed through Turkey and are now based in Germany.

In conjunction with interviews and participant observation in these neighbourhoods, we have hosted creative writing workshops. These allow us to explore encounters between people who are longstanding residents within the various locations, and the new arrivals. Some of the longstanding residents of these neighbourhoods are Palestinians, Armenians, Iraqis, and Kurds displaced from previous conflicts, so this has been one way of exploring what I call “refugee to refugee” relationality. It’s not the more usual frame of “citizen to refugee” relations, or humanitarian organisations’ relationships with refugees.

Southern Responses to Displacement from Syria is the other project. It complements Refugee Hosts, because we are examining not just what is taking place on a neighbourhood level but across multiple scales, including trans-regionally. Through the project, my colleague Estella Carpi and I have been working with a group of locally-based researchers in Lebanon, Jordan, and Turkey. We are looking at the ways different stakeholders from around the world have responded to displacement from Syria—a broad perspective that encompasses responses by the Cuban, Brazilian, Gulf, and Malaysian states as well as faith-based organisations (both locally and regionally situated), as well as different forms of citizen — and refugee — led responses. We are therefore not only focusing on state-led perspectives down to the neighbourhood level, but also through the lens of transregional south-south assistance.

We are especially interested in exploring how people from Syria view and conceptualise the differences in how assistance is (or is not) provided by different actors around the world.

TT: What informs your own politics and practice when you do fieldwork? How do people respond to your presence, and what is their perception of where you’re coming from?

EFQ: I do not have a strong sense of belonging, or a rooted approach to defining myself. In many regards, it is relationality that frames which features of my identity become more or less important in my research.

For instance, my nationality and origins are read and interpellated by others. My being married to a Palestinian from Lebanon is also an important feature that enables me to do the kind of research I do in the Palestinian refugee camps in Lebanon. Those different features or identity markers come through depending on the context. Also, my identity and position as a mother is undoubtedly essential to my and our ongoing research now. This is something that I am negotiating and feeling increasingly comfortable in positioning publicly, as opposed to requiring it to be in the background or my private sphere, as it were.

The personal is political. Equally, the academic is both personal and political for a variety of reasons. My husband (Yousif) and I are both researchers in this field. He approaches these processes as a writer while I have traditionally been a “social science” researcher.

There is significant fluidity between the academic and the personal in this regard. The political is intrinsic to that precisely because of the everyday nature and ongoing processes of violence and displacement that characterise the research we’re completing. That includes spaces that my daughter’s grandparents, aunts, uncles and cousins inhabit, reside in, and share with different groups of displaced people. It is impossible to avoid the everyday politics and the position of these spaces within a broader geopolitical framework.

TT: These seem like complicated entanglements. What is it like when you go and do fieldwork while also visiting your in-laws and family?

EFQ: One of the most important ways of coming to know Baddawi refugee camp as a site of family and of research has been sitting in my mother-in-law’s living room and feeling “stuck” at times because it often simply isn’t safe to leave the house. Rosemary Sayigh has described the Palestinian camps as “islands of insecurity”. Armed clashes take place relatively frequently throughout the camps.

Sitting in my mother-in-law’s living room and feeling stuck while monitoring the situation outside has been part of partially sharing and embodying that process of being rendered immobile. Being unable to go outdoors safely is one of the defining features of everyday life for a lot of people in situations of displacement, including in refugee camps like Baddawi. People from Syria living elsewhere in Lebanon, for example, can be at risk of detention and deportation if they are identified in the public sphere.

Being stuck in the living room is also accompanied by being attuned to everyday life taking place on the other side of the wall. One of the most evocative moments, which I think stimulated a shift in my conceptualisation of the camp and my engagement with it, took place while sharing a cup of coffee with my mother-in-law. We heard the clinking of the coffee cups carried by a Syrian coffee vendor as he walked through the alleyway on the other side of the wall.

That personal sense of restricted movement stimulated another way of engaging with the rhythm of everyday life. I had mostly prioritised conducting interviews and participant observation in the past. Such experiences have led me to explore the possibilities and potentialities of soundscapes and listening as ways of thinking through what it means to be stuck in displacement.

As Yousif and I have explored in a photo-poetic reflection accompanied by a soundscape, rather than a dialect or a voice identifying who was walking past, it was the clinking of the coffee cups that informed us of the presence of the Syrian coffee vendor on the other side.

This has increasingly led me to think through what it means to be inside yet simultaneously engaging with the outside. In hearing the rhythm with which people navigate the alleyways of the camp, a process of encountering and being encountered is occurring at the same time.

TT: I guess the “clinking of the coffee cups” puts in sharp relief the importance but also relative arbitrariness of what we choose to pay attention to, what gets into the field notes, and what appears in our writing. There is a kind of politics in what gets selected out of the multitude of things that happen on the day that could be rendered invisible, but, then, suddenly get picked up and are part of the frame. It’s also such a clear affirmation of the significance of seemingly ordinary details, and the importance of drawing them in as we curate our fieldwork “findings”.

EFQ: Absolutely. Part of what the Refugee Host project is trying to do is focus on the everyday, on the quiet moments of encounter rather than the grand humanitarian narrative, or what aid agencies consider to be pivotal moments, or the pivotal identity markers.

I’ve become more interested in those echoes across sites, as well as those everyday rhythms and moments. So, on the one hand, I document or, like Yousif, I archive what is taking place in the camp quite carefully. And yet, at the same time, some things speak to or jump out at me that I’m more interested in. These are the things that I photograph and ruminate on—something I’ve become increasingly attuned to as the fieldwork has developed.

The fieldwork is undertaken by colleagues who live in these communities all year round. So, it’s a multi-sighted ethnography that is being conducted by a group rather than by an individual ethnographer.

TT: Is there any value in resisting the presumed imperative to compare field sites if you’re doing multi-sited ethnographies, and instead to think across different spaces and encounters? Must multi-sited research involve some sort of claim to comparative work?

EFQ: In the grant application for Refugee Hosts, there was probably an implicit notion that we would be completing a similar number of interviews in each of these nine locations, and then we would bring them together, and identify common themes or differences across the sites. So, the comparative element was implicit. But as the project has developed and my interest in more humanities-based and creative research approaches that include photography and poetic reflections has increased, what has become particularly significant are the connections between these sites, more than the comparative elements.

Through the creative writing workshops that we’ve run as a team in Lebanon and Jordan, we have asked people to bring in objects that are significant to them, including writing that is important to them. We’ve also shared archival and contemporary photographs of camps and cities with our colleagues and research participants without necessarily naming them as “this is Lebanon” or “this is Jordan”. The conversations that have emerged around the spaces and sites represented in the photographs, and the echoes becoming apparent in participants’ interactions with those images have pushed us away from comparisons. Instead, they have highlighted the extent to which “this could be us”, raising the question: what would it mean for this to be us?

I have come to know Baddawi Camp very much with and through my daughter. This is because of the obligations that come with parenting during fieldwork – and the obligations and concerns that I have imposed on myself in such situations

TT: Your six-and-a-half-year-old daughter seems to be an active participant in some experiences during fieldwork and workshops with other co-authors and collaborators. What has her presence contributed to your own process and thinking?

EFQ: Bisou’s presence has been central on many fronts. I have come to know Baddawi Camp very much with and through her. This is because of the obligations that come with parenting during fieldwork—and the obligations and concerns that I have imposed on myself in such situations. At moments of insecurity in the camp, I am probably more attuned to the insecurities by being there with Bisou than, say, if I had been there alone.

Her reflections have changed through time, and my engagements with the space have also been influenced and guided in different ways through her vision of the camp and her representation of it. Last year she described the camps to me as green spaces full of trees and plants. This is not my vision of the camp. To me, it is a space characterised by narrow concrete alleyways and dangerous electrical wires, but to her, what stands out is the greenery and the beauty and the flowers and the plants in the space. I have been trying to view the camp through her eyes, with those obligations and responsibilities in tandem.

TT: In your work, where is there a space for intervening, if at all, in a context that seems protracted and based on impossible outcomes, especially given the condition of the camp itself? I wonder if an intervention could be precisely about documenting incremental improvements and setbacks, voices, and affirmative storytelling? At the same time, is there also a way of trying to hook into and contest the levers of structural power and institutions?

EFQ: In 2018 and 2019 Yousif and I held a series of workshops in Baddawi camp, with support from Philip Pullman’s charity Belacqua, with children displaced from Syria. These workshops are concretely not part of a research project, but a series of sessions that we ran in the camp because we wanted to do something aside from research. We decided that it concretely should not be research and that the results and the process should not be part of our analysis. It was a series of encounters that we would run in our living room, to just have a space to do some drawing and some writing, and to share some food with these kids.

Focusing on the structural inequalities and the structural barriers that prevent people from being able to identify and enact solutions for their own problems is particularly important to me. I try to bring those structural conditions and barriers to the forefront in conjunction with documenting and archiving the protests, demonstrations, actions, conceptualisations, and the counter-narratives that are developed by people who have been displaced. These actions and counter-narratives challenge hegemonic humanitarian discourses and the political rhetoric that restrict people’s rights and freedoms.

From the start of our project, we have aimed to work with locally-based researchers as full members of our research team, not as fieldworkers who collect data and pass it on for analysis by the UK-based team

TT: Your work involves the laudable commitment to, but potential complications of, collaborative authorship with many people in your research community. In activist scholarship and participatory endeavours, it seems crucial to include processes of collaborative authorship in the research design, but this isn’t obvious. I’m really curious about the politics as well as the behind -the-scenes logistics involved in co-authorship with one’s inter- or co-locutors. It’s precisely the complication that seems meaningful as it raises crucial questions about the production of knowledge, what knowledge counts, and what voices get heard and acknowledged in the authorship.

EFQ: From the start of our project, we have aimed to work with locally-based researchers as full members of our research team, not as fieldworkers who collect data and pass it on for analysis by the UK-based team. Our Palestinian, Syrian, Lebanese, and Jordanian colleagues have been involved in analysing, presenting, and writing up the findings of the research. In December 2018, for instance, we had a writing workshop in Beirut, where colleagues based in Lebanon, Jordan, Germany, and the UK came together to discuss the emerging themes and to examine potential sole- and co-authored writing projects.

The workshop enabled us to collectively discuss authorship guidelines and submission processes to identify levels and degrees of interest in different types of writing projects, as well as forms of support that people might like to receive. Since then, a number of our colleagues from Lebanon and Jordan have written sole-authored blog posts for our Refugee Hosts website, two of our Jordan-based colleagues presented the findings of their research at an event hosted at the UK Houses of Parliament in March 2019, and those who were granted visas presented at our Refugee Hosts International Conference in October 2019. in the UK. Others will participate in our forthcoming conferences in Lebanon and Jordan in 2020.

We used the Beirut workshop as an opportunity to brainstorm a number of themes and topics that we would potentially co-author across the team. We openly discussed the order of authorship and the politics of authorship in those processes.

However, it is also important to recognise that not everybody wants to write—or that they may wish to write poems rather than articles, as is the case with Abu Iyad, one of our colleagues from Baddawi. I think one of the tensions that arise in a lot of the externally funded research projects that are so attractive to academics today relates to this notion of capacity building and providing career development opportunities to researchers in the so-called global south.

That is central to my research projects and also central to the negotiations that I’ve gone through with funders such the European Research Council, who are not happy to view local researchers as full researchers, and seem to wish to maintain a neo-colonial relationship with people in the field as data collectors. In contrast, the UK Research Councils actively encourage co-authorship and the recognition of the intellectual contributions and rights of researchers from the global south.

This notion of capacity building assumes that capacity doesn’t exist, to begin with, and that European researchers need to intervene to “build the capacity” of “southern” researchers. In turn, the notion of providing career development opportunities risks assuming that the kind of opportunities that I have in mind and that I can support are the kind of opportunities that people would select for themselves. That isn’t the case for all of the colleagues that we’ve been working with in Lebanon and Jordan. A number of our colleagues have been keen just to conduct interviews for the project and be paid for that. Others are interested in creative writing, and some in experimenting with academic authorship.

I think we have a very long way to go before these processes can be in line with what different people desire for themselves, rather than an “opportunity” that is offered or imposed from outside. The risk of reproducing the neo-colonial notion that this is a way of “providing a voice to the voiceless” is a very real and dangerous one.

There is also the challenge of writing across disciplines, and the different approaches that might exist there. These are some of the challenges and questions that we’re exploring collaboratively. We’ll see how the process develops over the coming years

Tatiana Thieme is a London-based ethnographer & researcher