‘Have I been “staring too hard” at my participants’ displacement, neglecting other aspects of their lives?’ In this blog post Wen-Yu Wu reflects on some of the ethical dilemmas and feelings of guilt experienced during her research with displaced Syrian students in Lebanon and Jordan. As a recipient of a ‘Global Challenges’ Scholarship from the University of Birmingham to support her research, Wen-Yu describes the imbalance of resource distribution between researchers and research participants, and the potential problems encountered and created when researchers adopt and reproduce policy terminology, such as the term ‘refugee.’ Wen-Yu argues that an uncritical adoption of policy categories can reproduce a ‘skewed understanding’ of what being a refugee means whilst depriving participants of the opportunity to self-define, an approach Refugee Hosts has been examining here and here.
“Who pays you?” Guilt and reservations in producing policy relevant research on refugees
By Wen-Yu Wu, PhD Candidate, University of Birmingham
My research participants, usually the students’ parents, would often ask me: “who pays the bills for you?” and sometimes “how much?” after the initial question. In this post, I describe a few scenes that happened during my field work in Lebanon and Jordan in September 2018 – April 2019. During this time, I found myself feeling awkward as the matters of money were brought up, and when my participants’ narratives made me reconsider using the term “refugees,” despite the guilt and the sense of urgency in producing policy relevant research for refugees.
I am funded by the Global Challenges Scholarship from the University of Birmingham with a monthly stipend of around £1200 ($1500). The goal of my scholarship is “to understand and to recommend effective responses to forced displacement”. My PhD project focuses on displaced Syrian students’ access to higher education in Lebanon and Jordan. I use ethnography as a main methodology.
After almost a two-hour bus ride and a long wait for a free ride into a mountain village in southern Lebanon, where Sarah and her family lived, I arrived in what Sarah described as “a garage”, a nice mountain house where their landlord comes for vacation. Sarah was a student in a university in Beirut, with a stipend of $200 she received from a scholarship, from which she said she would give $150 for the household expenses, and the rest of the $50 to spend on her every-day commute.
During my first visit, I met Sarah’s mother and her two sisters. Both of them were registered in a school in Beirut but were not able to afford the transportation to go every day. They went about twice a month and had their own studying schedule at home. The long commute from Beirut city to their mountain village would cost them around 6000-10,000 LL ($4-6) per person. The same transportation cost applied to Sarah, who was taking this long commute almost daily. During the visit, after I explained my project, Sarah asked, “would that help us?” She then told me how, for two years, they used to receive UNHCR coupons for supermarket items, which alleviated some living expenses. After it stopped, Sarah explained that the situation had not been good.
“Do you know who can help us? Which organization can help?” Sarah’s mother asked me. After a few exchanges, she asked how I support myself. I told her I have a scholarship. ‘How much?’, they asked. I answered, ‘1000 dollars’. I lied about the amount I receive as I was afraid of making a huge contrast with their situation, and because I was not providing direct assistance to them. The mother commented,
‘I wish I could have 1000 dollars a month!’
I have felt guilty. The feeling of guilt specifically relates to the fact that, as a beneficiary of this ‘Global Challenge’ scholarship, what I can do for my participants who are facing the ‘challenge’ is extremely limited. Focusing on the positive, I wish to believe these limits are only temporary.
The irony of this imbalanced distribution of resources regarding the crisis of displacement accelerates a sense of urgency to make my work more relevant to policy debates. However, if being policy relevant requires the researcher to adopt policy terminology, such as ‘refugees’, (as the research subject, in this case, were ‘refugees’), some of the conversations I had with my participants made me hesitate to use the term.
After an initial period of two months in Lebanon, I took a short trip to Istanbul in order to renew my visa to enable me to return to Lebanon. One of the participants I met in Beirut suggested that I talk to a relative who was studying in Istanbul. During my meeting with Zakaria, after an uplifting chat about his pursuit of education and future expectations, I asked whether he is registered with the UN, a question I would ask in Lebanon to make sure that the participants are within the category I am investigating. He grimaced and said,
‘You know we are not those people who just sit and wait for help. We are hard-working. We work for ourselves.’
He felt offended. Even though he stated that “we came here as refugees,” he only used the term in the sense of legality, or “on paper”.
Zakaria’s reaction sensitized me to the usage of the “refugee” term. I started to ask my participants their ideas about being called “refugees”. Bassam, one of the student union organizers in Beirut told me,
‘If you don’t put ‘refugees’, donors will not give money.’
He said there are negative and positive sides of the name. He showed me a picture of an old homeless man explaining that this is where “refugees” become a big problem:
‘if you ask any Lebanese on the street about Syrian refugees, they will say “there are many of them, needing support from UNHCR”.’
Yet, among them, people are working hard to succeed, Bassam told me.
Bassam stated what the usage of “refugees” entails—donors’ willingness to fund, and its false representation in the media. Both Zakaria and Bassam’s comments flagged up the potential problems of using “refugees” as a category in defining the research subject. Researchers’ uncritical adoption of policy categories could reproduce the skewed understanding of what being refugees mean, and de-politicise and deprive the subjects of their self-definition (see Bakewell, 2008, Fiddian-Qasmiyeh, 2016 and Masterson, 2019). I asked myself: Have I been “staring too hard” at my participants’ displacement, neglecting other aspects of their lives?
Despite the loaded guilt and urge to alleviate the hardship the students and their families are facing, what I can afford to do is perhaps, humbly, return to the role of a researcher: to reflect and to write honestly.
Carpi, E. (2018) Humanitarianism and Postcoloniality: A Look at Academic Texts
Fiddian-Qasmiyeh, E. (2019) Exploring refugees’ conceptualisations of Southern-led humanitarianism
Fiddian-Qasmiyeh, E. (2018) Disrupting humanitarian narratives?: Introduction to the Representations of Displacement Series
Fiddian-Qasmiyeh, E. (2018) Reflections from the Field: Introduction to the Series
Fiddian-Qasmiyeh, E. (2018) The Poetics of Undisclosed Care
Fiddian-Qasmiyeh, E. (2018) An update: ‘data collection and analysis’
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