On this day, there are more people who have been forced from their homes due to conflict or persecution than at any other time since records began.
The biggest driver is currently Syria, forcing out about four million refugees since the civil war began more than four years ago. Add to that the persecution and ethnic cleansing of the Rohingya in Myanmar, ongoing instability in Somalia, gang violence in Central America, the separatist conflict in Ukraine—and the list goes on.
All told, 59.5 million people are either refugees, internally displaced (within their own country), or asylum seekers—people who say they’re refugees but whose claims have not been validated. That’s one in every 122 humans, and the numbers are only expected to get higher as old conflicts smolder and new ones flare up.
Recently the situation has reached—and maintained—a boiling point in Europe, with countries across the EU struggling with an influx of displaced people. Some states pledge to welcome more refugees; others build razor-wire fences.
In Myanmar, Maung Zi was a farmer. He’s a slight man with quiet eyes. He wears a red cowboy button-up shirt and cargo shorts and sits perfectly straight in his chair, square hands folded in his lap. He speaks through a translator.
Myanmar is ruled by a military-backed government, he says. It has been that way since the 1960s. The government is constantly fighting ethnic militias, and civilians like Maung Zi are often caught in the middle.
A few years ago, on an otherwise unremarkable day, government soldiers came to Maung Zi’s village and took him away. They were going to fight rebel forces, and he would be their porter. Forcing civilians to be military porters has been common practice in Myanmar for years. The porters are basically human pack animals, and they’re treated as such: beaten, barely fed, and worked to the bone. Human Rights Watch reports that they are often used to trip land mines or draw fire as human shields.
Maung Zi was with the soldiers for days, walking interminably, suffering relentless abuse and death threats.
“One night, we entered a village,” he says. When the sun set, the soldiers broke out alcohol and started drinking. (“When the soldiers go to the front line, they bring rations and alcohol,” says Maung Zi. “The porters carry everything else.”) Soon they were blind drunk. “I said to myself, ‘this is a good time to flee.’”
Maung Zi left in the dark and started walking home. When he got back, he immediately returned to his rice field, making up for the productivity he’d lost while away. The very next afternoon, he came back from the farm to find his wife in the house, rattled. The soldiers had come looking for him, she said. They’d be back soon.
That night, Maung Zi and his family gathered what they could carry and left their home for good.
This August, they arrived in Rockford, Illinois. They were resettled through Catholic Charities in the Diocese of Rockford (CCDR), one of many nonprofit resettlement agencies around the country. CCDR is a major resettlement hub in the Midwest, serving about 350 refugees annually—just a slice of the approximately 70,000 refugees granted asylum in the United States each year.
As soon as they arrived, Maung Zi and his family went to an orientation in their language, were placed in an apartment, and received some initial groceries. They now attend classes in language and citizenship on an ongoing basis and get assistance with job readiness training and social services.
When I ask Maung Zi if he likes America, he shakes his head no. “I expected it would be a happy place to live, but I spend a lot of time in my house with no one to talk to,” he says. The closest fellow Burmese refugee lives miles away, and neither Maung Zi nor his wife have a driver’s license.
But despite the feelings of isolation, despite the unfamiliarity of the new language and culture, Maung Zi tells me he’s happy to call Rockford home. “My children love it. They like living here, and they like going to school.” Besides, he adds, “Over here, we have safety. In my village we had none.”
Just across the state line, Beloit College is a close neighbor to the stream of arriving refugees. Anthropology professor Jennifer Esperanza has been training her anthropological eye on the refugee experience and training her students to do the same.
Esperanza, the daughter of Filipino immigrants, grew up in the San Francisco Bay area in the ’70s and ’80s. Her mother Josie was especially prominent in the Filipino community. “She knew people who knew people. And everybody knew to call my mom,” Esperanza says. Josie always had extra transit maps and bus passes for her friends. She could help you get a driver’s license, find a good job, or apply for social services.
“My mom was kind of a fixer—a point-person. If someone in the Filipino community died, my house would be getting the call,” says Esperanza. “My mom knew the number of the factory that made discounted caskets, or the flower wholesaler for the funeral, or the priest to come and say the rosary. So we got a lot of calls at four in the morning.”
Esperanza sees herself following in her mother’s footsteps, but through academia.
“Traditionally, people who are interested in this issue go into disciplines like political science and international relations,” she says. This is great for understanding resettlement in terms of institutions and policies, but Esperanza says resettlement is a problem that crosses cultures; any solution will also require a deep understanding of cultural context—the anthropologist’s stock in trade.
“Anthropology is the kind of discipline where you have to think outside of the box, you have to be a resourceful researcher, and you have to get to know communities,” she says. “My hope is to help my students learn how to be these flexible, resourceful fixers for these communities, to establish resources so people can get on their feet.”
So far, it seems to be working. There is a robust and growing alumni network of advocates, activists, and professionals working in the field of refugee resettlement and immigration.
A few years ago, Jessica Slattery’12 headed to Mexico City with a launch pad of Weissberg Program grant money from Beloit and a research assistantship with a scholar on human trafficking, immigration, and organized crime. “You can’t really study migration without looking at organized crime,” she says. “Because it’s all intertwined.”
At her boss’s suggestion, Slattery took a break from research and began volunteering at Hermanos en el Camino (Brothers in the Road) in Oaxaca, a shelter for Central American migrants. “He thought it would help me connect the very abstract theories and articles I’d been reading to the reality of it.”
Slattery planned to volunteer for one month. She stayed for eight.
Hermanos en el Camino stands alongside train tracks—a major route for migrants. Every other day or so, “The Beast” would arrive, an aptly named massive freighter that thundered from southern Mexico all the way to the U.S. border, loaded with people on the roof. “We would open up the [shelter] gates, and migrants would basically hop off the train and come in,” she says.
On one routine train stop, Slattery witnessed an accident: A young mother and her child were caught in the train’s undercarriage when it unexpectedly lurched forward at the station. Slattery was sure they had died, but paramedics rushed the pair to the nearest hospital, and they survived.
A few days later, Slattery went to visit them in the hospital. The child had lost his leg above the knee, and his mother’s arm was mutilated. “The first thing she did was smile at me,” Slattery says. “And I was like, are you kidding me?” Slattery immediately set to work. When she wasn’t visiting them in the hospital, she was working on the case, connecting them with pro-bono legal counsel and setting the bureaucratic wheels in motion for humanitarian parole—an emergency alternative to a visa. They are now getting medical care in the United States.
Slattery, too, is back in the States, working as a paralegal for the New York Legal Assistance Group in the Bronx, N.Y. Her team focuses on legalizing the statuses of undocumented immigrant women who are victims of domestic violence. It’s emotionally draining work, she says. But for a woman dead-set on improving immigrant rights, the legal experience is fuel for her next step, whatever it may be.
Most refugees arriving in the United States have some sense of safety. They’ve escaped what they were running from. Not so for LGBT refugees.
“They often feel unsafe within their own community here,” says Dan Weyl’10. “Some people receive threats from their peers. And a lot of them don’t disclose their identity to case workers when they get here because they’re not sure if it’ll hurt their case or make things difficult. So they don’t talk about it.”
A few years ago, Weyl took a job with the Heartland Alliance, an international human rights nonprofit headquartered in Chicago. He immediately started working on the Rainbow Welcome Initiative, a program to train staff and provide resources for working with LGBT refugees.
Many LGBT refugees were activists in their home country, says Weyl. “I think back to how difficult it was for me to come out, growing up in a liberal, progressive home in the United States with so many of my rights protected,” he says. “I can’t imagine what it must be like for someone in a country where they’re persecuted.”
Weyl and the team started with a needs assessment, interviewing refugees and asylum seekers to find out how agencies could make their services more responsive to cultural considerations. They held training sessions all over the country and developed a manual that is available free online. “It was an incredibly fun and exciting project to work on,” he says. “At the time, there hadn’t been a lot of discussion about this. I like to think that we were trailblazers.”
Jane Choi’14 thinks about identity and race the way some people bite their nails. Constantly, impulsively, without even trying.
Choi was born in South Korea, the child of non-denominational Christian missionaries. When she was 10, the whole family moved to South Africa for her parents’ missionary work. Growing up, it wasn’t uncommon to hear racial slurs shouted on the sidewalk, she says. “When I was at school, I was someone slightly different, always wary of how I should act in order to fit in with the white kids. When I came back home, I spoke Korean, ate Korean food, and felt more at ease.”
This two-headed upbringing is probably what makes Choi a good anthropologist. From a young age, she was aware of the pervasive effect of culture on our behaviors and relationships. And over time, education gave her a framework for her experiences. (Professor of anthropology Lisa Anderson-Levy’s courses on race, culture, and identity contributed in large part.)
“It became important to not just who I am, but started something in me that said ‘I want to reach people who are going through the same thing,’” she says. “And for me, it all goes back to race. It seems so unfair that this aspect of your identity changes how you’re treated.”
Choi recently finished a stint with Lutheran Volunteer Corps, where she was placed with a refugee services nonprofit in Minneapolis. It was one of the hardest years of her life.
“I learned so much, and I’m grateful to have met these strong people, but I don’t think I could do it for more than a year,” says Choi.
Today, Choi is back in Cape Town, working on the political team at the British High Commission, sort of like an embassy for the Commonwealth of Nations, of which South Africa is a member. It’s a far cry from nonprofit work, but illuminating to see how a government organization works. Plus, she says, the job requires her to stay up on the news—including the ongoing refugee crisis—which is fine by her. “I don’t want to lose sight of the people that I want to eventually help,” she says.
You couldn’t ask for a more interesting place to study migration than Israel. The country itself was created as a safe haven for a historically stateless people—a nation of refugees. And today, Israel is drawing ire from the international community for its treatment of displaced people.
Kei Ishii’12 recently completed a master’s degree in the Global Migration and Policy interdisciplinary program at Tel Aviv University. “Israel is the only democracy in this region of the world,” he says. This makes it an attractive destination, even if you don’t know what democracy is. “If you’re a refugee escaping, hearsay and random impressions will guide you to your next spot.”
There are about 50,000 Africans in Israel today. Most of them have come from Eritrea, where all civilians are enlisted for mandatory and indefinite military service. Soldiers are basically slaves, put to work on national projects like road-building and construction for almost no pay. Thousands of Eritreans flee every year to avoid military conscription.
A few years ago, Israel put up a fence to stem the tide of refugees. Those who still make it into the country are taken in for processing and granted a special temporary status. “They’re acknowledged as being here, but they’re not allowed to work, not allowed to rent, and they can’t have a bank account,” says Ishii. “They fill the illegal foreign labor market. Dishes, menial labor, whatever.”
Ishii volunteers at a nonprofit in Haifa that serves the new arrivals. (It’s an informal group without a name. Locals call them “the Haifa refugee people.”) They host language classes, help with documentation, communicate with international agencies, and provide a place to gather. “We’re here to acknowledge them as community members and make them feel like people,” he says.
Ishii had high hopes for one of his Eritrean students. “He’s an amazing dude. He just has this thirst for knowledge,” he says. Ishii thought maybe he could make a life for himself—or make it out of Israel. “And then a month ago he got picked up by immigration police on his way back from class. Now he’s in a detention center.”
Sometimes, Ishii says the whole system here feels broken, built to fail. But he also has moments of hopefulness. “Despite the crushing helplessness and burnout, I think the anthropological perspective helps me see both the big and little picture at once.”
“The number one thing I think about when I’m getting ready for work is, can I sit on the floor in this?”
Angela Martellaro’10 is a licensed real estate agent working for Chief Properties in Kansas City, Mo., a small company that specializes in helping refugee families buy their first home. Many of her clients are from Myanmar, where it’s customary to sit on the floor.
Martellaro’s career path began in Thailand, during a Beloit semester abroad focused on service. “It lit this fire inside me. This is what I care about, this is what I want to do.” The next summer she secured a Weissberg Human Rights Grant from Beloit and returned to Thailand to research and intern at an English language school.
In her final year at Beloit, Martellaro, a rhetoric and discourse major, jumped into anthropology with a vengeance. “If I could have switched to anthropology, I would have,” she says. “If I could have majored in everything Jenn [Esperanza] wanted to teach me, I would have.”
After graduation, she worked as a caseworker and an English as a second language teacher before carving out her niche in real estate for refugee families.
“It’s very different from traditional real estate,” she says. “It’s a population that’s very vulnerable to exploitation, and they tend to have really different experiences using money and using banks.” Unlike most realtors, Martellaro walks her clients through every step of the inscrutable home-buying process, sometimes helping them for months to build up or repair credit before starting to shop for a house.
Most of her clients have lived in the United States for several years. “They’re no longer on public assistance. They don’t need the social service support anymore. But they need someone who can explain, what is home insurance, why do you need it, how do you arrange a home inspection?”
“Not every refugee needs a social worker,” she says. “What they need are more people in other fields with the heart of a social worker. More people need to understand their situation.”
Nikki Tourigny’10 works for Hot Bread Kitchen, a nonprofit wholesale bakery in New York City that trains immigrant and minority women to work in the restaurant industry. “Women come from all over the world, and they often have this incredible culinary knowledge they’ve inherited,” she says. “But they end up only cooking at home because the food industry in New York is so incredibly competitive.”
Project Launch is the bakery’s nine-month paid training program for women over the age of 18. “The idea is that by training immigrants in professional bread baking, we’ll give them a skill set that will allow them to access the food industry,” she says.
Tourigny has always thought about culture in very local terms—a worldview that was cemented when she began applying to study abroad through Beloit. “When it came to filling out the form, there was this question about ‘what will you bring back to your community?’” she says. “I realized I didn’t even know what my community was, so why would I go elsewhere?”
From then on, she spent her summers in Beloit, working on a farm, hanging out in local businesses, getting to know her community.
It was here that food became important to Tourigny as a way for people to gather, share their traditions, and create something together. “The reason I love food and want to work with it,” she says, “is because I think it makes it really easy for people to step out of their comfort zone and connect.”
Back at Beloit, Professor Esperanza has taken her interest in resettlement into the field. She took time from a recent sabbatical for a fact-finding mission: checking in with her former students, interviewing staff at resettlement agencies, and volunteering with refugee students at Lincoln Middle School in Rockford, Ill.
“Some of these kids are Americanized practically overnight,” she says, “while their parents are still finding their way in this new society.” By turning them on to the presence and power of culture, Esperanza aims to build empathy between generations and help the children be their parents’ advocates during the transition to life in the United States.
Esperanza is currently pursuing grant funding to start an audio storytelling project in which refugee children can record mini-ethnographies about themselves and their families. She also hopes to establish an exchange between Beloit College and Lincoln Middle School—sending volunteers to Lincoln and bringing refugee students to campus for field trips and workshops.
“When I spend time with these kids, I find myself welling up with tears and trying to hold them back, because I see a lot of myself in them. Although I was born and raised in the United States, I know what it’s like to have parents who don’t speak English and are struggling to settle into this new community.” She pauses. “Maybe we can train some college students to lighten that burden for them.”
Steven Jackson’12 is a writer, radio producer, and documentarian living in Chicago. His work has been featured on NPR, in The Atlantic, Love + Radio, 99% Invisible, and in this fine magazine.