Religion and Displacement - An Interview

Today I am excited to introduce you to Kat Eghdamian, a friend of mine who is pursuing her PhD at University College London. We met through Twitter and we both have similar interests in religion and displacement. I am so glad that she was willing to answer some questions for this interview even though she is extremely busy. This post will be a bit on the lengthier side, but it is full of great insights into the relationship between religion and displacement as well as practical tips to improve our response to them. 

Start by telling us a little bit about what you’re currently studying/researching for your PhD.

I am currently a PhD researcher in the Department of Geography at University College London (UCL). My research focuses on understanding the relationship between religious identity and experiences of displacement. For now, I am drawing on the case study of religious minority experiences among the Syrian refugee population in Jordan, Turkey, and Lebanon to explore this relationship. In particular, I am interested in exploring what is (mis)understood about religion in the context of humanitarian responses to Syrian displacement and the needs and experiences of minority communities specifically. These themes blend with many other social issues and challenges, such as identity politics, challenges to inclusivity, opportunities of diversity, and so on, which I am very interested in exploring further. In addition to my PhD research, I am trying to apply some of the insights and questions emerging from my research in diverse spaces, including here in the UK.

How did you become interested in religion and displacement?

To begin with, I come from a refugee background myself. My family and I fled our home country (Iran) due to religious persecution. Professionally, I have spent the majority of my work life either researching, writing, advocating, or advising on religion in relation to human rights concerns (particularly freedom of religion and belief) and more recently, in refugee and forced migration issues. I come from a legal background and though my training in law helped to clarify the framework of these issues, it has been through the social sciences that I have been able to identify, explore, and try to understand the complexities of religion and displacement. Social science does a good job at avoiding excessive reductionism!

Can you talk a little bit more about your time in Jordan researching the experiences of religious minorities among Syrian refugees. What did your research find?

I spent a few months in Jordan speaking to a range of humanitarian actors responding to the Syrian refugee ‘crisis’ - whether or not they are faith-based, from UNHCR to local humanitarian organisations. We spoke about their work and whether or not they could share insights and experiences about minority religious refugee needs and experiences. I was also interested in identifying how they understood and engaged with matters of religion and religious identity. I also met with, interviewed, and spent time with Christian and Druze Syrian refugees living in three different cities in Jordan - namely, Irbid, Mafraq, and Amman. I wanted to hear from their own perspectives the role and importance of religion in their lives and how it shaped, if at all, their reasons for fleeing Syria and their subsequent arrival in and experiences of life in Jordan.

My research identified three core findings. First, that despite humanitarian ideals of neutrality, impartiality, and universality, religion impacts experiences of displacement. Second, that religious minorities among the Syrian refugee population experience specific needs in cities that cannot be overlooked, such as protection from discrimination and stigmatisation. Third, and an important finding that needs to be interrogated further, is that humanitarian actors often perceive religion in very negative terms - largely as a source of conflict and identity politics. This third finding is important because what we assume impacts how we act. If religion is considered solely to be a source of problems, then it is better not to engage with it. A question that emerged, then, and which I am now exploring further is whether and how religion can play a constructive role for refugee communities.

So, religion can play a negative and constructive role in the refugee experience. Can you discuss those roles a bit further?

Religion plays a role not only in the causes of international (and internal) displacement but also in the experiences and consequences of displacement. The role of religion in causing displacement has a long history and is largely well-understood. It also continues to be a cause of concern, particularly for communities that are being persecuted for their religious beliefs. However, what is less understood but increasingly an area that many - not only academics but also practitioners - want to explore is how religion impacts, informs, and shapes experiences of displacement and post-displacement realities, such as resettlement. Often this is a question of instrumentalisation, for example how can faith-based organisations, religious leaders, and other religious institutions be better utilised to increase more effective and efficient humanitarian assistance and protection.

In your opinion, do humanitarian organizations do a decent job of addressing and engaging the role religion plays for many refugees?

As a broad generalisation, I would say that humanitarian actors largely overlook religious issues (and opportunities) among refugees. There are often good reasons for this, of course. The needs of refugees may be immediate and urgent, for example, such as tending to physical health in order to prevent illness or death. Other material and physical needs - shelter, sanitation and the like - are also important. However, we know that social, cultural, spiritual, religious, needs and issues are often given less importance or ignored entirely. Sometimes it’s due to pressure from donors to prioritise more measurable, quantifiable needs, but sometimes it’s because of a misunderstanding of other needs and a tendency to select and impose priorities on others. While religious differences can result in tension it is important to remember that there are also opportunities and benefits to engaging with religion in humanitarianism.

I want to shift our conversation now to the West’s recent response to refugees and immigration. Great Britain just voted to leave the EU and strong opinions on immigration played a significant role in how individuals voted. What can we do to change the tone of the conversation about immigrants and refugees, especially when many people are afraid of them because their cultures and religions are different?

Ignorance fueled by fear breeds prejudice, hate, and intolerance. Beyond educating ourselves about ‘the other’ in terms of cultural and religious values and ethics, we should also simply be better informed by good research about the impact of migration on host communities. There are many examples where the prosperity of societies and nations have been attributed to the diversity of skills, talents, and contributions that migrants and refugees bring with them to new lands! One of my favourite quotations says “unity comes hard when we fix our gaze on otherness”. Diversity is beautiful, powerful, and essential to the growth and development of all societies. Migration - forced or voluntary - is one way of bringing diversity to the world. We cannot avoid it. Of course, the needs and realities of forced migrants and refugees is specific and I recognise that what causes people to flee their homes can often be mixed up with reasons why people want to keep people out of their homelands. But that rhetoric and approach is awfully simplistic. And quite frankly, in the final analysis, if people are in need of a safe haven, it is a moral duty to offer it to them.

What do you think is the main misunderstanding about religion and displacement/refugees that results in the fearful response of so many?

That religion is only a source of discord, division, and conflict. Yet, religion is also a powerful motivator, unifier, and source of good. It can tap into the depths of people’s desires to do better in the world and to help others. In fact, religion has the ability to bring diverse people together and counter prejudice! We need to learn more about how religion can contribute, rather than how it is or can be destructive. That is not to say we should be naive about religion’s destructive powers but rather to separate what we think we mean by ‘religion’ with what we are really referring to, which is often ‘sectarianism’, ‘terrorism’, or ‘identity politics’. These are not synonymous with religion!

Do you think the current anti-immigration/anti-refugee political rhetoric is contributing to and possibly magnifying those misunderstandings?

Partially, yes. Unfortunately, we are witnessing a rise of anti-Islam/anti-Muslim rhetoric merged with or placed alongside anti-immigration rhetoric. As this happens, not only is the spirit of Islam distorted but its followers are vilified in a sweeping, generalised manner. Exclusionary policies, practices, and rhetoric is reinforcing a type of “otherness” that is now not only about ‘outsiders’ (migrants, refugees) but about particular types of ‘outsiders’. And that is very dangerous. Stereotypes, prejudice, perpetuating process of ‘othering’ in language, images, policies, and practices...nothing positive can come from these.

What practical insights have you gained from your research? How can both ordinary citizens and humanitarian organizations better understand religion and displacement and the ways they influence each other and then improve our response accordingly?

Read more, learn more, and meet people from different backgrounds! Go beyond tolerance and association though. That alone won’t get us far. One of my pet peeves is attending an interfaith effort, for example, and conversations remain at the level of cultural exchange. You know, the What type of food are you allowed to eat? type of conversations. Elevating conversations instead to questions such as What motivates you and I? What unites and binds us together? How can we make our communities better? These questions can contribute to an understanding of ‘the other’ in positive, action-oriented ways, but above all, can emphasise and draw attention to commonalities and fundamental interconnections that can bind, rather than separate, people. Essentially, these are questions that really challenge the question of identity.

In addition to educational processes, of course, people should also be building capacity to act on and bring into social reality some of these insights of interconnectedness, etc, in different social spaces - large or small. For instance, people can open their homes to host refugees, attend and support refugee centre activities, promote inclusive education in schools and community centres, participate in and create social gatherings for diverse pockets of the population to get together over food, prayer meetings, or even religious education classes!

As for the humanitarian context specifically, the first step is to put religion on the agenda and include it in official assessments - not only in determining asylum claims, which is already a well-founded practice (fleeing persecution, etc) but also in responding to assistance and protection needs in host countries, including in resettlement. This may require exploring ways to engage collaboratively with and between different religious groups, rather than isolating and excluding people from one another. This is of course a great challenge for those humanitarian actors that believe religion to only be destructive (and thus, for it to be better to keep different religious groups separated) but is an area that should be explored as we do not have any clear insights and experiences doing this, yet.

Of course, it should also be said that including religion in assessments or saying we will engage with religion does not, alone, mean we understand religion and all its dynamics and complexities. Religious literacy training is one thing, but immersion and understanding from the perspectives and experiences of refugees themselves is another task altogether. This requires a degree of flexibility and creativity but above all, a willingness to learn in action. A key question humanitarian actors can begin to ask and explore is, “how can the constructive possibilities of religion find expression in practice?” Having explored this, humanitarian actors can then help facilitate such possibilities. But I’m afraid we haven’t even been asking that question widely, yet, let alone acting on it!