International Conference: Refugees in/from the Middle East

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Pyle Center
@ 9:00 am - @ 5:30 pm

Policy Implications, Education, and Artistic Representations
University of Wisconsin-Madison, March 6-7, 2020

This interdisciplinary conference brings together scholars from the social sciences and humanities who examine forced migration within the context of the Middle East. It is organized by Nevine El Nossery, the Director of the Middle East Studies Program at the University of Wisconsin and Nell Gabiam, Associate Professor of Anthropology and Political Science at Iowa State University.

Conference Program

Mohamad Hafez Keynote Lecture “HOMELAND inSECURITY”

Friday, March 6, 4-6pm

Nancy Nicholas Hall (co-sponsored with the School of Human Ecology, 1300 Linden Drive)

Syrian artist and architect Mohamad Hafez will offer a very personal view of what it’s like for an upper-middle class Damascene family to become forced migrants – their lives before and after, decision points, forced hands, and adjustment to new realities.  This will be an opportunity to better understand what the biggest humanitarian crisis since World War II looks like to an individual and family who have been through it. Mr. Hafez creates mixed and multi-media sculptures representing Middle Eastern streetscapes and buildings besieged by civil war, deliberately contrasted with hopeful verses from the Quran, audio recordings from his homeland, and other elements of his Islamic heritage.


Saturday, March 7 (313 Pyle Center, 702 Langdon St, Madison, 53706)

9:00 to 10:45: Panel 1. National, Regional, and Global Policy toward Refugees:

  • Marcia Inhorn, Professor of Anthropology and International Affairs at Yale University will present on “America’s Wars and Iraqis’ Lives: Refugee Vulnerabilities and Reproductive Exile in “Arab Detroit”. Inhorn is a specialist on Middle Eastern gender, religion, and reproductive health issues, having conducted research on the social impact of fertility and the emergence of assisted reproductive technologies in Egpyt, Lebanon, The United Arab Emirates, and Arab America. Her presentation will look at the US presence in Iraq and how, by 2014, Iraqi’s were the single largest refugee group entering the country. This influx of refugees into America’s poorest big city has led to the “reproductive exile” of infertile Iraqi’s who lack access to costly reproductive assistance in US IVF clinics, but who are unable to return to Iraq with its ongoing violence and shattered healthcare system.
  • Yasemin Ipek, Assistant Professor in the Global Affairs Program at George Mason University will present “Humanitarian Refugees in Turkey: Syrian Support for Syrians”. Ipek’s research and teaching are informed by her long-standing interests in transnational humanitarianism and NGOs; activism and social movements; and everyday enactments of ethics, Islam, nationalism, and sectarianism in the Middle East. This research will look at Syrian-led organizations based in Turkey that are set up by displaced Syrians to help Syrian refugees in Turkey and regionally. The presentation will explore the presence of “humanitarian refugees” – Syrians based in Turkey working in support of displaced Syrians through institutional means – through attending to how Syrian humanitarian actors blend global, nationalist, and Islamic discourses to articulate a different version of humanitarianism.
  • Sarah Alghamdi, a PhD student at York University’s Osgood Hall Law School  will present on “Examining the Prospects for Refugee Rights in Tunisia”. Alghamdi’s legal research includes exploring the emergent feminist movement to lift the ban and abolish the guardianship system in Saudi Arabia in the years following the Arab Spring. Her research examines, if the 2012 proposal by the interim Tunisian government is adopted and a law is passed for the protection of refugees, how Tunisia will become the first country in the MENA region to implement a legal framework for the protection of refugees consistent with international human rights standards. Alghamdi analyzes the existing bundle of international, regional, and domestic refugee policies that interact and operate in Tunisia and how they affect the human rights of refugees on the ground.

11:00 to 12: 45: Panel 2. Refugees, Education, and Identity:

  • Alyssa Bivins, a Doctoral Candidate from George Washington University’s  Department of History will present on “The Myth of Apolitical Education Development: The Politics of UNESCO’s Education Policies for Palestinian Refugees, 1950s-1980s”. Bivins’ research focuses on late 20th century Palestinian education development and refugee education in the Middle East. Since 1950, UNESCO has partnered with the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine to offer its education expertise to Palestinian refugees across the Middle East. Bivins argues that UNESCO’s education policies included clear political assumptions about Palestinian refugees from the earliest years of its involvement in the crisis, ultimately detrimentally shaping the approach to Israeli and Palestinian education.
  • Sara Farsiu, Doctoral Candidate from the University of Wisconsin–Madison’s Department of Asian Languages and Cultures will present on “Understanding Ethnically-Framed Conflicts: An Analysis of the Portrayals of Arabs in Iranians’ Speech”. Born and raised in Iran during the eight-year Iran-Iraq war, her experiences with living in  war zone motivated her to help migrants; her volunteer work with adult Afghan, Iranian, and Syrian refugees started in 2004 at a refugee camp in Wiesbaden, Germany. Her research analyzes the role of language and interactions in constructing and deconstructing group-ness. By looking closely at the ways participants create selves (Iranians) and others (Arabs) through reference to ethnonational categories on the basis of languages they speak, Farsiu argues these categorizations influence their feelings towards the incumbents of such categories and the Arabic language. Deconstructing these categories helps to bridge gaps in an international context and created feelings of solidarity.
  • Senior Research Associate Eileen Kennedy and Associate Professor Elaine Chase of the University College London will present on “How Can Digital Technology Support Transformative Education?” Kennedy’s research focuses on ways of enhancing and sharing professional practice in online and blended learning. Chase’s teaching and research focuses on the sociological dimensions of health, wellbeing, and rights of individuals and communities, particularly those most likely to experience marginalization and exclusion. This paper reports on a Design-Based Research project to create a dual language (English/Arabic) Massive Open Online Course (MOOC) based on the experiences of teachers in Lebanon, but open to teachers across the MENA region and beyond. The MOOC foregrounded the use of technology to give voice to their learners, shifting practices away from transmitting knowledge to constructing opportunities for interaction, communication, and identity expression. They will conclude with a discussion of what it takes to enhance the value of digital technology for supporting transformative education.

1:00 to 2:30 lunch and break

2:30 to 4:15:  Panel 3. Refugees and Artistic Representations: 

  • Seref Kavak, Postdoctoral Researcher from France’s École Des Hautes Études En Sciences Sociales, and Emre Turkut, a fellow at the Swedish Institute of Uppsala University, will present on “Cultural Security and Publicness: Syrian Musicians on the Streets of Istanbul”. They will present on the highly overlooked cultural aspect of the Syrian refugee crisis, aiming to fill this huge gap by examining the Syrian people’s right to preserve their distinctive culture in their so-called “musical journey.” Focusing on the ways in which they maintain their culture identity through music within the cultural security and publicness framework, the paper delves into culture security on a micro level by focusing on its effects on constructing, maintaining, and negotiating cultural identity.
  • Dina A. Ramadan, Assistant Professor of Arabic at Bard College will present “Refugees in the Art Museum”. Ramadan writes on modern and contemporary art from the Middle East. In December 2015, the Museum of Islamic Art in Berlin launched an award-winning program entitled “Multaka: Museum as Meeting Point- Refugees as Guides in Berlin Museums”. Using the Multaka project as a departure point, Ramadan examines how different museums in western art capitals have integrated refugees, largely from Arab countries, into their spaces, both as subjects and objects. Ramadan suggests that attempts to connect disparate historical moments ultimately produces a state of ‘timelessness’ in which the political specificity of the refugees’ current circumstances is compromised and the violence of the borders of the nation state is underplayed.
  • Hakim Abderrezak, Associate Professor of French and Francophone Studies in the University of Minnesota’s Department of  French and Italian will present “Illiterature and the Seametery”. Abderrezak focuses on the MENA region, particularly clandestine sea crossings in literary and artistic productions in Arabic, French, Spanish, Berber, and Italian. Revisiting the Mediterranean Sea through the particular angle of clandestinity allows Abderrezak to scrutinize the idea of the Mediterranean as an expanding cemetery, or what he calls the Seametery. He will specifically look at the conceptualization of the seametery in a wide range of literary works produced since the 1990s and tease out its implications for the global North and South today. He contends that, by focusing on the sea crossing, literature tackling the seametery offers a vision that is missing in fictions that focus on the experiences of migrants once on European soil.

4:30 to 5:30:  Round table: Refugees in the 21st century: Building Alternatives to Walls, Dehumanization, and Discrimination. Drawing on the experiences of refugees in/from the Middle East, panelists will reflect on practices and forms of solidarity that counter attempts to paint refugees primarily as a security or cultural threat and to deny them equal human rights. Roundtable participants will include Hakim Abderrezak, Sarah Alghamdi, Ahmed Badr, Alyssa Bivins, Sara Farsiu, Nell Gabiam, Mohamad Hafez, Marcia Inhorn, Yasemin Ipek, Seref Kavak, Eileen Kennedy, Elaine Chase, Nevine El Nossery, and Dina Ramadan.

While its geographical focus is the Middle East, the conference seeks to contribute to a better understanding of the challenges related to forced migration in the 21st century and to weigh in on attempts to find constructive solutions to these challenges. It aims to open up new ways of thinking about refugees and telling the many important and yet untold stories of migration.

For more information, please contact Prof. Nevine El Nossery at: