I found my research by accident; actually, perhaps it’s more accurate to say that the work found me. I started working with refugees and asylum seekers at a critical moment when Black Lives Matter and the Syrian refugee crisis dominated the news. I began to wonder what it means to provide care – social services, health care, employment assistance, community therapy – in a city like Philadelphia at a time when race, citizenship, and belonging are such a large part of the national imaginary, especially as ultra right-wing movements gained prominence across Europe and in the United States. I wanted to know what it would look like to place the care of refugees in the context of broader patterns of racial discrimination and state-sanctioned violence.
Responding to that, my current research explores the intersection of care and governance in Philadelphia through the lens of displacement, beginning with an ethnographic study of refugees and the institutions in Philadelphia that serve them. I analyze Philadelphia as a place formed through migration and displacement, from successive refugee migrations beginning in the 20th century to other movements, like the Great Migration, that have shaped demographic patterns and social life in the city of Brotherly Love. Drawing from a large, diverse archive that brings news, personal narratives and oral histories, and cultural representations both past and present into conversation with semi-structured interviews and ethnographic participant-observation at multiple sites, my work strives to understand what making refuge looks like and for whom asylum is possible.
My analytic framework draws from literatures about humanitarianism, affect, and the anthropology of the state to understand how refugee resettlement in Philadelphia is inflected with the politics of race, gender, and class. Drawing from feminist theory and queer of color critique, I analyze comparative racialization through a framework that recognizes how that groups are racialized with respect to one another through competing racial formations at the same time that it accounts for heterogeneity within racial categories. I do so through a particular attentiveness to state bureaucratic processes, from welfare applications to public health management, as they are negotiated by healthcare providers, case workers, and volunteers, not to mention refugees and asylum seekers themselves.
As a Black woman, an immigrant, and a future health care provider, I hope to think carefully about the social, political, and economic dynamics that care – however well-intentioned – both shapes and is shaped by. I’m also hopeful that in theorizing displacement and refuge, we can reconsider what justice can and should look like. Thinking as such might allow us to imagine a reparative politics that offers new possibilities for configuring livable lives.
For a different articulation of what I study, here’s a blurb about my work on Anthro News.