Refugees and the Resettled: The Challenges of Public History Research within Middle Eastern American Communities

AHA Session 233
Saturday, January 5, 2019: 3:30 PM-5:00 PM
Salon 7 (Palmer House Hilton, Third Floor)
Sally Howell, University of Michigan–Dearborn
The Audience

Session Abstract

Middle Easterners have been settling in the Americas for well over a century now. They have come here to study, settle, or make money. Some have come to stay while others have had more temporary ambitions. Many came by choice, but many, especially in recent years, have come as refugees and exiles fleeing war or persecution (religious or political). Increasingly, the United States is an active combatant in the wars that have governed mass displacements from the Middle East, which presents distinct challenges to historians and other scholars working with Middle Eastern refugee communities. This panel draws together scholars working with recently displaced communities from Yemen, Syria, and Iraq on public history projects. The four papers focus on unique methodological and moral challenges public historians face when working with resettled refugees. Scholarly work on these communities is often supported by institutions intending to facilitate the settlement and incorporation of the newly arriving community, to help a group create a record of their collective trauma and displacement, or to empower the group in some capacity related to their homeland. Support for this work often comes with political motives that can impact research design. As public historians and community-engaged scholars working within the field of Refugee Studies, we discuss how our scholarly motivations and institutional partners impact our relationships with our research subjects.

Panelists will broach the challenge of working with diverse—and often divided—post-displacement communities in America. And in a climate of intense Islamophobia and xenophobia, our work can take on a sense of political urgency that is at odds with the professional demands of teaching and writing oriented toward scholarly (rather than public) audiences. Furthermore, our subjects are frequently eager to define their lives and experiences beyond the "refugee" label and its specific cultural and political associations. As scholars, we want to think through new ways to frame our work to honor this expectation. These are a few of the complex challenges we seek to address in our discussion among public history practitioners located in the heart of empire and working with communities that defy our understandings of what it means to migrate in the 21st century.

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