Redefining 'refugee'

Redefining 'refugee'

 Office of the Dean September 30, 2020

New co-edited collection by UCI scholar highlights refugee experiences

Teaming up with world-renowned scholars, Jane O. Newman, professor in the Department of Comparative Literature at UCI, has co-edited the timely collection, Refugee Routes: Telling, Looking, Protesting, Redressing (Columbia University Press, 2020). The collection features contributions from a range of scholars who illuminate both historical and contemporary examples of refugees, asylum seekers, exiles and forced migrants as individual subjects with memories, hopes, needs, rights and a prospective place in collective memory.

Here, we discuss with Newman the impetus for the book and what she hopes readers take away from it.

What was the impetus for Refugee Routes and what did you consider your main goal as co-editor?

Professors Vanessa Agnew and Kader Konuk and I have all been active in a movement known as scholar rescue, which seeks to find safe havens for students and scholars who are being persecuted in their home countries for political reasons. Konuk founded the Academy in Exile in Germany primarily for Turkish scholars, for example. We decided to hold a workshop at the annual American Comparative Literature Association (ACLA) meeting in 2018 to highlight the many different ways that the academy could be involved in such efforts, and invited artists, scholars, and activists to participate. Refugee Routes contains many of these presentations. We hope that colleagues at other colleges and universities will find models in its chapters for curricular and structural programs to support academic freedom both worldwide and here in the U.S.

In your conclusion to the collection, you discuss the history of scholar rescue efforts and their impact on creating the higher education institutions we know today. Why is this history so important today?

As several of the chapters in Refugee Routes make clear – and as a quick glance to our own southern borders confirms – we are today facing an unprecedented number of people on the move; the number of refugees is predicted to rise exponentially in the coming decades due to war, poverty and environmental degradation. While we by no means want to suggest that only the scholars among these displaced people are worth our attention, we do believe that as members of an academy that prides itself on free speech, freedom of thought, and the international exchange of culture and knowledge, we are well positioned to assist in the work of securing a future for post-secondary education and advanced research by assisting colleagues around the world and in the U.S. whose work and careers are threatened when they are harassed, fired from their positions, jailed and tortured.

You currently serve as the Chair of the UC-wide Committee for Scholars at Risk, a network of UC-based colleagues working to protect persecuted scholars by offering temporary research and teaching positions; monitoring and advocating against attacks on higher education; and conducting learning initiatives to promote academic freedom. Tell us about your involvement with the parent organization, Scholars at Risk (SAR) and why you felt compelled to lead the UC system to become a member.

I am writing a book about the founder of my discipline, Erich Auerbach (1892-1957), who, as a German-Jewish scholar, had to flee Hitler’s Germany in the 1930s when National Socialism decimated the German academy. Auerbach spent eleven years in Istanbul alongside hundreds of other German-Jewish scholars before coming to the U.S. after the end of World War II. He and many others played a huge role in establishing many of the disciplines we now take for granted in the U.S., such as art history, architecture, sociology, political science, classics, comparative literature, and many more. There are numerous organizations, including SAR and the Scholar Rescue Fund (SRF) with which UCI also collaborates, that understand that international cooperation around scholar rescue is both the humane and ethical thing to do and enriches our own academic life. Rather than reinvent the wheel, I decided in 2016 to work with and learn from SAR and SRF how to host scholars at UCI, advocate for endangered colleagues around the world, and educate UCI undergraduates how to support their work. UCI now has a pilot program, supported by the Provost’s Office and working with units and departments across the campus, to invite endangered scholars to work here alongside colleagues in their fields. We were pleased to host our first SAR scholar at UCI in 2019-2020.

One of the contributors to this collection is your colleague Ngugi wa Thiong’o, internationally recognized author and scholar and Distinguished Professor of comparative literature and English at UCI. How did his contribution come about?

UCI has been fortunate to have Ngugi on its faculty for many years now; he joined our faculty as the founding director of the International Center for Writing and Translation (ICWT) in the School of Humanities. Himself imprisoned in Kenya for his work, as he describes in his essay in Refugee Routes, he is well aware of the forms of intimidation that governments can use to try and silence thinkers, writers and scholars. It thus made sense for me to invite my colleague and friend to hold the keynote speech at the launching of UCI’s Scholars at Risk initiative in October 2017; his chapter is based on those remarks. Over 80 undergraduate students attended and learned about Ngugi’s life and work and about how they could get involved.

What do you hope readers will take away from this collection?

We are facing huge challenges in the U.S. and around the world today: climate change, nationalisms of various kinds, political chauvinism, xenophobia, racism, gender violence, homelessness, and many more. This is no secret. When we do not say something and do something, we tacitly allow such movements and positions to take center stage. What the contributions in this volume show is that there are many ways to contribute to creating alternative futures in our research, in our activism, in our art, in our pedagogy, and in being the face of institutional change. I hope readers will find models of the kinds of work they can do in the volume’s chapters and be provoked to find a place to intervene.

Learn more about Refugee Routes here.