Emma Winters: Welcome to CMSOnAir, the podcast on migration and refugee issues, brought to you by the Center for Migration Studies of New York. I’m Emma Winters, CMS’s Communications Manager. In this episode, you’ll hear from four students at the University of Notre Dame who are doing research about international migration. Syeda (Fiana) Arbab, Sofia Piecuch, and Kara Venzian are graduate students pursuing their Masters in Global Affairs at Notre Dame’s Keough School. They partnered with Catholic Relief Services on a research project about how internally displaced persons and refugees describe and create home. Elsa Barron examined migrant integration, dialogue, and religious acceptance using the first mosque in Athens, Greece as a case study. An undergraduate student, Elsa conducted her research with support from the Nanovic Institute for European Studies at the University of Notre Dame. Here’s Elsa, Fiana, Sofia, and Kara describing the findings of their research at the Catholic Immigrant Integration Initiative Conference.
Fiana Arbab: There aren’t enough funds available to solve this endemic problem of global displacement today. For the past nine months, we have been working with Catholic Relief Services (CRS) in partnership with the Integration Lab at the University of Notre Dame to address this question. Is it possible to expand shelter solutions and reconceptualize refugee settlements centering dignity and sustainability?
This question launched the CRS 2030 Homes and Communities Platform. As a small but integral part of this new platform, our team has been tasked by Catholic Relief Services to research how refugees and internally-displaced-persons (IDPs) define and create home. We worked specifically in Uganda and Myanmar. Uganda hosts the most refugees in Africa; in fact, they host the fifth most in the world, with over 1.4 million refugees residing. Uganda is well known for its progressive laws for refugees; including providing rights to own land, work, access to social services, [the ability to] move freely throughout the country, and promote equality between refugees and host communities. Refugees have been cycling through Uganda since 1959, with the largest population from South Sudan. They mostly reside in the Bidi Bidi Settlement in Yumbe, the second largest settlement in the world. Our project centered on Bidi Bidi as one of the settlements in Uganda that we focused on. The second-largest population of refugees comes from the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), and they mostly reside in the Kyangwali settlement. We also had the opportunity to work in Kyangwali.
Myanmar has a total of 498,000 IDPs, otherwise known as internally displaced people, as of December 2019. The IDP situation is largely caused by seven decades of armed conflict, with ethnic minority and surgent groups that have existed since 1948, following the breakdown of the Panglong Agreement of 1947, alongside climate displacement. Despite a ceasefire that was signed in 2015, the conflict has been ongoing. However, the ceasefire and the government announcing the closing of the IDP camps in June 2018 have led IDPs to increasingly attempt to move back home. Legal restrictions on the right to land ownership has made IDP-camp living suffocating, and IDPs desire to return to their livelihoods in an attempt to take care of their land back home.
Several resettlement opportunities have been offered by various NGOs, including CRS and other church groups locally. One of the pilot resettlement opportunities offered by CRS includes the pilot three-mile community that we also had the opportunity to research. In this project, we had a goal of engaging 416 disaster-affected displaced persons across Myanmar and Uganda.
Displaced people experience a unique liminal state, whereby entire peoples do not feel belonging in any space because they have been uprooted from their sense of normalcy, and often contend the complex questions of belonging and identity. Research shows that definitions of home are directly linked to these identities. Thus, refugees and immigrants actually seek an end to what is, for them, a perpetually liminal status, reconceptualizing the ways that they perceive home and community.
Particularly, it is important for displaced people to conceive home in four thematic ways: the physical, psychological, social, and emotional. To re-establish a lost sense of grounding and reclaim their identity, building their capacity for self-recovery.
Sofia will now discuss some of our findings related to the ways that our participants define and prioritize home in multifaceted ways.
Sofia Piecuch: Thank you, Fiana. We gathered a large amount of data this summer, from focus groups, interviews, photography exercises, and surveys, and the findings we’ll share with you now come from qualitative analyses. As you read through our transcripts, we coded common themes within the categories of physical aspects of home, with themes such as clothes and kitchen; social aspects, for example, visitors and gatherings; emotional aspects, like peace and intercultural acceptance; and psychological aspects; such as cleanliness and rituals.
It was interesting that our respondents referred to all four categories in a balanced way, as we conversed with them on the subject of home. This reinforced our point that home is conceived in multiple dimensions. However, when specifically asked to define home, half of the words that people used referred to the physical aspects. A quarter of the words to social aspects, and even fewer to emotional and psychological. Explicitly, people prioritize the physical aspects of home. But in a more implicit way, all aspects are equally important. We can also learn a lot when we look at the top five ways that people in both countries define home.
The first is family. Many respondents defined home as a father, mother, and children. So the presence of family members is essential if displaced people are to feel at home anywhere.
The second is an emotional sense of safety and security. An obvious priority for people fleeing conflict. This desire was captured best when people in Myanmar said that home needs to be warm, referring to the temperature and to the presence of safe and affectionate relationships.
The third concept is animals. From this, we learned that people desire a source of income and even the status that comes with owning certain animals. But also in Kachin culture, one of the ethnic groups in Myanmar, a house cannot be considered a home unless it has a main house, a chicken house, a pigsty, a cowshed, a kitchen, a paddy storeroom, and a latrine.
This links to the fourth top concept: latrines. We learned that people prioritize this because they want to keep their families healthy. Also, even displaced people do not want to be ashamed of their homes, and a latrine is a sign of a dignified home to welcome guests.
The final concept was physical safety, from harm, crime, and weather. Here we see that people do still want a home to be practical, for example, protecting one from rain and from thieves.
I just described what people say in response to being asked to give a definition of home; when they are not directly asked, people spoke the most about cultivation. As displaced people from agrarian communities, cultivation as a source of food, income, and stability was on everybody’s mind. Economic opportunities and money were also frequently referenced in conversation, which [was] expressed in a desire to provide for loved ones and to have access to cash to increase wellbeing. It is important to support displaced people in doing this.
We found that men and women in both countries spoke about the importance of cultivation and family, but women gave preference to education for children, and men to structural components of home. This shows that it’s important to look into male and female perspectives when serving displaced-communities. When looking at each country separately, we found that family and cultivation were still top priorities, but women and men in Uganda were preoccupied with having access to food and money. In Myanmar, women prioritized structural components of homes and animals, whereas the men valued money and economic activities. From this, we see that though general themes remain the same, different cultural contexts dictate differing priorities.
I will now turn things over to Kara to wrap up our presentation.
Kara Venzian: Thank you, Sofia. In conclusion, home really is perceived beyond the walls. Our analysis has shown what scholars have already been predicting, which is that having a perception of home is a complex process, and having an understanding of these multifaceted perceptions will prepare sector leaders for effective, efficient, dignified, and resilient programming. In our efforts with Catholic Relief Services, we will be providing insights and recommendations on how to scale this research in order to gather more voices and ultimately provide the most holistic programming that addresses the humanitarian funding gap that we mentioned at the beginning, emphasizing efficiency, self-recovery, and dignity for all peoples affected by disaster.
These pictures that you see in front of you were taken by displaced people when prompted by us asking for them to show us, through pictures, important aspects of home.
This first picture is a picture of food. Food is a physical aspect of home; food is essential to life. This picture was taken in Myanmar where food rations are given, but are often not enough. Sometimes, people will risk land mines, war, and even death returning to their villages to cultivate the land and to get food for themselves and for their families.
This second picture is a picture of a woman in Myanmar who’s been placed in one of the very first resettlement sites, where she will live for the rest of her life. The story behind this picture is that she looks out this window onto the land that she’s been given and she thinks about the wonders the lives that her children will hold in this new, interesting place. This speaks to the emotional aspect of home, and having a desire for your children to have a good future.
This [third] picture is of a man in Uganda making bricks in order to address lack of economic opportunities, and in order to provide for his family. He makes these bricks for his family to earn money to buy food and other goods, and to have bricks to build his house and provide shelter for himself, his neighbors, and for his loved ones.
This [fourth picture] is a lovely family in Uganda, comfortably outside of their shelter, which speaks to a social aspect of home, a deep-seated need for connection and family that Sofia has already mentioned.
To end our presentation, emphasising that home is really more than just a shelter, we wanted to show this [fifth] picture that represents a nuanced aspect of home, which can be summed up by this quote from then photographer, apparent in Uganda, who says, “The importance of rearing heads at home is that when the child falls sick on the weekend and the hospital is closed, you can then sell the hen and buy medicine for the child, which helps to protect the child’s life.” These words show the association between an animal, access, agency, healthcare, a child’s life, and a home compound. It truly shows that the concept of home is deeply multifaceted. Thank you.
Ilaria Schnyder: Thank you so much for your presentation. Now, I give the floor to Elsa.
Elsa Barron: Since 2006, the Muslim Association of Greece has been campaigning for the establishment of the first official mosque in Athens. While the government has agreed to its construction, the promised mosque remains stalled in its building operations. This inaugural mosque project has been very controversial in Greece, and has been strongly opposed by alt-right groups, such as Golden Dawn. Fear and frustration surrounding the presence of Muslims in Greece has only been heightened since the recent migrant crisis in Europe, coupled with an economic downturn in 2009, around the time this construction began. Additionally, historical memories of Ottoman occupation colored the dialogue of integration of Muslims in Greece.
Despite facing many challenges, the mosque project continues to have resilient advocates. In addition to providing a dignified place for Muslims in Greece to worship, an official mosque also eliminates the possibilities of dubious of foreign funding and influence, at a time when the growth of extremist groups is a major concern in Europe. I contend that a public mosque in Athens could solve many challenges faced by Athens’ Muslim community, provide Muslim migrants a place for their expression of dignity and identity, help to ensure greater security for the Greek state, and foster interfaith peacebuilding through dialogue, integration, and education. In our discussion today, I’ll focus mainly on the opportunity this mosque provides for dignity and interreligious dialogue.
This research pertains both to Greek Muslims and to Muslim migrants living in Greece. But, as the population of migrants continues to grow, they’re often a larger focal point of the discourse regarding Islam in Greece. That’s part of the reason why this mosque project has been controversial. One of the largest groups in active opposition to the project is Golden Dawn, which is a notoriously anti-immigrant party that was involved early on, when the resolution for the construction of this mosque was passed. At some points, their opposition involved large demonstrations, for example, in 2016 they camped out on the construction sites to prevent progress and had to be removed by the Greek military. That was a very extreme example of the strong opposition to this project.
However, it has a powerful motivation that is rooted in one of the arguments that was made in the Parliament when this was up for debate, which was that historically Greeks have experienced restrictions of their rights and persecution. Consequently, the speaker argued Greek historic identity fully understands the importance of religious tolerance. This is one of the forces behind the mosque project, which is creating an open and welcoming society that does not further the oppression of marginalized groups, but instead welcomes them and provides a space for them to practice their identity and their religion.
That leads to the importance of a mosque for Muslim migrants and specifically Muslim migrants in Greece, who are often arriving with few connections and few financial resources. The opportunity to practice their religion in a mosque provides an important sense of dignity and place. Religion is a powerful tool that supports migrants along their journey and has been shown in various ways to help them cope with dislocation and trauma along their route. Having this mosque is an important infrastructure that allows for that coping strategy.
It also provides the opportunity to provide political identity and engagement with the government, and with the Greek Orthodox Church, which is very much involved with the government. One of the most important points is for the recognition of Islam in Greece. Currently in Athens, there are over 120 unofficial mosque sites where largely migrant communities meet in basements in order to pray. As Anna Stamou from the Muslim Association of Greece points out, “We want to be free and independent like you protect the Christians in the country.”
Also, there’s a desire for greater security in this process of recognition. Stamou also says, “we need a free voice, not somebody to depend on — like don’t bring Saudi Arabia to bring the mosque.” So there’s this side issue of migrants coming in from other countries without many resources wanting to have a place to practice their religion but not having the resources to do so. Foreign funders are stepping in, providing the funding for these locations but often wanting to control the operations, which is harmful to the migrant community and a red flag for the Greek state. The Muslim community in Athens wants to have their own control over the way religion is practiced, and that can be exemplified through the creation of the infrastructure of a mosque that provides leadership and a place to worship as a larger community.
It also provides official representatives that can engage in dialogue with the Greek government and with the Orthodox Church. All of this relates deeply to the integration of migrants into Greek society. When I spoke with Angelos Vallianatos, who is the member of the Ministry of National Education and Religious Affairs in Athens, he pointed out that the guidelines for the mosque are for prayers to be conducted in Arabic, but the sermons to be given in Greek and English. I think this is an example of a larger hope for the mosque that it would bridge the gap between the places where migrants are coming from and the current community they are a part of in Athens. Language is often cited as an essential step in immigrant integration, so having religious services in the Greek language makes the mosque a critical gateway into Greek society; a safe space where migrants can begin to pick up language, access language services, but doing so in a community that is comfortable. That is people who practice the same religion and have a shared identity, and in a way that can hopefully inspire them to get more involved in the larger community of Athens.
However, I think it’s important to push beyond integration into dialogue across differences. I’m talking about interreligious dialogue. The Inner Orthodox Society of Greece cites that, “one of the largest challenges to their dialogue with the Muslim community is the lack of official contact or official representation,” which is what this mosque would provide. But in contrast, the Muslim Association of Greece says that they are ready and willing to engage in more dialogue, and in fact they have been seeking out opportunities for further dialogue, but have had to fight for it and haven’t recieved the opportunity to actually interact on a high level with any other religious communities in Greece, largely because they are unrecognized. The mosque project is an important foundation for convening both the Muslim community to gather and to build relationships, but also outreaching to other religious communities, bridging dialogue, and providing the potential for expanding religious education, which is something that is required for all Greek students and offers the opportunity to look to not only the Greek Orthodox Church, but also other religious communities to be involved in religious education.
This project continues to face challenges. The most recent headline in regard to the mosque project is “The coronavirus delays Athens’ mosque opening.” While the coronavirus has certainly delayed a lot of things across the world, this comes as no surprise to the Muslim Association of Greece, as there have been perpetual delays. Both times that I went to Greece to conduct interviews, there was a headline saying that the mosque would open within that month, and yet it continued to experience delay after delay. A project that began in 2006 still remains to be concluded.
Despite these challenges, I think that I and those at the Muslim Association, have created hope for this project. A public mosque is a project that encourages cross-cultural dialogue and interreligious peace and at a time of fear and exclusion across much of Europe. As the Muslim community of Athens welcomes the opening of the first mosque since the fall of the Ottoman Empire in their city, they, alongside other Athenians, can strategically think about the ways this institution can be used in Greek society to build an open and empathetic community as well as an easier transition for those newly arriving on its shores.
Emma Winters: If you want to learn more about Notre Dame’s Keough School of Global Affairs, please visit: keough.nd.edu. CMSOnAir’s theme music is provided by The Music Case. For more podcasts like this one, you can follow CMSOnAir on Spotify, Apple Podcasts, Soundcloud, or wherever you get your podcasts. To find a full transcript of this episode or get more information on CMS’s research, publications, and events, visit us at cmsny.org.
At the 2020 Catholic Immigrant Integration Initiative Conference hosted by the Center for Migration Studies and the University of Notre Dame, four students from Notre Dame’s Keough School of Global Affairs presented findings from their migration-related research projects.
The Center for Migration Studies of New York (CMS) and the University of Notre Dame hosted the 2020 Catholic Immigrant Integration Initiative Conference on Thursday, October 1 and Friday, October 2, 2020. This annual event is part of CMS’s Catholic Immigrant Integration Initiative (CIII) which seeks to understand, expand and strengthen the work of Catholic institutions with immigrant communities.