Refugee Lives: Violence, Culture and Identity


Course Description:

This course examines the reasons for and outcomes of Arab refugee movements since WWII. How can people cope in an environment where they are cut off from everything familiar? What is the difference between a refugee, and internally displaced person and a migrant, between assimilation and integration? Art, literature and film will be considered as key texts for examining the ongoing experiences of refugees.

The service-oriented documentary component of the class provides one-to-one learning from Syrian and Iraqi refugee partners via Skype. Students will record oral histories of refugee partners now residing in Lebanon, Europe, and North America for Duke’s Archive of Documentary Arts.

The class will focus on four refugee groups: Palestinians who fled their homes in 1948 and were settled in refugee camps on the borders of the Israeli state under the protection of the United Nations Relief and Work Agency (UNRWA). Sudanese who escaped to Egypt and elsewhere, Iraqis to Saudi Arabia and Europe after the 1991 Gulf War and then to Syria, Jordan and Turkey after the US invasion in 2003. Recently, Syrians fled the civil war to camps in Jordan, Lebanon and Turkey.

Invited speakers will present their experiences working with refugees from Iraq, Syria and Sudan; offer historical context for forced migration; and share the artistic/literary/musical creativity that has accompanied the refugee crisis.

Course Objectives: 

  • Analyze today’s refugee crisis from multiple perspectives focusing on its global impact
  • Connect between course readings and direct conversations with individual refugees
  • Illustrate the complexity of the refugee crisis through the experiences of community partners
  • Envision the potential impact of refugee art and creativity   

Service component: Skype interviews, transcriptions and field notes                                                   

Since this is a service-learning labeled course, each student in this class is expected to dedicate around 20 hours throughout the semester serving the community of refugees. You will be placed in groups of three students and each group will be assigned to a community partner (CP) through the Natakallam platform. You will meet with your CP three times in the semester through Skype. Each of the three students will lead the interview with the CP once, allowing the rest of the group members to participate but making sure to use time wisely. You should prepare for each of these interviews as a group. The 20 hours include three Skype interviews with the community partner during class time, the preparation for each of these interviews, transcribing and writing field notes after every Skype interview, reflecting in class on each of these interviews and sharing with the rest of the class some lessons learned. Finally, editing and finalizing your project counts also towards these twenty hours. Your grade is not only based on completing these twenty hours. Rather, we would like to see that you are able to connect the readings and discussions we have in class to the community partners’ narratives that you have collected.

Please note that the service-learning component in this class helps link what we learn with a needed service to the refugee community: offering Syrian and Iraqi refugees the opportunity to have their voices heard by recording and editing their narratives, and sharing these stories with the general public. Service-Learning courses, including this one, incorporate group and individual reflection to integrate their service experience with the other materials in the course. “Service-Learning goes beyond extracurricular community service because it involves participants in reading, reflection, and analysis.” 

See student's past projects here.

Impact of the Refugee Lives class on undergraduates:

We have found that extended and ethical direct contact with refugees is a transformational experience for Duke students, many of whom plan on further engagement with the global refugee crisis. The partnership between Asian & Middle Eastern Studies and the Center for Documentary Studies has created a rigorous academic and documentary arts approach to the refugee crisis. Meaningful research and in-depth study contribute to exceptional student research, both in oral history and in a traditional academic final paper. Below are representative observations from the 2017 Refugee Lives students on their fieldwork interactions with their refugee community partners:

Our students learned from their refugee partners, as Emily recounts: "Hearing [K] talk about his religious beliefs and how important they are to him was really moving. It really makes me want to share his story because more people should listen and understand how their misconceptions about Muslims are wrong. I’d like to hear more about what he draws from the most in the Quran because that’s not something I know much about and after reading it so many times he must have a really good understanding.  This just makes me wish those people who support politics against refugees would actually listen to their stories."

Regarding the oral history approach to interviewing Saeed, Hannah noted, "the most interesting and abundant responses we received were to open-ended questions that enabled him to elaborate on themes of family, loss, love and what it means to be a refugee in pursuit of a safe and stable environment."

Regarding his refugee interview partner, "K," Jesse said, "My overall impression of him is that he is an amazing person. He thinks so deeply about each of our questions and wants to give us all the information he can to make us understand what he has gone through. I hope we can get these stories out somehow to really make a difference. When he told us he has always wanted to study in America it broke my heart that I couldn’t encourage him knowing about the ban and our President’s views on refugees. I am ashamed of my country because of that."

Jesse concluded, "I really am grateful for the opportunity we had to learn from K’s story. Not only was it helpful to become more aware of all the prevalent issues surrounding the current refugee crisis, but I consider myself lucky to hear first hand from such a brave individual and connect with him on a personal level. This has made what was before a distant news story on the other side of the world a crisis that is much more real, close, and urgent."



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