Rochelle Davis, academic director of the Center for Contemporary Arab Studies at Georgetown University, will be on campus Wednesday to discuss the struggles of displaced Syrians and what it means to be a refugee in the volatile Middle East.
Davis’ lecture is queued first in the sociology and anthropology department’s Fall Speakers Series 2014, aimed at discussing human identities, activism and society’s racial structures. Her lecture, “Displaced Syrians and the Humanitarian Aid Regime,” will be 4:30 p.m. Wednesday, Sept. 17, in the International Commons at the Carole Weinstein International Center.
Davis has become an expert on the turbulent Syrian nation over the many years she has lived in the Middle East. In addition to the numerous summers that Davis spent working in Syria, she lived in Egypt for three years, Jordan for four years and called the West Bank home as well. During her time on the other side of the globe, she worked with multiple NGOs and volunteer organizations, as well as medical professionals from the U.S. and the U.K. Davis said it was invaluable for young Americans to see an unfiltered portrayal of political conditions in the Middle East, especially in the heightened instability of the region over the past three to five years.
“I think that for us as Americans just to get an idea of what has happened in Syria is really important,” Davis said by phone Saturday. “It was a very civil, nonviolent demonstration for the first four or five months, along the lines of what we saw [with other political uprisings] in Egypt and Libya. And the violence with which the regime responded was not surprising to people who know Syria.”
Davis explained that like much of the Middle East, governmental corruption and the disrupting influence of radical social organizations have forced millions of Syrians to flee their homes, and in most cases their country. Most Americans have become familiar with the Syrian chaos only of recent, as disturbing images and stories of the jihadist militant group ISIS have made their way across broadcast news and the Internet. But Davis has seen the frightening instability in Syria for years, and what has befallen the nationalists who have tried to advocate for their cause peacefully.
“It started as a nonviolent movement asking for more democratic political rights," Davis said. "People were out in the street demonstrating, and the Syrian regime responded with inordinate amounts of violence. Shooting people, snipers. They would find out who organized these demonstrations and then they would send in thugs who would beat them up or take them away.”
In the decades she spent in the Middle East, Davis said she met and worked with many of the 3 million registered Syrian refugees who had no choice but to flee from their country’s danger and corruption. “That means people outside of Syria, Syrians who have left the country. And there’s probably many more than that,” she said. In total, Davis said, 10 million to 12 million Syrians have been at least displaced from their homes, if not the country, out of fear and necessity, which is about half of Syria’s population of 22 million.
“If we put that in terms of the U.S., if half the population of the U.S. were no longer living in their homes, it’d be a catastrophe,” Davis said. She said refugees who were fortunate enough to escape then found themselves scrambling to locate a new home. “Lebanon is a population of about 4 million. And they have over a million registered Syrian refugees. That means that 25 percent of its population are Syrian.”
Davis initially became interested in Middle Eastern affairs as an undergraduate at University of California, after spending three years in Cairo as part of a study abroad program. “I initially did most of my work in Arabic language and literature. Then I switched at a Ph.D. level to anthropology, because I got much more interested in people rather than language and literary production,” she said.
Davis, who is also an associate professor of anthropology at Georgetown, said it was the human element of the Middle East conflicts that compelled her so greatly. She focuses her talks on how the refugees think of themselves, and how they find ways to feed their families and survive. “It’s important to recognize that refugees are not just numbers and statistics – they’re people with dreams and hopes and lives, and history and passion.” Davis estimated that the current surge in Syrian political and civil unrest has left 200,000 dead so far.
Rania Kassab Sweis, assistant professor of anthropology and international studies at University of Richmond and a former colleague of Davis’ from the CCAS at Georgetown, was instrumental in organizing for Davis to kick off the sociology and anthropology department’s Fall Speakers Series 2014.
“When I learned that she was doing this new ethnographic project, my first instinct was to invite her to the campus, and the department was actually behind that,” Sweis said. “She’s a very prolific and well-known scholar in Middle East studies. I was already familiar with her work, and I knew that she was doing this new project on Syrians. I just thought that that’s something that this campus community can benefit from.”
Sweis was also excited for the perspective that Davis might be able to provide for students who are only familiar with the graphic and anarchic images coming out of the country, as the Middle East is a region that is perpetually at the forefront of the media. “You turn on the news and there it is, especially after this last speech that Obama gave, where now we have a campaign that’s directly linked to Syria. What gets lost are the personal stories, the families, the narratives from a lot of women and children,” Sweis said.
Sweis said the plans to have Davis visit campus were actually made well before media images of ISIS and Syrian unrest began flooding international airwaves. Though many Americans had previously been unaware of growing tensions in Syria, Davis was witnessing the discord first-hand and knew the message needed to be relayed back to the United States.
“What we’re hoping students take away from this event is really the stories on the ground,” Sweis said. “What Syrians are saying, what Syrians are experiencing…it kind of speaks back to Davis’ methods, the extensive research that she’s done with people who have experienced the violence in Syria.”
Davis’ undergraduate Arabic studies and travels throughout the Middle East have rendered her fluent in Arabic and earned her recognition as a leading Middle East scholar among American academia. Her encounters have also enabled her to pen books about the conditions she has viewed, including 2010’s "Palestinian Village Histories," about the destruction of more than 400 Palestinian villages in Israel and the subsequent displacement of thousands of Palestinians after Israel was awarded statehood in 1948. "Village Histories" was written to serve as an encapsulation for the accounts and perspectives of these long-time refugees who are still struggling to find a permanent home. Davis has done extensive work with the refugees from several Middle East territories, not only Syria and Palestine.
“She’s going to interrogate this concept of ‘the refugee’ as we know it. As an anthropologist, she will also deconstruct what that means from the perspective of Syrians. I think that’s a view that we don’t often get,” Sweis said. She said she thought students of all interests and ideologies would find some perspective to take away from Davis’ seminar Wednesday. “I think students from all disciplines across the university will benefit from the talk.”