Understanding the Mediterranean: complex dimensions of the “migration crisis” and representation.

by Natalia Zotova, PhD Candidate, Department of Anthropology, The Ohio State University.

On 22 February Dr. Maurizio Albahari, an associate professor at the University of Notre Dame, gave a lecture “Rethreading the Mediterranean: Disquieting Art and Migrant Democracy” at Mershon Center for International Security Studies. The lecture was co-sponsored by the Department of Anthropology, the Mershon Center for International Security Studies, the Department of French & Italian, and the Global Mobility Project.

In his lecture Dr. Albahari disentangled representations of the “migrant crisis” unfolding in the Mediterranean. In the recent years hundreds of thousands refugees have embarked on a dangerous journey across the sea to flee war, persecution, and political and economic insecurity in their home countries. While many were able to land safely on the shores of the European countries, the sea claimed thousands of lives on the “world most dangerous border”. EU politicians, human rights activists, media and local population addressed complex dimensions of emergent humanitarian and political crisis. However, in the flurry of media representations, activism and even fake news, the asymmetries of power relationships mainly go under the radar of popular narrative and academic inquiry.

Dr. Albahari argued that the right to seek asylum in Europe had turned into a commodity, where migrants either pay with their lives or have to pay smugglers and other middlemen. While the Mediterranean today is at the conflux of trade, politics, ideology, border enforcement and unauthorized mobility, humans have the least power to move from the global south to the global north. In his recent book “Crimes of Peace” (2015) Dr. Albahari developed an ethnography of state power and indifference, which perpetuates the dynamics of the world’s deadliest border in the Mediterranean. Arguing for an overlooked asymmetry in the attitudes to commodities such as gas, oil and natural resources, and arriving migrants, the speaker discussed broader power inequalities between EU and countries of the global south. Dr. Albahari suggested conceptualizing the borders as “diffuse” rather than “open” or “closed”. European borders are permeable for conditional aid, military convoys, as well as holders of the EU passports traveling southward. And while diffuse borders welcome commodities; the people who seek safety and better life in Europe are turned away, repatriated and marginalized.

To illustrate his argument Dr. Albahari showed a political cartoon, created by refugees. That was an image of a solitary figure sitting on a large pipe going under a barber fence border. The caption read: “Oil goes through, we don’t”. Analytical attention to the agency of migrants and refugees was one of major arguments of the speaker. Dr. Albahari called for “disquieting art”, which could become a powerful engagement tool. Pieces of art developed by migrants and contemplated by public can create the space for empathy, understanding and healing. Celebrating the voice of refugees through artistic expression we could move away from dichotomies of victimization or blaming. In Dr. Albahari’s opinion, that is immensely important in order to treat political divisiveness and power asymmetries in both Europe and the world.            

by Francesco Piobbichi, 2016

Research Update: “Navigating Chicagoland: Social Dynamics, Religion, & Mental Well-Being among Central Asian Muslim Immigrants”

by Natalia Zotova, PhD Candidate, Department of Anthropology, The Ohio State University

Natalia Zotova visiting a mosque at the American Islamic College

Migration the US creates a lot of opportunities, but also bring challenges. Navigating the new social and cultural environment is not easy. Migrants need to adjust and address different problems in their daily lives, which causes stress and has implications for health. What does it mean to be Muslim immigrant in the US? How does Islamic religious identity and observance shape life trajectories of new countries’ residents? What are the health implications of Muslim immigrants, and specifically of Central Asian natives?  The Global Mobility Graduate Research Grant gave me opportunity to address these questions by supporting my research in Chicago Metropolitan Area in September-November 2017.

Scholarship on religion and health indicate that stress among Muslim immigrants is intensified by experiences of discrimination, which negatively affects mental health. While studies on migration and health investigate stress, less attention is paid to the cultural context in which stress and coping occur. My research addressed the meaning and role of religion as a mediator of stress and mental well-being among Central Asian Muslim immigrants in Chicago Metropolitan Area. My work explored religious practices of Central Asian natives and culturally embedded stress responses through an ethnographic analysis of respondents’ narratives, completed with biological indicators of well-being (blood pressure, weight and height as secondary biomarkers of stress response), as well as self-administered mental health. That allowed to capture lived experiences of new immigrants to understand whether practicing Central Asian migrants have a stronger sense of mental well-being in the new social environment. During my time in Chicago, I conducted 5 informal expert interviews, 31 semi-structured interviews, as well as observations at mosques, Central Asian community gatherings and other social activities. The experts interviewed for this project included Central Asian community leaders and activists, academics at different universities of Chicago, as well as members of Muslim community centers.

Natalia Zotova with the head of Uzbek American Association of Chicago

While data analysis is in progress, some preliminary findings emerge. The influence of Islam differed between Central Asian immigrants due to the history of the region, development of Islamic communities and the secular pressures exerted by the Soviet Union and post-Soviet independence. While navigating new social environment, many informants became more religious during their stay in the US. Central Asians benefited from resources of Muslim communities, and settled in Chicago neighborhoods around other established Muslim groups. Connections with Turkish communities were of major importance. Central Asians were mainly not perceived as Muslims in their daily lives due to phenotype and lack of visual markers of religiosity (head scarf or beard). Practicing Muslims did not experience more discrimination than secular immigrants, unless they have visual markers of religious affiliation (head scarf or a beard). Major stressors producing adverse mental health outcomes were not religion-based. These stressors included migration-related factors such as insecurity, documentary status and work-related concerns. Recent immigrants (less than 3 years) had highest level of distress, which was likely to level up with the longer period of stay in the US.

A view of Chicago from Lakefront.

This study pointed at a negative association between religiosity and mental health disorders. Religion buffered stress, and moderated negative health implications among Central Asian immigrants by providing meaning and hope. At the same time, Islamic religious identity did not help Central Asian immigrants to bridge their way to mainstream American society. Visual markers of Muslim religious identity informed stress around experiences of marginalization and discrimination. Providing comfort as well as resources, Muslim identity informed segmented assimilation (Portes and Zhou, 1993) trajectories for Central Asian immigrants in Chicago Metropolitan Area. Culturally embedded and gendered stress responses, stigma around mental health disorders, as well as structural barriers to accessing health care services left mental health problems among Central Asian immigrants unaddressed. Chronic stress linked to migration and marginalization in the new country might severe immigrants’ health and lead to development of chronic diseases in the future.

Natalia Zotova gives a talk at the University of Chicago.

I was invited to share this projects’ preliminary findings and give a talk at the University of Chicago. The talk was sponsored by the Committee on Central Eurasian Studies, and brought together faculty, graduate and undergraduate students, as well as guests from Central Asian communities. Aiming to give back to Central Asian communities that I studied, I made a presentation on my experiences and findings at the Uzbek American Association of Chicago. I gratefully acknowledge support from the Global Mobility Project, which allowed me to conduct fruitful research.

Natalia Zotova’s talk poster. The background theme is a photo of a Kyrgyz scarf, which she got as a gift at a Kyrgyz-Thai wedding

Vampire Nation

by Lisa Beiswenger, PhD candidate in Anthroplogy


On October 10, 2017, Professor Tomislav Longinovic visited Dr. Cohen’s Anthropology 7805: Human Mobility: The Anthropology of Migration.  In preparation for the visit, the students read Longinovic’s Vampire Nation: Violence as Cultural Imaginary.   The discussion meandered through a variety of themes from popular culture, mythology, and politics.

Through the book, Longinovic explores the vampire as a metaphor, pointing to the Gothic associations of violence, blood, and soil in the writings of many intellectuals and politicians during the 1990s, especially in portrayals by the U.S.-led Western media of ‘the serbs’ as a vampire nation, a bloodsucking parasite on the edge of European civilization” (Longinovic).

The class discussion began with a question about how refugees are treated in Serbia.  While on the surface this question is simple, it actually has some deep cultural ties.  First, some Serbians feel solidarity with refugees because they would also like to move to one of Europe’s wealthier countries.  Second, stories of exile are written into the culture and thus tie into national identity.  Finally, there are Biblical and mythological overtones at play: one must be hospitable because one never knows who the guest really is.

Next, the students discussed how the vampire myth ties into nationalism.  Vampirism is the perfect metaphor for nationalism because it is the past consuming the future.  The vampire does not consume the old and enfeebled; he eats the young, the healthy, and the intelligent.  The vampire further exemplifies nationalism because of his ties to blood and soil.  Myths of vampires spring up along the zones of cultural transition, the borders, where there is ethnic mixing – people who are not one or the other.

As the class concluded, we discussed how portrayals of vampires have changed over time.  Early vampires are dust and dead bodies.  It wasn’t until they were aestheticized by the Gothic imagination that they transformed into something attractive and graceful.  Today, there is the “vegan” vampire (ex. Louis from Interview with the Vampire, Angel from Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Edward from Twilight), a vampire of remarkable beauty who can live indefinitely but who drinks from humans begrudgingly.

Longinovic, Tomislav.  Vampire Nation.  eDuke Books Scholarly Collection.  http://read.dukeupress.edu/content/vampire-nation 

Research Methodology Workshop

Date: Tuesday, November 14, 1:00-2:30
Location: Enarson, Room 160

On Tuesday, November 14, 1:00-2:30 we will be hosting a discussion on Research Methodology.  The workshop will feature presentations from our faculty affiliates and team members.

Join the GMP affiliated faculty, Robin Judd (History), Hannah Kosstrin (Dance), Yana Hashamova (Slavic), Arati Maleku (Social Work), and Ryan Skinner (Music), as they discuss research methodologies related to questions of global mobility and migration.

More Than Babel: Opening the Door to Iraqi Women’s Narratives on Migration, Assimilation and Hopes for the Future

by Gretchen Klingler and Dr. Jeffrey Cohen
Summer Research Update


Gretchen Klingler at mosque during her research

My summer research has been very fruitful. Attending the Expeditions “Off the Beaten Track” ethnographic field school, Gozo, Malta, in June 2017, I was able to further refine my research skills. The field school taught me several lessons about being an ethnographic researcher that were critical in my summer research project. The Global Mobility Undergraduate Research Grant provided me with my first experience as a researcher, and practicing ethnographic methods at a field school was fantastic preparation.

To date, I have conducted several interviews with a diverse group of Iraqi women. These women arrived in the United States between 1988 and 2013, and range in age between 30 and 62. My sample includes women who are married and divorced as well as with and without children. The women I interviewed speak excellent English. These women learned English in Iraq rather than the US; they studied in universities, watched movies and television, and listened to music in order to expand their vocabulary and become comfortable with the language. Each woman has completed or is working to complete a higher education program.

In my project, I wanted to learn if Iraqi women faced new challenges as Islamophobia increases in the US.  Preliminary findings show that programs and educational opportunities provided by local communities and friendly neighbors are essential to the process of adaptation for Iraqi women. The opportunity to learn American culture and customs among friendly, helpful, American born (native born) community members, and peers who are also learning (including immigrants from other countries) gives Iraqi women opportunities to feel comfortable.  My findings suggest that Islamophobia may not be a challenge when native born North Americans have the opportunity to meet and become friends with Iraqi immigrants.  While none of my current informants wear the head scarf (hijab), I anticipate that future participants will. They may also struggle with English, and lack degrees in formal, higher education.

Women’s experiences vary drastically when they discuss their migration. One woman walked several days in the desert to arrive at a location where her life was no longer under direct threat.  Another gathered her things and drove to Jordan, while a third flew to Jordan. Nevertheless, most women had transit time for 6-12 months between the time they left Iraq to the time they came to the United States. There are some exceptions: one woman waited 5 years in Iraq before she was able to leave due to life events that caused changes in her legal status and affected her paperwork. Another woman had a very different experience: she packed her belongings and fled Iraq in a week’s time. In 3 out of 4 cases my informants were threatened with death and chose to leave to preserve their life.

My informants are looking forward to stability in their lives and for their families and children. They all hope that their children will find jobs and promotions, educational opportunities live healthy lives in the future. When I asked my informants to comment on their futures, the current political climate was not an immediate factor.  However, the continuous edits to the Trump administration’s “travel ban” remain a cause of serious concern, particularly for women who planned to return to Iraq to see family.  Although the Supreme Court ruling in late June exempted Iraq from the list of countries in which individuals without ties to the United States are barred from entry, the looming threat of once having been included in this list remains an ever present reminder of their “otherness” even as legal residents and citizens.  One woman, who is an American citizen, is concerned for her upcoming trip to Iraq – her first in over 10 years. She is concerned about her return and she is taking precautions to remain safe in Iraq. Another woman would like to visit her family in Iraq but feels she cannot risk it. She is not an American citizen, and she worries about the uncertainty surrounding the administration and the possibility that she may be denied reentry, separating her from her son who would remain in the US.

Becoming an American citizen or being an American citizen is critical for these women. Their interest is not necessarily due to patriotism – although every woman celebrates her appreciation and gratefulness to the United States – but its foundation stems from the fear that she may not be able to return to the United States if she is not a citizen. Aspirations of citizenship for those who are not currently U.S. citizens has taken on new meaning as the ideas of security and stability shift.

Animated map shows how humans migrated across the globe

“It’s tough to know what happened on Earth thousands of years before anyone started writing anything down. But thanks to the amazing work of anthropologists and paleontologists like those working on National Geographic’s Genographic Project, we can begin to piece together the story of our ancestors. Here’s how early humans spread from East Africa all around the world.” – from Business Insider Science