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Queer Refugees/Queering Refugee Studies

October 9, 2020 @ 12:00 pm - 1:30 pm

This panel places queer refugee experiences and queer refugee studies at the forefront of larger discussions of political asylum, global or transnational perceptions of queerness, and overlapping systems of governance. Rather than treating queer refugees as exceptional or marginal to refugee studies, we explore how queerness is central to the formation of refugee subjects, border regimes, and state technologies.

This event is part of the conference “Encountering Difference, Embodying Boundaries, and Unsettling Borders: Middle Eastern Refugees and Immigrants in the European Union”. Conference events take place Fridays October 9-November 6 from 12-1:30pm ET.

Paper Abstracts & Bios

From ‘Temporary Transit’ to ‘Indefinite Waiting’: Iranian LGBTQ Refugees in Turkey

Elif Sarı
Cornell University

This talk focuses on the experiences Iranian LGBTQ refugees awaiting in Turkey for resettlement to a third country. Until recently, the transnational asylum system had considered Iranian LGBTQ refugees a ‘prioritized’ group whose case-assessment and resettlement were conducted on a faster track than other Middle Eastern refugees. However, as the United States and Canada have cut their refugee quotas and tightened their asylum policies since 2015, the prospects for Iranian LGBTQ refugee resettlement have grown increasingly dim. Even those refugees who have completed necessary asylum procedures and have been formally eligible for resettlement for years are still stranded in small Turkish towns with insecure legal status. My talk investigates this critical time period in which ‘temporary transit’ has turned into a condition of ‘indefinite waiting.’ I approach ‘indefinite waiting’ as a lens through which to analyze both the transnational configuration of queer asylum and refugees’ lived experiences in the current era of immigration retrenchment, growing xenophobia, and anti-Muslim racism. Drawing on extensive ethnographic research in Turkey, I explore how the growing securitization of borders of the Global North have brought Iranian queer refugee resettlement to a halt, and how refugees have responded to these emerging structures of confinement, immobility and uncertainty.

ELİF SARI is a PhD candidate in the Department of Anthropology, with a graduate minor in Feminist, Gender, and Sexuality Studies, at Cornell University. Her research and teaching interests include migration, borders, diasporas, humanitarianism, gender violence, transnational sexualities, and Middle East studies as well as collaborative, multimodal, and social justice-oriented approaches to knowledge production. Her current project offers an engaged ethnography of transnational queer asylum from the Middle East to North America by focusing on the experiences of Iranian LGBTQ refugees awaiting in Turkey for resettlement to the US and Canada. She has published her work in Movements and Journal of Lesbian Studies and authored contributions to Queer and Trans Migrations (2020) and Authoritarianism and Resistance in Turkey (2018). She is a co-editor of the Turkey Page at Jadaliyya e-zine.

Economic Refugees, Sanctions, and the Hermeneutics of Miseration: The violence of humanitarian LGBTI “torture” claims

Sima Shaksari
University of Minnesota

In this talk, by drawing attention to kinds of epistemic and material violence that refugee regimes engender through the trivialization of the sanctions, I hope to show that “forced surgeries” and “torture” as hegemonic parlances that define the Iranian trans refugee experience in the international media and refugee regimes normalize economic violence in a time when deadly sanctions subject the most vulnerable segments of the Iranian population (including working class and rural trans people) to death. Rather than succumbing to essentialist definitions that constitute queer and trans asylum, I ask, what forms of violence are simultaneously enacted and erased when the qualifying criteria for refugee recognition fixes iconic identities and excludes conditions that produce refugees? In particular, in the case of Iranian queer and trans refugees, I am interested in the trivialization of the violence of economic sanctions by the refugee regimes (which include multiple states, UNHCR, NGOs, and diasporas) that are invested in the naturalization and deployment of fixed sexual identities in uneven geopolitical terrains. I ask, what is at stake when the material conditions of Iranian queer and trans refugees under the deadly economic sanctions are reduced to one aspect of their existence within hegemonic narratives of queer and trans refuge?

SIMA SHAKSARI is an associate professor in the Department of Gender, Women & Sexualities Studies at the University of Minnesota. They earned their PhD in Cultural and Social Anthropology at Stanford University and have held postdoctoral positions at the University of Pennsylvania’s Wolf Humanities Center and the Women’s and Gender Studies Department at the University of Houston. Their book, titled Politics of Rightful Killing: Civil Society, Gender, and Sexuality in Weblogistan (Duke University Press, 2020), provides an analysis of Weblogistan as a site of cybergovernmentality where simultaneously national and neoliberal gendered subjectivities are produced through online and offline heteronormative disciplining and normalizing techniques, and where loaned life is subjected to a pending death in the name of rights. Shakhsari is the anthropology, sociology, and gender studies book review editor of the International Journal of Middle East Studies, and an editorial collective member of AGITATE! Unsettling Knowledges.

Resettlement and its Discontents: UNHCR and Syrian LGBT Refugees in Turkey

Fadi Saleh
University of Göttingen

This talk focuses on the emergence of Syrian LGBT refugees as the most recent “prioritized” refugee group within UNHCR’s resettlement scheme in Turkey. Based on ethnographic fieldwork conducted in Istanbul at the height of the so-called “refugee crisis” in 2014 – 2015, I explore the relationship between Syrian LGBT refugees and UNHCR as well as the resettlement countries’ migration and asylum policies. On the one hand, I explore how the UNHCR’s prioritization of Syrians has negatively affected the resettlement chances of other LGBT refugee groups—whose cases are now de-prioritized. On the other hand, I argue that although the ongoing war in Syria is what gives Syrian refugees a new kind of “priority,” Syrian LGBT refugees are simultaneously expected to produce escape stories and narratives of sexual injury that are completely detached from the ongoing war, and rather anchored in a “culture” of homo- and transphobia. After unpacking this contradiction and its multi-layered consequences for other LGBT refugee groups in Turkey, I offer some reflections on the need for and importance of more critical-political engagement with UNHCR and resettlement, which remain some of the most under-researched areas within queer migration/refugee studies.

FADI SALEH is a PhD candidate at the Institute for Cultural Anthropology and European Ethnology at the University of Göttingen, Germany. In his PhD project, he traces the recent emergence of Syrian LGBTIQ refugees as a constituency in discourses around humanitarianism, asylum, and queerness. In addition to his academic research, Fadi continues to work with many LGBTIQ organizations in Europe and across the Middle East and North Africa region in a variety of consultancy, research, training, and advocacy capacities.

Spaces of Injury: Rethinking queer research methodologies with refugees in Lesvos

Begüm Başdaş
Humboldt University of Berlin

Lack of common asylum laws in the EU effects LGBTI+ refugees and asylum seekers disproportionately. The situation is particularly worse on the Greek hotspot islands, where thousands of asylum seekers are trapped in overcrowded camps for years. Amid all the horrific challenges the camps present and the perpetual emergency conditions, LGBTI+ people are pushed to the lower layers of vulnerability and the daily violence they face is made invisible.

Feminist queer approach challenges methodological normativities and invites us to “get at” or “render visible” what is queer (Browne and Nash 2016). However, in contexts such as Lesvos island that comes with complex negotiations because queer critique in research also goes beyond gender and sexuality. How do we talk about resilience among refugees and at the same time ensure that the lives we render visible are protected? How do we reveal the everyday violence refugees face both from authorities and from inside the camps honestly and openly, especially at a time where EU policies have become increasingly anti-refugees? With such questions in mind, I argue that we must rethink our ethical responsibilities in knowledge production as well as our role as queer activist academics.

BEGÜM BAŞDAŞ received her PhD in Geography from the University of California Los Angeles (2007) and her MA in Art History from the University of California Riverside (2001). Her BA was in Sociology at Boğaziçi University, Turkey. She also worked full-time as a human rights campaigner at Amnesty International Turkey for six years. Begüm is currently a senior Einstein Fellow at Humboldt University in Berlin and her research titled “Masculinities on the Move: Spatial Politics of Solidarity and Care Among Refugees in Greece” is centered on human rights, gender, sexuality and migration. This summer, her work in Lesvos island in Greece looked at how refugees, asylum seekers and activists through their everyday spatial practices build relations of care and solidarity.

The Discursive Political Work of the “True Self” Narrative in Queer Middle Eastern Refugee Migrations

Suad Jabr
University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill

The use of “true self” in western media coverage of queer Middle Eastern refugees is a contradictory, unattainable identity for queer Middle Eastern refugees. This “true self” suggests that queer Middle Eastern refugees are only able to live out their essential queer selves after recieving asylum and moving to the west. This narrative of true selfhood ignores the rupturing, transformative process of refugeehood, as well as the geographical-historical conceptions of identity, and relational, place-based making of self in which refugees become refugees. True selfhood, disguised as western freedom, serves as merely another normative script in which queers in the west must present their identities as legitimate to a heteronormative, cisnormative society that does not conceptualize of other formations of self. Here, the contradiction between true selfhood and queer Middle Eastern refugeehood becomes a site where the logic of political asylum regimes breaks down, and where other understandings of queer Middle Eastern refugee selfhood may start to emerge.

SUAD JABR is an MA/PhD student in the department of Geography at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. They have a background in Women and Gender Studies and Geography. Their research interests center on queer refugeehood in and in relation to the Middle East, as well as transnationalism, citizenship and belonging, and gendered migration. In their graduate research, they aim to put queer theory into conversation with refugee studies. In the past, they’ve studied the discursive utilizations of exceptional vulnerability, authenticity, and deservingness in queer Syrian refugee narratives in western media, and continue this project into their current graduate work. In their time outside the university, they co-organize an NC-based queer zine collective and enjoy discussing the power dynamics present in popular reality TV.

The Unsettling Borders 2020 Conference is co-funded by the Erasmus+ Programme of the European Union, and co-sponsored by the UNC Center for European Studies, the UNC College of Arts & Sciences, UNC Global, the UNC Center for Middle East & Islamic Studies, and the Duke Middle East Studies Center. The conference is organized by a team of academics from the UNC Department of Geography and Purdue University.

This event is part of the TransAtlantic Masters Program Fall Friday Lecture Series.

EU flag with the text co-funded by the Erasmus+ Programme of the European Union. The European Commission’s support for the production of this publication does not constitute an endorsement of the contents, which reflect the views only of the authors, and the Commission cannot be held responsible for any use which may be made of the information contained therein.

Flyer advertising Unsettling Borders Conference in October 2020.


October 9, 2020
12:00 pm - 1:30 pm
Event Category:
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