How do you teach a course on refugees that humanizes displaced peoples but not within the human rights framework? The global historical conditions that produce refugees represent some of the most pressing issues in our contemporary era, including colonialism and militarism, climate change, and the gender and sexual violence that undergird state violence. While the latest United Nations report for 2018 indicates that 70.8 million people are displaced as a result of persecution, conflict, violence, or human rights violations, of which 138,600 are unaccompanied and separated children, these staggering statistical figures often present refugees as a problem to be solved.1 The UN and existing literature on refugees, then, deploy a problem-oriented approach to refugees to either resolve their displacement or understand the sociology of their (re)integration without addressing the structures of violence that produced their displacement in the first place. This Critical Refugee Studies course, designed and taught within a critical race and ethnic studies framework, works beyond the legal and sociological approaches to instead focus on stories and storytelling. The course approaches storytelling as a critical methodology for elevating refugee knowledge that decenters the human rights framework and the 1951 Refugee Convention definition of the refugee based on a “well-founded fear of persecution” that was geographically and historically bounded within Europe.2 Pedagogically, this means starting the course elsewhere, and with stories, to reframe the stakes of the refugee as a social actor and an idea that challenges political, social, and cultural notions of nation and citizenship.3 The stories invite relationality in students’ learning such that the framing of the refugee knowledge base humanizes refugees and engages students’ experiential and analytical knowledge. So while the course asks students to produce more traditional work through response papers and a midterm, a key product from the course is a final storytelling project to locate stories about refugees or forced migrations. The format of the storytelling project can be a story map, a blog post, or an archival artifact to be hosted on the Critical Refugee Studies website (criticalrefugeestudies.com). The refugee as an analytic and the method of storytelling open up course materials and classroom discussions around disparate issues such as war and imperialism, Palestine, climate change, and undocumented immigration. At the newest University of California (UC) campus with the largest number of Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) recipient students in the UC system and in the context of ongoing family separation and migrant detention at the US-Mexico border, the refugee has been a critical way to illuminate the convergence of state violence and militarism. Urgently, the refugee opens up ways to see displaced and/or migrant communities who are made invisible by constraining public discourses about terrorism or human rights. Instead, the course demonstrates that refugees’ “politics [and poetics] of living” through the production of knowledge and art are political acts.4
Ma Vang is an assistant professor and founding chair of Critical Race and Ethnic Studies at the University of California, Merced. Her forthcoming book, History on the Run: Secrecy, Fugitivity, and Hmong Refugee Epistemologies, examines how secrecy structures both official knowledge and refugee epistemologies about militarism and forced migration. She is the coeditor of Claiming Place: On the Agency of Hmong Women (University of Minnesota Press, 2016), and her writings have been published in positions: asia critique and MELUS. With a UC Multicampus Research grant, she is a founding member of the Critical Refugee Studies Collective, which aims to ethically reconceptualize refugee lifeworlds to make apparent processes of colonization, war, and displacement. She serves as coeditor of its website, which hosts the refugee archive and story map platforms for refugees to share stories. She is also actively engaged with student and community organizations.
3. Yen Le Espiritu, Body Counts: The Vietnam War and Militarized Refuge(es) (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2014).
4. Le Espiritu, 51.