Are Knudsen



Marcia Inhorn, Professor, Yale University,

Lucia Volk, San Francisco State University in California,

While the news cycle has moved onto other topics, the Middle Eastern refugee crisis continues unabated. Millions of refugees have fled from Syria, Iraq, and Afghanistan—the three Middle Eastern countries with the longest wars (including two started by the United States), the largest numbers of casualties, and millions of people in need of humanitarian assistance (13.1 million in Syria, 8.7 million in Iraq, and 3.3 million in Afghanistan). According to the United Nations, of the 65.6 million people who have been forcibly displaced from their homes, nearly 12 million are Syrians, including 5.5 million who have fled across international borders to neighboring Middle Eastern countries and to Europe. In contrast, few Syrian refugees have reached the United States. As of 2016, the US had taken in less than 10% of its “fair share” of Syrian refugees. By 2017, Syrian refugee admissions were halted altogether under Executive Order 13769 (the so-called “Muslim ban”). Yet, during 2016 alone, the US military dropped 12,192 bombs on Syria, contributing substantially to this ongoing refugee crisis.

This panel refocuses critical attention on these deadly Middle Eastern wars and the fate of those who have fled them. Facing risky and arduous journeys, Middle Eastern refugees have not always been well received by countries unprepared to take them. Even in presumably “safe” havens, refugees often find themselves trapped in confusing and contradictory webs of immigration policies and asylum laws. Cumbersome bureaucracies have forced refugees into waiting patterns that have prevented them from beginning new lives in host settings. Underfunded and understaffed aid agencies often provide only temporary and inadequate support. As a result, many Middle Eastern refugees have found themselves abandoned and in limbo—facing life in squalid detention centers and refugee camps and succumbing to food insecurity, physical and mental health problems, and many forms of structural vulnerability.

Focusing on cultural, political, and legal regimes of inclusion and exclusion, this panel seeks to explore in what ways refugees experience and respond to these challenges. This panel contests the notion that Middle Eastern refugees constitute a uniform, bounded category, by showing that specific historical and political contexts matter when explaining whether refugee resettlement is inclusive or exclusionary, life-promoting or oppressive. Through ethnographic studies undertaken in Europe, the US, and the Middle East, presenters in this panel will emphasize the many contingencies and uncertainties that make up day-to-day life for Middle Eastern refugees, as well as the ways in which restrictions are being overcome. What does it mean to refugees to be settled/unsettled, rooted/uprooted, welcome/ unwelcome? It is the argument of this panel that modes of inclusion and exclusion coexist and are activated in actual encounters. The presenters on this panel will also reflect upon the role of anthropology and anthropologists in shaping new refugee discourses, ones that unsettle these binaries and humanize the actors involved.


America’s Wars and Iraqis’ Lives:

Refugee Vulnerabilities and Regimes of Exclusion in the United States

by Marcia Inhorn 

The United States’ war in Afghanistan (2001-present) is now the longest and most “permanent” in modern US history. However, Iraq has had the unfortunate distinction of sustaining two US-led wars, beginning with the First Gulf War of 1990-1991, and followed by the US invasion of Iraq in 2003. Despite the Iraq War’s official end in 2011, US military presence in Iraq continues. In 2016, more than 5,000 US troops remained on the ground in the battle against ISIS, with 12,095 US bombs dropped on the country that year. Given this violent history, Iraqis were given priority admissions to the US from 2007-2016—the single largest refugee group entering the country by 2014 (28 percent). However, as shown in this paper, life for Iraqis in the US has not been easy. Iraqi refugees face numerous “structural vulnerabilities” (Bourgois et al. 2017)—social positions that expose them to various risks and discrimination, high levels of poverty, lack of access to basic healthcare services, and uncertain legal status, especially under new regimes of exclusion instigated by President Donald Trump’s Executive Order 13769 (widely known as the “Muslim ban”). Based on long-term ethnographic research with Iraqi refugees in Detroit, Michigan—America’s poorest big city—this paper examines “Michigan’s Iraqi Refugee Crisis” (Guttersohn 2014), or the inadequacy of resettlement services in a bankrupt city and rustbelt state. Indeed, in Michigan and beyond, Iraqis constitute a largely forgotten and unwanted refugee population—increasingly unwelcome in the very country that caused their flight.


Marcia C. Inhorn is the William K. Lanman Professor of Anthropology and International Affairs at Yale University. A medical anthropologist focusing on gender, religion, and health in the Middle East and Arab America, Inhorn is the author of six books on the subject, including, most recently, The New Arab Man: Emergent Masculinities, Technologies, and Islam in the Middle East (Princeton University Press, 2012), Cosmopolitan Conceptions: IVF Sojourns in Global Dubai (Duke University Press, 2015), and America’s Arab Refugees: Vulnerability and Health on the Margins (Stanford University Press, 2018). She has also recently completed a two-year study of oocyte cryopreservation (also known as “egg freezing”), which was supported by the US National Science Foundation.


Asylum Laws vs. Asylum Lives:  A Syrian Refugee’s Struggle for Inclusion in Germany

by Lucia Volk

In 2015, Germany received close to 1 million asylum petitions, a record-breaking number, with most applicants from Syria. Germany’s asylum bureaucracy, cumbersome in a normal year, came close to a standstill.  German politicians across the spectrum struggled to find a unified response, as did the European Union. German citizens, for the most part, reached out to help refugees, creating a Willkommenskultur that had no parallel in the country’s history or in the rest of Europe. However, the welcoming attitudes of citizens changed rapidly when large groups of North African migrants sexually assaulted and/or robbed over 1,000 German women in front of the Cologne train station on New Year’s Eve, 2016. In 2017, German immigration policies became more restrictive, and the state’s interior ministers began discussing sending Syrian refugees back home. This paper compares three “diagnostic events” between 2015 to 2017 in the life of one young Syrian refugee, Sakher al-Mohammad, in order to show the interplay of asylum laws and asylum lives. Al-Mohammad engaged in a 53-day long protest in Dortmund to obtain faster asylum decisions, organized “Syrians against Sexism” demonstrations in Cologne, and developed a social media campaign for tolerance in 2017. Al-Mohammad’s actions show how refugees have had to work actively to obtain and defend their legal status, as well as their moral worth to a skeptical German public. Working ethnographically allows anthropologists to break through images of “masses” of undifferentiated refugees, to recognize their efforts to settle in unfamiliar places under unfavorable conditions. 


Lucia Volk is professor in International Relations and the co-director of Middle East and Islamic Studies at San Francisco State University.  Her past research has focused on the politics of memory in Lebanon after civil war, and the health and wellbeing of members of the Yemeni diaspora community in Northern California.  Currently, she is collecting the stories of Syrian refugees as they are trying to make a new home for themselves in Germany.  Of particular interest are public actions taken on the part of refugees that are challenging German refugee and asylum policies.  Volk’s publications include Martyrs and Memorials in Modern Lebanon (Indiana University Press, 2010); The Middle East in the World (Routledge, 2015); and “Permanent Temporariness in Berlin: The Case of an Arab Muslim Minority in Germany,” in Minorities and the Modern Arab World: New Perspectives, Laura Robson, ed. Syracuse University Press, 2016.


The Social Butterfly: Hunted Subjectivity among Male Refugees

by Árdís K. Ingvars

 In refugee worlds, young men’s masculinities are moulded through experiences of safety and danger. This leads some to contest normative ideas of gender roles and create an alternative migrant masculinity that counters the hegemonic norm. This paper is based on ethnographic fieldwork carried out in Greece in 2012-2015 among leftist solidarity movements. Through analysing interviews and fieldnotes, I detected five elements influencing the development of alternative performances of masculinities; the men’s own struggle for rights in their lands of origin; the men’s experiences through their irregular journeys; marginalization on multiple levels; an environment that encouraged safety for diverse identities; and lastly, leaders with transnational and local connections, who openly practice support for transgressing the boundaries of gender and sexual orientation. Through their assigned ‘hunted’ identity, the men would negotiate problems in external structures such as religion, politics, border controls, work and education. These problems were often internalized, but solutions were sought through respecting freedom of choice while simultaneously caring for fellow human beings. While the inclusive practices and discourses were not without ambiguities, the solidarity networks allowed cis heterosexual refugees the supportive space to visibly endorse the rights of other marginalized groups and to demonstrate their emergent masculinities. 


Árdís K. Ingvars is a PhD candidate in Sociology from the University of Iceland, which is associated with Panteion University in Athens. Currently her thesis “Border masculinities. Emergent subjectivities through humanity, morality and mobility” is under external review.

Her recent publications include: Invars, Á. K. & Gíslason, I. V. (2018). Moral mobility: Emergent Refugee Masculinities among Young Syrians in Athens. Men and Masculinities 21(3), 383-402 and Ingvars, Á. K. (2019). “I am Odysseus:” Tracing Mobile Desires and Resistance to Confinement Through Pseudonyms. EuropeNow. Retrievable at:


The Gaza Buildings: Emergency Urbanism in Sabra, Beirut

by Are John Knudsen

Since the mid-1980s, generations of refugees have sought refuge in the ramshackle Gaza Buildings, a multi-story hospital complex built by the Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO). Damaged during the civil war, the buildings have since turned urban heterotopia – squat, refuge and shelter – that otherwise blend in with the run-down Sabra-Shatila neighbourhood in Beirut’s “misery belt”. Forming part of a global landscape of insecure areas, the inhabitants are disconnected from majority society, which can serve as a trope for the exclusion of generations of refugees that typifies the new domain of “urban refugees” now common throughout the Middle East. The paper charts the buildings’ history and main characters: the lodgers, landlords, and gatekeepers who respectively lease, rent and control the dilapidated buildings’ dark corridors, cramped flats and garbage-strewn stairways. By analysing the buildings as historical and spatial archives of displacement and an example of emergency urbanism whereby displaced people seek refuge in cities. The multi-story buildings can be read a vertical migration history where generations of refugees and migrants have escaped repeated conflict, displacement and destitution. Examining the decaying buildings’ architectural history, hence, provides a temporal genealogy of reception, place making and emplacement that can inform the study of diasporic space and materiality.


Are John Knudsen is a senior researcher at the Chr. Michelsen Institute ( and holds a PhD in social anthropology from the University of Bergen (2001). Knudsen has been research director at CMI (2006-09, 2013-15), project manager for institutional research collaboration in Palestine (2005-13) and co-director of an institute programme on Forced Migration (2009-13). Knudsen has done fieldwork in Afghanistan, Lebanon, Pakistan and Palestine and specialises on micro-conflict, forced displacement and urban refugees. He also published on gender-based and political violence, refugee law and transitional & international criminal justice. He is the author of Violence and Belonging: Land Love and Lethal Conflict in the North-West Frontier Province of Pakistan (NIAS Press, 2009). His most recent co-edited books are: Palestinian Refugees: Identity, Space and Place in the Levant (Routledge, 2010), Lebanon: After the Cedar Revolution (Hurst, 2012), Popular Protest in the New Middle East: Islamism and Post-Islamist Politics (I.B. Tauris, 2014) and Civil-Military Relations in Lebanon: Conflict, Cohesion and Confessionalism in a Divided Society (Palgrave MacMillan, 2017). Knudsen has also co-edited two special issues/sections on: "Hamas and the Arab Spring" (Middle East Policy, 2013, w/Frode Løvlie) and "Humanitarianism in refugee camps" (Humanity Journal,  2016, w/ Maja Janmyr).