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What the refugee crisis teaches us about human connection

What if a major world event alters the trajectory of your research project? Tsolin Nalbantian was studying citizenship along the Turkish-Syrian border when the Syrian Civil War erupted and led to a global refugee crisis. While her research participants were forced to flee the region, she was forced to change her research approach.

Borders are never black and white

Connecting citizens: the shared identities of Nusaybin, Turkey and Qamishle, Syria is the project that Nalbantian had been focused on since 2015, as part of an NWO Veni scholarship provided to young, promising scientists. There had already been some unrest in the region, but this was not the focus of Nalbatian’s project. ‘I have always been interested in marginalised regions’, says Nalbantian. ‘Additionally, I feel that we often look at borders as dividers, and I wanted to move away from that binary thinking and move into a middle – more textured – place that focuses on similarities.’

Tsolin Nalbantian

She explains: ‘In a way, there’s a difference between the citizens on one side of a border and on the other; they have different nationalities and cultures. But historically, borders are never black and white. These borders are traversed, ideas travel through them. There are kinship ties, economic connections that do not stop at a hard border. I was interested in the links between and the shared identities of people in a border region.’

Eruption of a refugee crisis

Initially, it was Nalbantian’s idea to visit Syria multiple times for her project, but popular protests, which worsened after 2015, quickly made that plan far too dangerous for herself and her informants. When the Syrian Civil War reached a peak, many of the citizens in the Turkish-Syrian border region Nalbantian was researching, were forced to flee their homes for a safer location. ‘The exodus of refugees that happened was a true humanitarian disaster’, she says. ‘The situation took a turn for the worse while I was doing my research, so I had to change my approach.’

‘The refugee crisis didn’t so much change my research as it changed the plan of my research. And in a way, what happened also strengthened my hypothesis. I was researching connections between people, and much of how the refugees came to Europe was based on the connections they had and made. These people that were arriving in Europe remained in constant communication with the people that were on route or were still at home. The networks I was researching just took on a different form.’

A connection to home

What the crisis laid bare, says Nalbantian, is the desire people have to connect to home. She remembers an encounter during her research that symbolised this desire. When a family of refugees from a refugee centre in The Netherlands heard that Nalbantian was flying back and forth to Lebanon to conduct her research, they asked if she could bring some belongings to a friend. Nalbantian agreed. Scanning the items to take them along, she saw something unexpected. ‘There were these small bags in there’, Nalbantian remembers. ‘They turned out to be seeds from their old garden. They were planning to plant the seeds from home into the new place they were moving to, they were literally taking the region with them. I thought that was so beautiful and symbolic.

‘What this project taught me is that connections between people in border regions are so durable and that, due to the war, this border region became transnational. Because of the internet and new means to connect, this regional community turned into a transnational community all over the world that is still in touch. That was quite unexpected but gave new depth to my research.’

To learn more about Connecting citizens, visit the research project page.

About Tsolin Nalbantian

Tsolin Nalbantian is a researcher and university lecturer in Modern Middle Eastern History at Leiden University since 2011. Amongst other classes, she teaches Theory and Methods in Middle Eastern Studies and focuses on minority and maginalised communities in Turkey, Lebanon and Syria. Before coming to Leiden, she was a lecturer at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT). She received her MA Journalism from New York University and her PhD from Columbia University in New York.

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