I took Professor Dianna Shandy's anthropology class Refugees and Humanitarian Response in fall 2011, and because I was going to Cameroon the following semester, I chose to do my final research project on refugees in Cameroon to expand my background knowledge of the country. In the process, however, I discovered that virtually nothing had been written about these refugees. I decided that this would be an important topic for further research.
During my semester abroad in Cameroon, I conducted independent research with international humanitarian organizations working with refugees in Cameroon's East region. My project examines the approach these organizations have taken to providing assistance to refugees, which involves integrating them into local communities rather than creating refugee camps, and the effects that integration has on Cameroon's processes of development and nation-building.
This year, through my Human Rights and Humanitarianism concentration at Macalester, I learned about a workshop at Illinois Wesleyan University sponsored by the United States Institute of Peace. It’s an undergraduate workshop for students working on independent or honors research on a topic related to post-conflict rebuilding and resolution. Professor Shandy, my advisor, encouraged me to apply, and I was accepted.
Eleven students presented on topics ranging from visual ethnography of immigrant life histories to Russian migration policy to women's education in post-conflict Iraq. I presented on my research for my honors project: "Humanitarianism and the 'National Order of Things': Examining the Routinized Refugee Response in Eastern Cameroon."
It was inspiring to meet other students from around the country who are working on similar topics of migration and human rights. I also benefitted from sharing my research with a new and broader audience; explaining your topic to people who are unfamiliar with your subject can help you think about it in new ways. The workshop was very interactive. Participants had time to discuss with each presenter, and that time was very valuable for thinking through questions and suggestions for the projects.
Though my thesis hinges on the important contributions that international humanitarian action has made to Cameroon's development, there is the potential for international NGOs to leave major gaps in communities when they depart. And because refugees have been integrated into and become part of the communities they are living in, they may experience renewed hardship if the Cameroonian government decides that they need to eventually return to the Central African Republic (CAR).
While I was in Cameroon, it appeared that the violence in the CAR was beginning to resolve and that peace was an imminent possibility; in recent months, however, Central African president Bozizé has been ousted and there has been renewed violence in the CAR. For the immediate future of the communities I researched, this probably means that a new influx of refugees will be arriving and there will be more work for the humanitarian NGO community. In the more distant future, there will be major questions about the departure of international organizations and the repatriation of refugees.
After graduation, I will be working with a colleague at the University of Minnesota on a research project looking at issues of religion and spirituality in the public university sphere. A basic understanding of religious traditions and a level of comfort when interacting with people from a different background are essential tools for leaders in our increasingly diverse and interconnected world. This project aims to understand how public universities can better support students in exploring their own religious traditions and that of others while still maintaining freedom of religion and separation of church and state.