Genesis and Philosophy: An Interview with Members of CFMDE

This is part of our Campus Spotlight on the Consortium on Forced Migration, Displacement, and Education (CFMDE).

Each institutional member of the Consortium on Forced Migration, Displacement, and Education has committed to supporting one “Signature Project” over the four years of the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation grant that reflects the individual strengths and passions of the member institutions. At Bennington, a longstanding scholarly appreciation of translation and students’ interests led to Bennington Translates (BT) emerging as the school’s initiative, led by Dr. Marguerite Feitlowitz. Vassar’s commitment to higher education access and its successful models of summer programs for high school students led to the development of the summer program “New Americans” for current high school students who have experienced forced migration and displacement; the program is led by John Bradley, and Consortium Project Director Maria Höhn also contributes her insights on the project below. Developing a “hub” for semester-long study away opportunities for Consortium students together with refugee students in Berlin was a natural extension of Bard’s investments in international education and its Berlin campus, overseen by Dr. Kerry Bystrom. Sarah Lawrence drew on the expertise of Dr. Parthiban Muniandy of Sarah Lawrence and Dr. Adam Brown (now at the New School) to create intensive summer study and research programs in Malaysia and Switzerland that push students to develop practical research skills and conceptualize migration and displacement in different geographic and cultural contexts.

In this interview, the project directors weigh in on each project’s genesis at its home member institution and the philosophy that contributed to its development.

—Matthew Brill-Carlat and Margaret Edgecombe for EuropeNow

EuropeNow What is Bennington Translates (BT) and how was it inspired?

Marguerite Feitlowitz Bennington has a distinguished history when it comes to literary translation, its faculty having boasted numerous poet-translators. Since coming to Bennington in the Fall of 2002, literary translation has been a major part of my teaching. In literature classes, we often read works in translation, comparing and contrasting multiple translations of the same original. Every year I have taught at least one class on The Art of Literary Translation, and brought eminent translators to campus for public readings, class visits, and small-group and individual meetings with students. When we received a seed grant from the Davis Foundation in 2014, it suddenly became possible to expand my course-related activities into a more ambitious program—“Bennington Translates,” which from the outset was conceived to embrace humanitarian, medical, community, as well as literary translation. BT has always had a special focus on lesser-served languages, and on the urgency for, and complexities of, translation in conflict zones. The Davis Funding allowed us to more concretely support students who needed to do research abroad, who wanted placements in humanitarian, refugee, and service organizations, and who were ready to publish in literary, journalistic and scholarly venues.

EuropeNow How does Bennington Translates address forced migration and displacement through translation?

Marguerite Feitlowitz It happens quite naturally, as these issues are one of the defining features of our zeitgeist. So many important historical and contemporary texts are about these moral and material, political and linguistic dramas. The first guest of the newly-minted Bennington Translates in early 2015 was Ellen Elias-Bursac, pre-eminent literary translator of Serbian-Bosnian-Croatian, who took five years to translate for the UN Ad Hoc Tribunal for the Former-Yugoslavia; Habib Aziz, an Afghan pediatrician who translated for Dexter Filkins and Jon Lee Anderson of The New Yorker, for journalists at The Wall Street Journal, Boston Globe, Christian Science Monitor, and served as a “fixer” and cultural guide among the Deri and Pashto tribes, and with officials in Kabul and other cities. In this first season we also hosted Marjorie Bancroft, who founded “Voices of Love,” the first translation agency founded to serve asylum seekers who had survived torture; and Eduardo Berinstein, who founded the first multi-lingual medical translation service at the Harvard teaching hospitals, which quickly became the standard-setting model nationally and internationally.

For a number of my students, these are lived issues—at Bennington, we have students who grew up in refugee camps, and/or whose families were uprooted by political strife, and/or have parents living under threat in places such as Hungary, the Georgian Republic, Egypt, Venezuela, and Pakistan. In their own translation work, they are often drawn to writers who have created in exile, in a diaspora, in various forms of crisis. But we do also talk and cherish the essential human need for the lyric; sometimes the most political statement is the sustained insistence on the private reverie of “small” or overlooked details. The translation of such moments across time periods and geography is profoundly important and powerful. Among the books we have found to be indispensable are Kitchen Table Translation (ed., Madhu H. Kaza), which features immigrant and diasporic translators; Translation as Transhumance (Mireille Gansel), which focuses on exile, war, empathy and cultural activism; Cities in Translation (Sherry Simon) and Translation and Migration (Moira Inghilleri).

EuropeNow Does BT look for students and translators to work on specific languages?

Marguerite Feitlowitz BT welcomes and encourages all languages. At Bennington we currently have students from over thirty countries—we cherish these linguistic and cultural riches.

EuropeNow At Vassar, how have the school’s existing programs focused on expanding access to higher education, such as Exploring College and Exploring Transfer, helped to shape New Americans, the school’s signature project?

Maria Höhn Vassar College chose the New Americans program as its signature project because of a long-standing commitment at the college to make higher education more broadly accessible. Vassar’s “New Americans” is meant for refugee and migrant youth who have made their way to the US in the past four years and will be housed in the Vassar College Urban Education Initiative under the leadership of its Executive Director, John Bradley. This initiative arises out of Vassar’s leadership in making education more accessible and the College’s belief that such access is critical to the long-term success of refugee and migrant youth, and a thriving democracy in the US.

The “New Americans” summer program will bring a group of twenty refugee/forced migrant high school students from the greater New York area and Capital region for a three-week summer program of rigorous classes. Taught by Vassar faculty, together with specially trained student tutors (who will act as tandem partners and on-site mentors for participants), this summer program will help migrant students prepare for college. “New Americans” will give young adults with a recent forced migration background a chance to sample college life and be familiarized with the college application process. The program is free for eligible students and admission to the program is based upon high school achievement and teacher recommendations. The students will take academic classes and also have plenty opportunities to engage with the rich on-campus cultural and intellectual offerings during the summer.

The summer program will build on and benefit from Vassar’s long-standing and experience with existing transition programs: Exploring College, Exploring Transfer, and the Vassar Posse programs for US veterans.

John Bradley Programs such as Exploring Transfer and Exploring College expose students to a residential, liberal arts college experience and opens their eyes to new potential for themselves. Living away from home is a major experience for both the student and student’s family, and that process allows students to see if that is something that they want for their college experience. Living with students who are in a similar situation helps develop a peer group to explore their own plans for higher education. And finally, the exposure to college level classes also begins to give confidence of their ability to get into a competitive school and maneuver at college. Our planned New Americans will offer that same experience to youth with a forced migration background.

EuropeNow How do you see this program furthering the educational mission of the Consortium?

John Bradley The Consortium is about developing a stronger curriculum on campuses for college students but we believe that the New Americans program will supplement that work in a few ways. We know that having refugee and forced migrant youth living and learning on our campus will change us as well.

Maria Höhn The questions they ask, the barriers they confront, and their stories will help us to be aware of the challenges they have faced and will make it possible for us to be more welcoming to students who come from similar situations. The questions they bring to the classroom will most likely also impact how we teach and what we teach. Learning together with these young people will expand our understanding and change  us as well. Our foremost goal is of course to make the students’ time on campus valuable to them, to open them to new visions of what their educational future might look like. The landscape of higher education and how to access it is complicated for new citizens, and for those whose families may not be able to provide the necessary guidance. We have found with our other pre-college programs that exposure to the campus and curriculum results in more students pursuing acceptance at selective liberal arts colleges and universities.

John Bradley After a student has arrived at college, the key element of their retention in college is that they have a sense of belonging. We see the he summer program as a first step to make students (whose culture and background may make them unusual on campus) feel that they belong on a college campus. With this program, we hope to do our part to make US higher education available to youth who are refugees and forced immigrants.

EuropeNow Access to higher education is also a priority at Bard’s Berlin campus. How has its location influenced Bard’s institutional response to forced migration through the Consortium?

Kerry Bystrom In the summer of 2015, Germany opened its borders to people fleeing the war and conflict in Syria and elsewhere. As a higher education institution located in Germany, we wanted to take advantage of this opening and to provide access to education for as many displaced students as possible, transforming our university community even as the national community around us was opening up and changing. Our Program in International Education and Social Change, in which students from crisis regions can receive full scholarships for a four-year BA degree at Bard College Berlin, helped us enroll over thirty displaced students. This means that at the moment ten percent  of our student body is Syrian and even more than that come from countries or regions of crisis. As our student body changed, the university community also became more knowledgeable about questions of migration and forced migration and became more connected with local actors and projects in this field. Given the importance of migration in German politics and culture, the landscape of Berlin and on our own campus, it seemed like a natural place to host a study abroad program for the Consortium.

This was the core of the proposal for our signature project, which is to create a migration study-abroad hub at BCB. The Mellon funding allows us to build on what we already offered to create a study-abroad site with a rich variety of courses, a needed teaching and media lab that will allow us to host transnational classwork and projects, a roster of events that go alongside the courses, internships and other linkages with local organizations, and expertise in the MENA region. The last point is crucial since the Middle East has become the main sending region of migrants to Germany; as our existing specializations in migration studies focused more on the European sphere, we are now engaged in a job search for a new lecturer in Middle Eastern studies. We are looking for a scholar who will bring in wide expertise in Middle Eastern culture, history and politics, with particular interests in the question of migration and relationships with Europe. An understanding of the dynamics of forced migration within the Middle East will be key.

EuropeNow Overseas study opportunities through the Consortium are not restricted to semester-long programs. How did the idea for a summer of intensive study and research in Bern, Switzerland arise?

Adam Brown The inspiration for this idea began with a Fulbright award that I was fortunate to receive two years ago. I had been placed on a roster of individuals who were interested in working on international short-term partnerships through Fulbright. At the time, there had been a sharp increase in the number of individuals seeking asylum in Switzerland and there had also been an increase in the number of asylum seeking individuals presenting to the Emergency Room (ER) in Bern. The doctors in the ER began to consider the possibility that the types of concerns described by those seeking asylum may be related to stress and mental health issues, such as posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and depression. I was invited to spend several weeks working closely with a group of ER physicians in the Insel (the University of Bern Hospital) Emergency Department to develop mental health assessments that could be used at the time of hospital admission. We are now collecting mental health data using digital tablets in the ER. While a patient is waiting to see a doctor she or he is asked to complete a short mental health survey. The questionnaires have been translated in multiple languages and we also have translators available to assist with the survey. Although the idea originated in Bern, we are now expanded to other Swiss hospitals and we are developing and testing mental health interventions for asylum seekers throughout the country.

EuropeNow Why Bern?

Adam Brown The Department of Emergency Medicine in Bern has a very innovative and forward thinking group of faculty and physicians interested in using research to enhance diagnostics and increase treatment efficacy. Therefore, the Insel Emergency Department has been an ideal place to develop and integrate a pipeline for studying mental health issues in asylum seekers, which in turn will ideally lead to earlier diagnoses and more personalized treatments. We are also starting a new study with the Department of Psychosomatics in Bern to better understand pain-related disorders in this population.

Outside of the Insel, I think Bern is an interesting city for students to learn about and conduct global mental health research. A majority of the people with whom I work are not originally from Switzerland. Their own migration stories play an important role in the way in which we conceptualize our research. The museums in Bern, such as the Klee Museum, often feature exhibits and artists working on subjects related to migration and dislocation from home.

EuropeNow Sarah Lawrence’s second summer program takes students to multiple Malaysian cities. What are the goals of the program and how does it align with the Consortium’s mission?

Parthiban Muniandy Fieldwork and writing represent the foundational goals of the Malaysia program, framed by themes of displacement, temporariness and everyday urban informality in cities of the global South. These goals coincide with the Consortium’s pedagogy-focused mission around forced migration and displacement, while offering the chance to work in a new and different region of the world, outside of North America and Europe, where migration and displacement crises are just as salient, yet far less understood. The program also provides the Consortium the opportunity to connect with a broader network of scholars working in Asia.

For the students who participate in the Malaysia study abroad program, the opportunity to conduct ethnographic research and writing would hopefully help them sharpen their skills of observation, inter-cultural competency, and analytical writing, along with broadening their knowledge base of migration and displacement outside of the Western context. The immersion that ethnographic work provides in urban Malaysia would also help students develop a more nuanced perspective on the political dimensions of ‘culture’, nationalism, identity and citizenship, that may not be as obvious—different ways to think about migrant integration, assimilation, histories, and cosmopolitanisms that are not race or nationality-based. The chance to study in Malaysia allows students to escape the intellectual shackles that may be present from the scholarship and discourse around immigration, culture and nationhood that is hegemonic in the West, and the United States.

EuropeNow The program is based in Kuala Lumpur, Penang, and Ipoh. Why those cities?

Parthiban Muniandy The opportunity to spend time in these three major Malaysian cities of Kuala Lumpur, Penang and Ipoh offers students the chance to learn about this ‘crosssroads’ nation’s historical importance as a hub for migration. Kuala Lumpur and Penang are both major urban centers that are incredibly diverse and cosmopolitan—and highly unequal. Kuala Lumpur’s ongoing hyper-modern development projects exist alongside growing subaltern communities and informal settlements in the very heart of the old city, in districts such as Pudu Raya, Chow Kitt, Bukit Bintang and Cheras. The emergence of massive new luxury gated communities and high rises exist alongside the emergence of new informal ‘ethnic’ neighborhoods, such as Little Bangladesh and Little Burma. Kuala Lumpur provides a first-hand, grounded opportunity to explore, observe and understand the tensions between the desire to become a ‘global city’ and the everyday realities of the ‘megacity’ of the South.

Pulau Pinang (Penang), located off the west coast of the Peninsular, is home to some of the most diverse informal communities in the region—Rohingya refugees, undocumented Bangladeshi and Nepali men, Ukrainian and Russian expatriates and sex-workers, runaway and escaped former ‘sea-slaves’ from Thailand and Burma, and victims of trafficking from the Philippines, China and other countries. The island is also host to the largest cluster of informal ‘refugee’ schools in the country—a rough estimate of around fifty such schools are currently operating in Penang, providing much needed services and education to children from Rohingya communities. The island’s tourist and real-estate economies provides a wide-range of opportunities for these various subaltern groups—from construction to domestic labor, sex-work to bartending, and everything in between.

John Bradley is the Executive Director of the Vassar Urban Education Initiative, which is an educational outreach program to the Poughkeepsie public schools that connects Vassar students to the local district. He is a graduate of Yale College and the University of Chicago School of Business. John began his position at Vassar in 2017 after a career in health care and homeless services. He directs the New Americans summer program for high-school age youth who are refugees and forced migrants.

Maria Höhn is Professor of History on the Marion Musser Lloyd ’32 Chair at Vassar College. She teaches German history and German-American relations and is the author of three books that have been translated into German, Korean and Chinese. Höhn is the founder of VC Refugee Solidarity at Vassar College and the founder of the Mid-Hudson Refugee Solidarity Alliance as well as the Consortium on Forced Migration, Displacement, and Education, of which she is the Project Director.

Adam Brown is a clinical psychologist whose research focuses on understanding negative mental health outcomes following exposure to traumatic stress and developing interventions guided by cognitive neuroscience. Prior to joining the faculty at the New School for Social Research, he was a member of the psychology faculty at Sarah Lawrence College. He holds an academic appointment as an Adjunct Assistant Professor in the Department of Psychiatry, New York University School of Medicine and completed a two-year NIH funded postdoctoral fellowship in the Department of Psychiatry, Weill Medical College of Cornell University. He leads Sarah Lawrence College’s summer of research and study in Bern, Switzerland.

Parthiban Muniandy researches temporary labor migration in Southeast Asia and South Asia, with a particular interest in exploring how new regimes of migration are emerging, under which “temporary labor” migrants are becoming increasingly commonplace in fast-developing societies in Asia. He is the author of Politics of the Temporary: Ethnography of Migrant life in Urban Malaysia (2015). His former appointments include Lecturer of Global Studies for the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. He is the director of Sarah Lawrence’s summer research and study program in Kuala Lumpur, Penang, and Ipoh, Malaysia.

Marguerite Feitlowitz teaches literature, writing, and literary translation at Bennington College, and has published widely, including the acclaimed A Lexicon of Terror: Argentina and the Legacies of Torture (1998). Feitlowitz has held two Fulbright Fellowships to Argentina (including a Senior Scholar Award), a Bunting Fellowship in nonfiction, and a Harvard Faculty Research grant. She was a visiting scholar at Hebrew University in Jerusalem and previously taught at Harvard University. BA, Colgate University; Université de Dijon. Feitlowitz is the founding director of Bennington Translates.

Kerry Bystrom teaches courses at Bard College Berlin at the intersection of aesthetics and politics, and on topics ranging from postcolonial studies and African and world literature to trauma and memory studies, human rights, and humanitarianism. Before arriving at Bard College Berlin in 2012, she taught at Princeton University, Bard College, the University of the Witwatersrand, and the University of Connecticut. Bystrom is the author of the monograph Democracy at Home: Family Fictions and Transitional Culture (Palgrave Macmillan, 2015). She is leading the Consortium’s development of Bard College Berlin a a study away hub around forced migration.

Matthew Brill-Carlat is a graduating senior at Vassar College. He is the Consortium Coordinator for the Consortium on Forced Migration, Displacement, and Education. At Vassar, he studies History with a Correlate (Minor) in Hispanic Studies. After studying in Havana, Cuba and Amman, Jordan, he is writing his thesis on an American-owned sugar plantation near Cienfuegos, Cuba during the abolition of slavery in the late 19th century. His research has also been published in the Michigan Journal of History.

Margaret Edgecombe is a first-year student at Vassar College and a prospective International Studies major. From Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, she serves as the Co-coordinator for the Mellon-funded Consortium on Forced Migration, Displacement, and Education. In addition to Vassar, she has studied in Toluca, Mexico and at Qasid Arabic Institute in Amman, Jordan.

Photo: Silhouettes of refugees people searching new homes or life due to persecution | Shutterstock

Published on March 5, 2019.


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