Monday, June 20, 2016

On Refuge and Welcome

World Refugee Day,
June 20, 2016

Buttons expressing support and inclusion: a button that has a map of Asia superimposed with the question “Where are you from from?”, buttons based on flags of various Latin American countries, and a rainbow-striped button reading QUEER PRIDE AT GW. From a recent event in memory of the victims in Orlando, sponsored by the LGBT Resource Center and Multicultural Student Services Center (among others) at George Washington University.
It’s been a rough week. Sunday: a massacre at the gay nightclub Pulse in Orlando on Latin night. Thursday: the assassination of Jo Cox (Labor MP who was a strong advocate for refugees and a multiethnic Britain). Friday: the one-year anniversary of the shooting that took nine lives in Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church, the historic black church in Charleston. Cox’s assassination most directly draws attention to an ongoing backdrop of xenophobic #Brexit discourses (leading up to the referendum on whether the UK should stay in the EU) that have featured inflammatory symbolism and rhetoric capitalizing on fear of immigrants, refugees, and “others.”

Since today happens to be World Refugee Day, I find myself thinking a lot about spaces of refuge—whether it’s a support center for refugees or the community of a black church or a gay nightclub. In mainstream media, the Pulse massacre is repeatedly invoked as a violation of a safe space or more pointedly a refuge: not only for a gay community that has endured so much violence, but especially a space for queer latinx people who face exclusion from both gay and Latin communities concurrently.

The Pulse massacre was particularly heartbreaking for me as a queer person of color in the US and I’m not sure I could ever adequately craft words to give shape to the welter of unprocessed emotions I have experienced since. As previous posts on ITM have made clear (see Jeffrey's post here, the opening paragraph in Karl's post here and also here), recent events remind us to support each another—and to attend carefully to queer, latinx, Muslim, immigrant, and other minority communities who are deeply affected by all that has happened this week. No matter who you are or what background(s) you might claim, you can make a difference. I do hope that we (and I mean “we” in the broadest sense possible) can reflect and consider we can do in/for our various communities. Let’s make sure that violence—and the rhetoric that erupts as a result—does not further demonize those who are already most vulnerable.

Strangely enough, this week has given me unexpected clarity and a new sense of purpose to my seemingly disparate intellectual and professional activities this summer. I’ve come to realize how much I’ve been thinking about creating spaces of welcome and refuge in the field and beyond it. The Modern Language Association of America (MLA) Symposium in Düsseldorf, entitled Other Europes - Migrations, Translations, Transformations will be the first conference of the MLA to be held outside of North America (say what?). I’m very excited to be participating in a roundtable on what the medieval European past means to ethnic minority authors throughout North America, and the conference’s general aim to interrogate the contours of contemporary “Europe” through the lens of translation and migration could not be more timely. I’ll be really curious to discover how the results of the UK’s EU referendum will affect these conversations. At the “Women at Sea” Symposium in Swansea (one-day event organized by Rachel Moss, Roberta Magnani, and Kristi Castleberry), I’ll be part of a co-plenary conversation with Dorothy Kim; at this venue, we’ll be listening to refugee women and exploring belongings present and past. At the International Medieval Congress in Leeds, there are plans for a conversation considering the future(s) of medieval studies entitled "Embracing the #femfog." At the New Chaucer Society Congress in London, I’ll be attending sessions in the “Corporealities” thread (which I was kindly invited to co-organize with Katie Walter). I’m eager to attend the Global Chaucers roundtable and the poetry readings by Lavinia Greenlaw and also by Patience Agbabi (author of modern Chaucerian reboot Telling Tales and participant in the Refugee Tales Walk which brings attention to and supports refugees in the UK; she's also a contributor to its related Refguee Tales anthology).

I do hope, as I have in the past, to offer some of my thoughts on these various conferences throughout the summer. Not everyone has the means to travel and attend such things, and I increasingly recognize how blogging can offer some sense of what has transpired.

What now?

What can we do in our teaching, research, or everyday lives to create spaces of welcome?
  • Contribute. On this day especially, I’d like to encourage ITM readers to consider supporting efforts such as the Refugee Tales project. Check out what this group is doing and reflect on the political and artistic significance of this work; all profits from Refugee Tales book purchases will go to the Gatwick Detainee Welfare Group and Kent Help for Refugees. If you're in the UK later this month, consider participating in some of the scheduled events. Alternatively, you might contribute to refugee-oriented charities promoted by the “Women at Sea” Symposium organizers or advance causes that Jo Cox supported.
  • Signal inclusive spaces: physical and virtual. If you’re an educator, it might be time to consider ways to signal that you welcome and support all students, no matter “where they come from” (in all senses of the phrase) or how “different” they are. It might be obvious to you that your classroom (or your office, or your online course) should be a space where a struggling student can find someone who is receptive and will not cast judgment, but such openness might not be readily apparent to a student who is vulnerable and seeking support. Check to see if your institution has a “safe space” training or program that addresses LGBTQIA+ and/or mental health concerns, and (if you have an office) put a “safe space” sign outside your door (or put a digital badge on your course website). A receptive person and a nudge to available resources can go a long way.
  • Reshape your syllabus. If you’re currently designing your fall courses, see if you can incorporate readings or other materials that might address some of the issues in this blog post. The #PulseOrlandoSyllabus and #CharlestonSyllabus are ongoing efforts to crowdsource relevant resources. Note also the comment thread after this previous ITM posting on medievalists and the global refugee crisis.

I hope that blog will continue to be a venue that can inform, provoke, create community, and connect far-flung people. Be well, ITM readers, and look out for one another—today and always.

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