Kian Tajbakhsh about Refugeedom and Identity
In an interview with the We Refugees Archive team, Iranian Political Exilee and Coordinator of the Committee on Forced Migration at Columbia University Kian…
Would you consider yourself an economic / political refugee?
I would say so. My research topic is not very welcomed in Turkey. I remember, even when I started my PhD in Turkey for the first time, I applied for some funding at some State institution and during the interview they have asked me detailed questions about even the title of my project, which they found to be political. In that regard, I would say – yes, economic slash political because as I said, my research topic is also not very welcomed. And it’s still concerns me, because if I have to go back to Turkey with my recent publications, I don’t know what it’s going to be like for me.
What is your status in the moment in New York or in in the U.S.? What kind of visa do you have, and do you plan to apply for asylum or anything like that?
I am on a J1 Visa, the university is sponsoring a J1 visa only. I came here with the Scholar Rescue Fund Fellowship. And that’s one of the issues. When I came here it was only for one year, the scholarship is also for one year and the visa is for one year. My visa expired, I think like two years ago now and I couldn’t go back to Turkey and renew it because of Covid, closures of the embassies and other anxiety provoking issues.
It’s like putting you in a limbo. If I’m coming here with a scholarship like Scholar Rescue Fund for one year what am I? Am I a refugee? Am I a visiting scholar? Do I belong here? Do I have to go back to Turkey after one year? So, I didn’t even rent the place on my own for the first year […]
I don’t plan on, at least not now applying for asylum. Because all my family is back in Turkey. And I’ve been here for the past four years, and none of my family members were able to visit me. They don’t have a US visa… […] So, I’m not ready to lose all that connection and just say: OK, I live here now, and this is where I will stay forever. And I cannot risk not being able to go back to Turkey. This has something of course personal… I don’t know what happens with the next elections.
Can you explain the Scholar Rescue Fund and also maybe your involvement with the New School and University in Exile Consortium?
The Scholar Rescue Fund is distributed by the IEE: The International Institute of Education. It’s the same institute giving the Fulbright. I think they are mostly known for that. It’s a competitive process. You first have to explain why you need to be “rescued”. When we first lost our jobs, there were also these academics from Turkey who were petitioners of the “peace petition”. I was like: But I’m not at risk here in Turkey, as they are, because I didn’t have personal investigations, right? So, I was like: Oh, we cannot apply to it. And even if we apply, they wouldn’t grant it to us, because we are not at risk or something like that. But the colleague of mine encouraged me to apply to the scholar rescue fund because we lost our jobs because of the political situation, and we were not able to find another job because of the political situation… […] There were thousands of people applying to it, not counting Syrian colleagues and the later the colleagues from Afghanistan.
Around the time I arrived in the US, they were establishing the New University in Exile Consortium. So, a couple of months after I arrived, someone from the global office at my host university reached out to me and informed me about the New University in Exile Consortium. And I was hesitant at the beginning because I don’t think I’m in exile technically. I’m not technically or legally a refugee. And if my scholarship is not extended another year, it means that in a couple of months I will be back in Turkey… […] We’ are not only like refugees from the countries, we are not displaced, uprooted from the country, but we are also on exile in our institutions. I still don’t know many people in my department. They also don’t know me because it’s not only us thinking that only we might be here for a short time. They’re also treating us like visitors…
Do you meet weekly in this New School Exile Consortium?
Yes, we meet via Zoom. When I joined them, I think it was like early 2019, the group was still new, and we met on a weekly basis. Each person was telling his personal story. How they lost their job, why they had to flee, what’s the story behind it. And there we are also sharing our academic interests, make our presentation on whatever work we’re conducting… […] Every year there is another professor who is taking up the leading role in the seminar. It’s kind of straight around their interests as well, I would say. For example, in the second year they chose some topics, especially around like being a refugee and exilee. We were reading some texts and then discussing them instead of people presenting their own work. At some point we try to have like seminars on writing an autobiography, because some people in the group are interested in this, including me… […] We had some guests speakers. But they also asked some of us to present our own work. It was also kind of like an academic workshop thing too […]
Has your status, experience and identity as a refugee influenced your academic work in your situation right now? Has it changed since you are in the U.S.?
It did, but not very much. As I said I’m interested in writing an autobiography or a short story. I feel like our stories have to be told… I don’t know if it would be like an oral history thing or some other thing.
My teaching has changed a lot. Back in Turkey you were just the regular teacher, but here I’m kind of the refugee scholar of the department. And they also like to introduce me like that, which I don’t like… For me, it’s became telling part of my story and my teaching too… If I’m talking about Turkey, which I try not to do much because there are Turkish students here too, and I’m still thinking maybe they’re going to record it. But if I’m talking about military coups in the Middle East, for example, it truly comes to my own experiences too… I sometimes tell them also that I’m a displaced scholar from Turkey. I guess most of them do not understand what it means, but at the end of the semester two of my students came to me. They wanted to take pictures and give me a hug… Some of the people in our department called me the refugee scholar and they were like, oh, that’s great. And we now have a picture with the refugee. OK, now I’m like the object here, right? And it’s also very frustrating because they don’t see you as their equal. You are scholar coming from a third world country, doing whatever you want. They don’t care about your publications, where your dissertation is from, who you’ve worked with. You are the refugee scholar, and it’s also helping them. They also kind of feel probably like how we are doing a good thing, you know, like we – “the westerners”. Our part. We’re helping someone in need, and we are, like, saving this scholar here.
Hasan is a scholar with a PhD from a university in Europe. During their PhD they were working as a research assistant at the private university in Turkey and traveling between Turkey and the PhD granting country. In the summer of 2016, one week after the failed coup attempt in Turkey, the university was shut down by the government in a one night, along with the 14 other universities. Hasan lost their job. In Fall 2018 they came to the U.S. with the Scholar Rescue Fund Fellowship, where they are a visiting scholar.
Interview conducted by the We Refugees Archive team with Hasan in the spring of 2022. The interview was edited for length and clarity.