Dr. Sophia Balakian is a sociocultural anthropologist and Assistant Professor in the School of Integrative Studies (SIS). She joined the faculty at George Mason University in 2020 and became a Faculty Affiliate at the Institute for Immigration Research (IIR) in Summer 2023.
Dr. Balakian attributes her current research interests in migration and refugee resettlement to her family’s own immigration history and to formative undergraduate and work experiences.
She explains that her own family immigration history and her father’s profession as a writer and poet meant that she “grew up with a lot of family stories about coming to the United States.” Dr. Balakian’s great grandmother and great aunts, among other family members, were Armenian refugees. They lived in Aleppo for many years after being exiled from Ottoman Turkey in 1915. There, they were aided by the Red Cross and later were sponsored by a relative to come to the United States. This family history was central to a memoir that Dr. Balakian’s father published when she was 13, and she describes family histories and family migration stories as part of “the oxygen in the house” and “the stories around the dinner table.”
Dr. Balakian also recalls the importance of reading prominent anthropologist Lisa Malkki’s book Purity and Exile as a first-year undergraduate college student. She explains that reading this book about Burundian refugees living in a camp in Tanzania as part of an Anthropology course on Nationalism and Revivalism:
...had a really profound effect on the way I thought about my own community…and how mass violence is remembered and narrated and comes to, in many ways, define the community’s identity. That was something that I really identified with. It was the first book that I had read in Anthropology – which was the field that I was pursuing – that really dealt with migration issues, and I was intellectually excited by it.
With this inspiration, she pursued field work in a Tibetan settlement through a study abroad program in Nepal and wrote her undergraduate Honor’s thesis on this research experience.
After completing her undergraduate degree, she worked at the nonprofit Facing History and Ourselves, where she was involved in projects focused on Rwanda. During this time, she also volunteered with Catholic Charities in Boston, where she gained an awareness of how U.S. refugee resettlement worked as a pathway for immigration to the United States. Together, these post college opportunities intersected with her childhood and undergraduate experiences to guide her focus towards East African migration when she returned to graduate school.
Her advice for current Mason undergraduate and graduate students interested in migration reflects her own trajectory to studying East African migration:
It’s not always easy to find opportunities. But in my experience, once you find one – whether it’s a course or an internship – those tend to build on one another.
She encourages students to:
1) Explore available resources on campus: “The Institute for Immigration Research is a great resource for knowing what's happening on campus in terms of events and faculty and courses, and potentially research opportunities.”
2) Take advantage of the Washington, D. C. metro area as a resource: “We really do live in this exciting hub in terms of policymakers, in terms of think tanks, in terms of big [resettlement] voluntary agencies that are headquartered here in the D.C. area, so think about how one might access opportunities there with internships or post college job opportunities,” or through courses that include experiential learning.
Current Project: The Right Refugees
Dr. Balakian is currently completing her book The Right Refugees: Resettlement and the Politics of Kinship. The book draws primarily on research conducted among Somali and Congolese communities living in a number of different neighborhoods in Nairobi, Kenya and the organizations governing and managing refugees in Kenya, such as the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees and the U.S. Resettlement Support Center. The book also includes findings from participant observation at a U.S. voluntary agency for refugee resettlement in Columbus, Ohio that offers support to refugees for the first three months after they arrive in the United States.
In the book, Dr. Balakian first looks at the intersection of humanitarianism and securitization through the lens of discourses about fraudulence and fraudulent refugees. She examines how public discourses on fraudulence further intensify refugee screening and vetting processes for resettlement in the United States and Global North countries. Second, she looks at family and kinship and problematizes discourses about family composition and fraud by detailing “what family composition fraud means in a context in which many, many people, many, many families, are remaking their lives after massive death and displacement [and] are reconstituting social networks and families.” She aims to deconstruct conceptions of refugees as “right” or “wrong” by showing how “concepts like fraud and family composition fraud are insufficient for capturing the complexity of life for people who are trying to access refugee resettlement.”
Next Project: Child Care and Care Work
After completing her book manuscript, Dr. Balakian sees her work expanding from issues of family and family composition to look at what care work and child care “might look like for people after they come to the United States…[and] how people make their lives or navigate new social and economic systems once they arrive in the United States.”
Favorite Class to Teach:
Borders and Migration in the Contemporary World (Special Topics Course)
Message on Migration:
“The inevitability of increasing migration is something that people should understand...Migration is not going away. Migration is only accelerating. Climate change related crises in various parts of the world are only compelling more and more people to cross borders, and the question is, really, do we – as a global society or as Global North countries – respond to that absolutely inevitable ongoing migration with violence or something else?”
August 29, 2023