Refugee Families in the Era of Global Security

Episode 469

Resettling refugee families sounds like a straightforwardly noble goal. But what happens when a particular definition of the family is used to restrict opportunities for resettlement? In this episode, we speak to anthropologist Sophia Balakian about how the concerns of governments and refugee organizations with "family composition fraud" have impacted refugee families that do not fit a normative definition of what constitutes a family unit. We talk about her fieldwork between East Africa and the United States, examining the spaces of refugee resettlement and their increased securitization since the beginning of the War on Terror. We discuss how genetic testing is being used to exclude certain individuals or families from resettlement programs. And Balakian reflects on how her work involving survivors of war, genocide, and migration today relates to her own questions about the past as a member of the Armenian diaspora.

At the bottom of this post, we also offer an activity module for university classrooms that ties in with this podcast.

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Contributor Bios

Sophia Balakian is an anthropologist and Assistant Professor of Social Justice and Human Rights in the School of Integrative Studies at George Mason University. Her current work deals with refugee resettlement between eastern Africa and the United States and the intersections of humanitarianism and national security.
Chris Gratien is Assistant Professor of History at University of Virginia, where he teaches classes on global environmental history and the Middle East. He is currently preparing a monograph about the environmental history of the Cilicia region of the former Ottoman Empire from the 1850s until the 1950s.

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Lerna Ekmekçioğlu 161
Reconstituting the Stuff of the Nation
Elise Burton 324
Genetics and Nation-Building in the Middle East
Hikmet Kocamaner 358
Politics of the Family in the New Turkey
Sumayya Kassamali 373
Migrant Labor in Contemporary Beirut
Keith David Watenpaugh 238
The Middle East in the Making of Modern Humanitarianism
Torrie Hester 372
The International Origins of US Deportation Policy
Rawan Arar, Andrew Arsan, Reem Bailony, Neda Maghbouleh 436
Narrating Migration
Isabella Alexander 242
Morocco’s New Migrant Class
Investigative Series 370
Deporting Ottoman Americans


Episode No. 469
Release Date: 29 July 2020
Recording Location: Cambridge, MA
Music and Audio Elements (by order of appearance): A.A. Aalto - Entonces; Pictures of the Floating World - Waves; Komiku - Un désert; Pictures of the Floating World - Softest Fabric; Silicon Transmitter - Badlands; A.A. Aalto - Canyon; Aitua - IV Volcano; Soft and Furious - So What?
Sound production by Chris Gratien
Additional credits to Sam Dolbee
Bibliography and images courtesy of Sophia Balakian


Flyer advertising DNA testing outside the office of the Somali Development Center in Jamaica Plain, MA. Photo by Sophia Balakian.

A Somali woman in Nairobi holds her UNHCR refugee status document, which includes photos of her children. Photo by Sophia Balakian.

Members of the Banyamulenge Congolese community in Nairobi. Like most, they are waiting for resettlement. Photo by Sophia Balakian.

Balakian's great-grandmother and two great-aunts, Armenian genocide survivors from Ottoman Diyarbekir (modern-day Turkey), pictured on their passport issued in the city of Aleppo in then-Arab Kingdom of Syria in 1920. A few months later, the government that issued this document would fall in a war with France and be incorporated into what became the French Mandate government of Lebanon and Syria. Formerly Ottoman Armenians in Syria and Lebanon received Syrian citizenship from the French government in 1924. Photo courtesy of Balakian family.


Abdi, Awa M. 2015. Elusive Jannah: The Somali Diaspora and a Borderless Muslim Identity. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.

Besteman, Catherine. 2016. Making Refuge: Somali Bantu Refugees in Lewiston, Maine. Durham: Duke University Press.

Coutin, Susan Bibler. 2003. "Cultural Logics of Belonging and Movement: Transnationalism, Naturalization, and U.S. Immigration Politics." American Ethnologist 30(4):508-526.

Gale, Lacey Andrews. 2007. “Bulgur Marriages and ‘Big’ Women: Navigating Relatedness in Guinean Refugee Camps." Anthropological Quarterly 80(2):355-78.

Holland, Emily. 2011. “Moving the Virtual Border to the Cellular Level: Mandatory DNA Testing and the U.S. Refugee Family Reunification Program.” California Law Review 99(6):1653-1682.

Horst, Cindy. 2006. Transnational Nomads: How Somalis Cope with Refugee Life in the Dadaab Camps of Kenya. New York: Berghahn Books.

Martin, David A. 2005. The United States Refugee Admissions Program: Reforms of a New Era of Refugee Resettlement. Migration Policy Institute.

Sandvik, Kristin B. 2011. “Blurring Boundaries: Refugee Resettlement in Kampala—between the Formal, the Informal, and the Illegal.” Political and Legal Anthropology Review 34(1): 11-32.

Thomson, Marnie. 2012. “Black Boxes of Bureaucracy: Transparency and Opacity in the Resettlement Process of Congolese Refugees.” Political and Legal Anthropology Review 35(2):186-205.

Activity Module

The following series of activities is intended for use in university classrooms during a week interrogating the theme of the family in refugee histories. It combines material about Ottoman Armenian refugees with material about the experiences of contemporary East African refugees.

Click here to access the activity module PDF

If you are using this activity module with your class get in touch with feedback about how it went and how we can improve the activity module


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