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BPR Interviews: Anita Fábos

Anita Häusermann Fábos is a Professor of International Development and Social Change at Clark University. She is also the former Director of Forced Migration and Refugee Studies at the American University in Cairo as well as the former Programme Coordinator for the graduate program in Refugee Studies at the University of East London. She has conducted anthropological work alongside Muslim Arab Sudaness refugees in the Middle East, Europe, and North America, and is currently working on a book titled Constellations of Home, that examines how people in long-term displacement engage with home and home-making.

Rose Houglet: Could you tell me about your lecture at Brown yesterday and your book? What is the thesis? What inspired it?

Anita Häusermann Fábos: The lecture was an investigation of the current state of people in long term situations of displacement in the world. I am writing this book with my colleague Cathrine Brun, who is a feminist geographer at Oxford Brooks University and the Director of the Center for Development and Environmental Practice. She’s also a forced migration specialist and theorist. We’ve both worked with groups of people who have themselves been living with displacement for a really long time. Through our teaching, we are constantly reminded of this debate about the refugee protection system — which is global and involves all of the different states — and how they are, somehow, tied to this idea that the only way to solve these long term displacements of people is for those groups of people to find new membership in a new nation state. So, refugees should go home to their home states, or they should be integrated in a meaningful way and that probably means getting citizenship in that country, or the third so-called “durable” solution is for those people to be resettled in a third place. The first part of the talk was really an investigation of the system as it’s evolved and why we’re at this impasse, and how increasingly more people are finding themselves in these situations. We argue that they’re not finding themselves in these situations of “limbo,” but that the logic of the system itself creates these unsolvable problems that can only be solved by sending people to some kind of home. That’s where the home comes in. Our main thesis is that in the refugee protection system — though it also involves organizations who work with people who haven’t crossed international borders — the unspoken assumption is that home means, preferably, becoming part of the citizenry of a place. The best solution, according to the UNHCR [United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees], is for those people to be repatriated to their own home nations. These people are being told that they don’t fit. They’re being told that they don’t belong. They’re being told that they’re “in limbo.” In our long term work with people, we do agree; we’re not saying that this is fun or easy or that it’s not happening. But it’s the policies. The people themselves, as difficult as their circumstances are, they have to live, put their kids’ clothes on in the morning, and get dinner on the table. They have to find a livelihood of some sort. They may be temporarily given permission to be there, but their needs are permanent. Their lives are continuing. We thought to ourselves, “Well it’s not a perfect home that they are making. And it’s not an ideal home and it’s not your preferred home. But it’s certainly not the home that the nation-state system is defining for them.” They’re going ahead and creating home even though they’re not home. We started looking at the practices, ideas, values that people attach to the idea of home, and we realized that the nation-state is important for a lot of people: a lot of people yearn for being back in Sudan or for a Palestine or some other national homeland. But, at the same time, people are doing daily practices, and they’re trying to source ingredients from their home food. They are organizing their space in a way that reminds them of the place that they used to live. They’re mapping their values and their ideas onto their material status. They’re continuing to do these daily practices. That’s a kind of a home-making. It’s not just housework; it seems to be more than that. It’s kind of connecting them both to their paths and to the global political system because they have to do it and make do in a refugee camp or in a temporary circumstance. We call this home-making. At the same time, they’re yearning for their life that they lost; they have very strong ideals and nostalgic feelings about what their home looks like. So, we call these sets of ideas — the ideal, the memory of a tangible place that they loved which could be the nation but also their house — Home. Then, we used HOME for the set of assumptions about home as a nation-state, and how all of the nations and the refugee regime itself are trapped in this logic. So, we have three ways of thinking about home, and what we argue is that for a person who is displaced in a long term circumstances, all three of them, collectively, work together as a bundle of practices, ideas, ideals and geopolitical realities that are nuanced and very complex but come together to form a type of home-making or home-keeping. We call this a “constellation of home.” Homekeeping defies limbo. They may be liminal, meaning that people can be stuck in these in-between situations, but in those situations they have some kind of agency, even if it’s narrow and constrained. They are absolutely stuck in policy terms and maybe even in livelihoods. But they are managing to do some kind of home-keeping. And, finally, we were saying that feminist geopolitics, which connects the intimate to the global, is a really good lens to think about what’s going on for people out of place. Everybody makes home, and most of it is not about place, actually. What we’re working on with our book is to try to understand whether there is a way to mobilize the idea home to show that this boundary between displaced and not displaced people can be more of an interface for people who are making home. By making connection between home-making for various kinds of settled, mobile, displaced people, we might find an alternative vision for creating place-making with everybody.

Rose Houglet: How do you feel like your notions of home-making applies to domestic politics and displacement within the nation state, thinking about issues of homelessness  or houselessness?

Anita Häusermann Fábos: I think feminist scholarship has been so so important because it questions the idea of home as a safe space. Domestic space, which has primarily been seen as “home-y” and a sanctuary of sorts, is often not that way. So again, here’s an example of home being such a powerful concept that you can redefine it.  You can be without a house, but still strategically and intentionally re-build or re-create or move to a different reality.

Rose Houglet: How do state-specific notions of privacy inform your work?

Anita Häusermann Fábos: It’s not so geopolitical as far as I can tell. Whenever my colleague and I were considering ideas of home as a universal concept, we recognized that for shelter — even though there might be some basic, minimum standards that people consider to be important — the experience of super important cultural and maybe gendered values like privacy could be really different from one group of people to another. So, that’s one of the home-making issues. That’s been a slow lesson for the humanitarian community to learn, because there has been this kind of one-size-fits-all cookie-cutter approach to a lot of housing, iin particular. I think that also extends to other interactions with people themselves. The way that the humanitarian structure has emerged is one of a kind of temporary emergency. Cathrine has a whole set of ideas about the temporariness of humanitarian care, and how it doesn’t have futures emerge for people because it’s always about the urgent needs of right now. Our fieldwork with people in long term displacement has shown that their urgency is different; it’s not immediate needs. I think privacy is one of those things because initially, you don’t have the right to privacy because everybody is suffering and you are placed into shelters and camps as an urgent thing. I think over time, people need to reassert those culturally-specific ideas about privacy and personal space. I’m not sure that the humanitarian system has helped very much in this kind of long term way of thinking about what people need to recreate home so that it’s meaningful. I would say also that anybody who is caught up in bureaucratic systems of helpers is bound to come up against people needing to know things to help them that make it very hard to be private. Refugee resettlement is a formal government program with federal mandates that the resettlement agencies have to meet. The aid is very tiny and only about a few months long and if you’re a refugee, you’re supposed to get into work very very quickly. There’s all kinds of case workers and employment managers who are trying to help people do that. In the process they are also conveying a discourse of building a home and integrating into the United States, which is part of the logic of being re-in-placed because you are “out of place.” So, what I’ve experienced from working with refugees is that your notions of family and close nuclear networks are completely redefined because family members are now all back home or in various places around the diaspora. There are huge expectations, especially for those who came to the west, that they should raise money and send it back to their people. So there’s this tussle: caseworkers are telling people what they need to do with their money. People are earning their money, and caseworkers are telling a family, “Well no you can’t get a car. You have to ride the bus. You have to pay your rent.” They are telling this to people who have been at work strategizing and are the ones who made it here, which is really something that most people do not, with a kind of agency that most of us could not even imagine. So, a lot of people will want to take some of their income and send it back to family members, and they’re being told that they can’t do that. Some programs will even pull the funds of the agency because the federal government here has restrictions on how that money is being spent. But even against their own money, refugees are very forcefully told what to spend their money on. Those are the types of issues to do with the invasion of your personal way of doing things that happen when you are having to integrate.

Rose Houglet: How do you reconcile your radical demands with the fact that there are immediate needs that require utilizing the current system?

Anita Häusermann Fábos: It is a radical rethinking. I have a big point and a small point. I think our small point is that these realities are pushing change. Even though the overall logic of limbo remains kind of unmoving because of the ways our systems work, we’re seeing more and more humanitarian agencies recognizing that emergencies are not the right mindset to use to work with people who are in these long-term displaced situations. Now they are starting to use more of a development studies approach — building and creating — though still very much nation-state based, which prevents refugees and other displaced people from accessing development funding. The big corrector that I see here is in 2014, the UNHCR, UNDP [United Nations Development Programme], World Bank and IRC [International Rescue Committee] came out with a brand new policy called “alternatives to camps.” This policy said that camps are a last resort and acknowledges that people will be where they are and that those places might be very mixed in terms of neighborhoods. It uses a more developmental approach, of using funding for long term neighborhood-building or infrastructure. Those are emerging because of on-the-ground realities, recognizing that refugees don’t want to stay in camps and that most are not in camps. Some work that I’m doing with another colleague is about changing the idea of integration from being about integrating into an existing place to making it more about integrating the people who were there and the newcomers together. The big thing is that we need to redefine the humanitarian need so that it looks more like development and so that it doesn’t make a status distinction between people who don’t have status and people who do have status. Scholarship is also moving, now, to recognize mobile people as part of our societies and not just temporary people who are on the move and going somewhere else.

Rose Houglet: Has the climate for your kind of work changed under this past presidential administration? How so?

Anita Häusermann Fábos I taught in Egypt for nearly 15 years and after that I was in England for 7 years and then after that I’ve only been back here for 10 years. So, what I can tell Americans is that this was so predictable. This is exactly what I saw in Cairo. It’s what I saw in England 15 years ago, and nobody paid attention. Nobody saw the restrictions or the demonization of asylum seekers. All of this language was absolutely part of the British response: cracking down on travel, blocking people from getting on airplanes if they didn’t have a visa. That has been happening for 15-20 years. So, I am absolutely not surprised, in any way. When people talk about this as a crisis, I think, “This is built into the logic of the system.” Any free-flowing movement of people was probably an aberration. This is built into the logic of “people do not fit into our idea of homogenization-building.” It’s just ramped up now. The current administration is doing this wagon-circling and invention of what America looks like when you try to put every type of person who has been able to emerge from under that oppression back into a box.