Imagine what would happen if you were given a new chance to live. What energy would be released? Imagine a spiral, compressed for years, that pops open when someone is safe. That is exactly what happens with many refugees. In their first year, most spirals jump forward full of energy, eager to prove themselves. Soon, however, they encounter difficulties in understanding the complex bureaucracy of their new countries. This is especially true of strong welfare states – such as the Netherlands – where the bureaucracy is described as flat and accessible, but in practice is layered and complex.

The images, assumptions and prejudices that often block participation need reflection
needed. This requires innovative infrastructures that shake up the “tasks-for-granted” biases, in thought and practice. Engaged science, by connecting academic and local knowledge, can provide reflection and change toward participation. With this idea in
in mind, Halleh Ghorashi created the Refugee Academy in 2017 (along with Elena Ponzoni). The Refugee Academy can be seen as a horizontal learning and reflective infrastructure, a kind of capacity building, connecting existing knowledge and perspectives on refugee inclusion from multiple positions.

The idea for the Refugee Academy comes from several innovative, small-scale engaged research projects in which researchers collaborated with different social actors (scientists, professionals and refugees/migrants) to bring new dimensions to refugee inclusion. An inspiring example is Sarah’s story.

Sarah rediscovers her forgotten story
An engaged academic project focused on refugee inclusion brought together various stakeholders (refugees, policymakers, HR managers, NGOs working with refugees) to discuss issues of diversity, power and participation. The most poignant example of this project comes from Sarah, who came to the Netherlands as a refugee 10 years earlier. When Sarah was asked to describe the moment in her life where she felt the strongest, she replied, “I don’t think I have such a story.” After encouragement from the group to think about what aspects of her story she would describe as powerful, she remained silent. “I don’t know,” she replied confused. […] After several sessions in silence, Sarah finally told an amazing story of herself as a young woman fighting for her own and other women’s freedom in an oppressive, male-ruled environment in Eritrea. She eventually joins the armed struggle for her country’s freedom there, leaving behind her family, social position and her everyday securities.

Stories like Sarah’s demonstrate the urgent need to improve the reflective capacity of relevant stakeholders in positions of power (including academics) by connecting to refugees’ life worlds. Documenting and analyzing refugees’ stories of their struggles for participation, and engaging with those stories within a structure such as Refugee Academy, help us identify the tasks-for-granted sources of exclusion and create conditions for movement toward inclusion. This engaged methodology helps us bring policy, research and initiatives for change closer to refugees’ lives. Only then is it possible to create together sustainable structures for a dignified life and survival of refugees.


The above text is an abridged version of a recently published text by Prof. Halleh Ghorashi with illustrations by Parisa Akbarzadehpoladi, published in C. Nevejan and H.A. Farès (Ed.) Values for Survival: Cahier1, pp. 116-117.