‘Displaced’ seminar helps students contextualize refugee crisis

Watson Postdoctoral Fellow Blair Sackett tackles the issue of displacement in her International and Public Affairs seminar.

The United Nations estimates that there are 103 million forcibly displaced people worldwide as of mid-2022, an increase of 167% since 2001. Experts expect the problem to worsen in the coming decades as climate change causes extreme weather, food insecurity and rising sea levels. 1.2 billion people may be displaced by natural disasters and climate change by 2050, according to the Institute for Economics & Peace.

This spring semester, Watson Institute for International and Public Affairs Postdoctoral Fellow Blair Sackett is teaching a seminar, Displaced: How Global Systems Shape Refugee Families, so that International and Public Affairs (IAPA) concentrators can study this growing crisis systematically in both theoretical and practical terms. Sackett's goal is to provide students with new tools for understanding global displacement by examining the refugee crisis from a sociological perspective.

Sackett, who comes to Watson from the University of Pennsylvania, where she earned her Ph.D. in sociology in 2022, said she is grateful to be teaching a class aligned with her research, one of the benefits of a Watson postdoctoral fellowship. "The fact that the class tracks closely with my research is ideal," she said. "I'm reading things that are helpful for my own book project on refugee families in Kenya, and seeing the students engage with global conversations on forced migration gives me a new perspective," she said.

In some cases, students have a personal connection to the subject, according to Sackett. Kalden Namgyal, a Junior IAPA and Economics concentrator, said the seminar "has been incredibly rewarding in critically examining the global refugee regime and the entrenched inequities in this system. Most importantly, the class has equipped me with the knowledge and language to articulate my own lived experience as a Tibetan refugee." 

Sackett divides each class into three sections: a lecture, a student presentation and a small group discussion. "This gives students a chance to think critically about the readings," she said. "For example, we used different academic definitions of who's a refugee. Then we had a class debate about why climate refugees aren't legally considered refugees–and whether they should be. This approach empowers students to apply theoretical concepts  to  real-world policies."

Sackett has also invited guest speakers, including Jonathan Bott. Lt. Col. Bott is a Visiting Scholar and National Defense Fellow at Watson who participated in Operation Allies Welcome in support of Afghan refugees. "I'm aiming to incorporate a variety of perspectives from the practitioner side as well as the more academic theoretical side," said Sackett.

Another guest speaker, Peter Decherney, founding director of the Penn Global Documentary Institute at the University of Pennsylvania, took Sackett's students on a "tour" of the Kakuma Refugee Camp and Kalobeyei Integrated Settlement in Kenya. Decherney is a filmmaker who has made two virtual-reality (VR) documentaries at Kakuma.

"When Professor Decherney visited, we first had students look at a photograph of refugees in a classroom," said Sackett, "It's clearly a very challenging learning environment; it's overcrowded, and students are sitting on the floor." Sackett continued, "But looking at it through the virtual reality headset gives you a different perspective. You can look up at the ceiling and down at the floor. And you hear the students singing. There's laughter. You can hear the teacher engaging with the students," she said. "[VR] challenges you to see [the camp] in a different way. Yes, there are hardships. It's not an ideal learning environment. But teachers are teaching. Students are learning. It's not as simple as what the flat photograph conveys," said Sackett.

Junior IAPA concentrator Tania Gutierrez Espinosa described the VR experience of the camp as "truly unforgettable." "I felt way more connected to the community I was learning about than if I had just read about them as a statistic or category. With the VR, they were in the room sharing their dreams, realities and struggles unmediated," she said.

Sackett said she hopes the seminar has given her students new ways to think about displaced people. "I hope they are able to use the critical thinking skills they've developed to understand future refugee crises. And I hope they will be able to think about the different perspectives and policy issues so that they can see beyond the headlines."

Sackett's book with co-author Annette Lareau, "We Thought It Would Be Heaven: Refugees in an Unequal America," is due to be published by the University of California Press in August 2023.