I asked our department’s five student summer research award recipients to provide us with a brief update about how their projects are going. Here’s what Carolynn Hammen had to say about her research project with the IOM in Cairo!
Carolynn attempting to keep up with her Arabic homework
All I wanted was to buy a belt. I had forgotten to pack one in the hectic days leading up to my departure. As I approached the mall a man was blocking my way through the heavy, iron, gate. Essentially a doorman and bodyguard, he was tasked with deciding who was, and more importantly, who was not, granted entrance into the mall. He would simply hold up a hand to some, and let others pass by him.
I flinched with irrational anticipation that I would be barred from entering. But my white skin and curly blonde hair—the clear marks of a foreigner in Egypt—saved me. I was let in without question. The guard barely looked at me.
I faced a similar situation once I was able to pass through the doors of the shopping center. This time, the man was replaced by heavier security measures: a metal detector, and an X-ray machine for your bags. Security was clearly a priority, and this elaborate set-up at the entrance to a shopping center mirrors the current hyperawareness to threat across the entirety of Cairo, and Egypt as a whole. Once again, my foreigner status gave me a free pass. My jewelry was ignored despite the bleating of the metal detector. The metal objects in my bag were acceptable without question, because surely a white, American woman would not be interested in bringing a bomb or another threatening object into a shopping mall. I am not whom these precautions are intended to detect.
Cairo at night
Most people around the world, or at least those I left behind in the United States, know about the recent bombings in Cairo and the issues in the Sinai region. But to be honest, these events do not affect me on a daily basis. This is a fact that I feel is really important to emphasize about my experience here. I have not felt any acute fear for my safety; I am actually quite comfortable and am enjoying the experience of living in Cairo. I love the vibrant energy of the city, its history, and the warmth of the Egyptian people. I am making friends, conducting interesting research, learning to put up with the smog, and taking Arabic classes so that I can actually (read: hopefully) negotiate with taxi drivers.
On the roof of the IOM building, with the Nile in the background
My status as a white, American woman who is in Egypt for academic purposes puts me in a unique position within the current phenomena of securitization in Egypt. As a recipient of an AHSS summer research grant through the University of Puget Sound, I am currently working at the International Organization for Migration (IOM) Regional Office in Cairo, interning under the Mental Health, Psychosocial Response and Intercultural Communications Section. I was offered this internship specifically on the basis of conducting social research on the psychosocial and psychopathological effects of human trafficking on its victims, and helping the IOM to reform its policies concerning post-trafficking care. The ultimate goal of this research project is to create policy recommendations for the IOM and other organizations that provide services to trafficking victims, with the aim of improving post-trafficking care and reducing the risk of survivors developing long-term psychiatric disorders and other problems that inhibit their ability to live fruitful lives. As a Sociology and Anthropology major with interests in both migration and public health, this is essentially my dream job.
As can be incurred from my experience simply entering a shopping mall, my whiteness (and foreignness) allows me certain privileges that other residents are not afforded. I am granted access to all areas of the city, including the economic “free zones” that are not even open to all Egyptians, automatically. Others are barred from attending places I take for granted (like the shopping center) because of the shape of their eyes, the color of their skin, maybe the texture of their hair. They are foreigners as well; sometimes refugees and sometimes they have migrated to Egypt on their own accord. However, they are restricted for the very same reason I am given a free pass: their foreignness. The trivial difference being the color of our skin, or the nationalities listed on our passports.
As much as I am afforded extra privileges for my status as a white woman, my additional status as an academic is regarded as a threat by the government. In this society, I am uniquely privileged and unwelcome at the same time. Egypt’s current resistance to international organizations and academic research has proved to be an unexpected challenge. As a visitor with the intent of conducting research, the Egyptian government has done their part to make sure I realize I am not particularly welcome, starting with only granting me a visa for roughly half the days I am supposed to live here (I feel lucky I got one at all).
Even with the influence of the IOM, a widely respected organization in the world of international affairs, conducting research in Egypt has proven to be a challenge. A major reason for this is because I am unable to interview the subjects I am studying — survivors of human trafficking. Because of the current political climate here, the IOM has barred me from actually interacting with them. I am limited to what is known as a “desk review”—finding data from other field work studies, and speaking with my colleagues who have actually worked with trafficking survivors in settings such as health clinics or refugee shelters. This was a huge disappointment to me, as I had originally planned on conducting an ethnographically-based project, composed primarily of my interactions with trafficking survivors. Unfortunately, however, this is just not possible in the current political climate (it is another issue entirely to debate whether or not my project would have received IRB approval in the first place if I had been able to construct a project that included ethnographic interviews with such a vulnerable population).
Exploring Coptic Cairo
As a colleague of mine explained, the Egyptian government is very wary of the presence of most international organizations, NGO’s and foreign academics at the current moment, myself included. They see their presence as meddlesome in domestic affairs. They are also incredibly worried that these various actors are reporting back to the United States, the European Union, or even Iran or Israel on the current state of Egyptian society. With conflict comes securitization, and this can naturally lead to suspicion of us foreigners. I am not trying to fault the Egyptian government; they have their own interests to protect and a country in turmoil. They have bigger problems to address than our visas.
Even so, my inability to speak with the people I envision myself trying to help is frustrating. However, I recognize the impossibility of doing any other project than a desk review at this time. There are multiple, bureaucratic and security complications the IOM had to factor in to my internship: IRB approval, relations with the Egyptian government, the fact that I am an undergraduate, my personal security … the list goes on. With the current tensions between the government and academia, it would be incredibly risky to grant me the luxury of doing ethnography. And truth be told, I am enjoying the experience of desk-review research. My research project itself is incredibly fascinating. Additionally, I have loved the experience of working in the high-powered environment of an international organization. The amount of writing I have had to complete alone will be incredibly useful come spring when I commence writing my senior thesis. Even without the ethnographic component, this research project and my internship have been a wonderful and fruitful experience.
Distant sand dunes
Nonetheless, I still miss the ethnographic connection of truly knowing and understanding the people I am researching. The IOM Cairo office runs a migrant help center in the ground floor of our building. Every day I see dozens of people enter the center, and I would bet some of them are trying to escape exploitative situations of trafficking. I could easily sit in a corner for a few hours; talk with them, get to know them, and ask what their concerns are—what do they believe they need from us the most? However, I recognize the restrictions that have been placed on my research, so instead I study their concerns behind the glow of my computer screen. But questions linger in the back of my mind: how can I claim to advocate for these people when I don’t even know them? How can I write about what their needs are, and what their desires are, when I’ve never even spoken to them?
I just don’t know. Furthermore, these are questions I am simply unable to answer right now. The only thing I can do is carry out this project to the best of my ability, with the resources available to me. I will continue to spend hours reading assessments, and speaking with my colleagues about their field work experiences. I will continue constructing what I hope are relevant and practical strategies for humanitarians that maybe one day can be used to improve someone’s life.
And, perhaps, next time I won’t irrationally flinch when passing the security guard at the mall. My whiteness and academic status are not a problem there—I’ll be let in every time. The government might be wary of my presence, but they know I pose no threat at a shopping center.
Wow, Carolynn! What an interesting and complex research scenario you’re embroiled in. Good luck with the rest of the summer, and all of us in the department wish you luck in navigating these complexities.