Birzeit University’s international migration and refugee studies program provides unique experience with guest lectures by refugees, experts 

Every week since September, Dr. Raed Eshnaiwer discusses with his students issues related to migration and refugee studies. Last Saturday, the topic was “Syrian Refugees: A Feminist Perspective”; the week before, they explored forced migration to, and from, Syria; and three weeks ago, they discussed the status of Palestinian refugees in international law. So far, this sounds like any other migration and refugee studies program. Why, then, is Birzeit University’s community buzzing with interest over these meetings? Simply put: the guest speakers and lecturers. 

Eshnawier, who leads the introductory course for the International Migration and Refugee Studies program, hosts international and local experts, professors, and activists who have made it their life’s work to study and highlight migration and refugee issues. Every week — on Saturdays — a new guest leads the lecture, bringing with them new experiences and, crucially, different perspectives on complex migration cases. 

The meetings, Eshnawier’s brainchild, were established to provide students with the multi-dimensional perspective and experience needed for the migration and refugee studies discipline. They are held outside of normal study hours and are optional, but all students choose to join them. “It is especially difficult during these times to go out on the field and carry out the face-to-face interviews required for this master’s program,” Eshnawier explained. “So what we’ve done is bring the experience to the students through online video calls.” 

The guest speakers and lecturers are chosen personally by Eshnawier, based on his network of colleagues and experts in the field. Students can also recommend a guest. The main criteria, Eshnawier noted, was that guests had to have actual experience in the field or have previously introduced a critical perspective on the discipline’s main theoretical frameworks. 

The guest speakers and lecturers have not only met these criteria; they comfortably exceeded them. 

One of the earliest guests was Abu Haitham, a refugee who chronicled his journey from forced migration in his home country of Iraq to asylum in Belgium. Another was Muzan Dureid, a Syrian human rights activist who specializes in issues related to migrant and refugee women. Rabie Nasser, a Syrian researcher who migrated to Lebanon, discussed research methodologies during times of conflict, using the war in Syria as an example, and Fahmida Karim, an associate protection officer at the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), shed light on the situation of the Rohingya refugees in Bangladesh.

Among the guests were also prominent professors and academics in the field. Francesca Albanese, a researcher at Georgetown University’s Institute for the Study of International Migration, and Lex Takkenberg, the senior ethics officer at UNRWA, explored the status of Palestinian refugees in International law, and Dawn Chatty, professor emerita of anthropology, discussed the history of migration in the Levant, specifically in Syria. Rounding out the list is Oroub El Abed, a researcher at the center for Lebanese Studies, who reviewed the methods and issues related to providing refugees with humanitarian aid.  

Discussions with these professors, researchers, experts, and activists have added another layer to the master’s program, said Eshnawier. It has provided students with more than one perspective on migrant and refugee cases in Syria, Sudan, and Myanmar, among others, and allowed them to incorporate the lessons drawn from these issues in the production of new knowledge.

“The nature of the International Migration and Refugee Studies program is unique,” Eshnawier added. “It is based on a combination of personal experience analyzed and explored through theoretical frameworks, and this format of lectures led by guest speakers and professors complements the program extremely well.” In addition to an enhanced perspective, the meetings help students establish connections in the field with local and international professors, researchers, and peers. 

As for the future of the course, Eshnawier looks to expand the list of guests to include UNHCR officers, experts on migration in the Global South, and migrants and refugees. He is also exploring cooperation frameworks with regional and international migrant and refugee studies programs.