8/03/2018 Katie E. Machen

Forced Migration and the Idea of Home

As an archaeologist and architectural historian, Associate Professor of Art History Kostis Kourelis studies the way places tell stories of people. In summer 2016, the Franklin & Marshall College professor traveled to Greece with two students, Lizzy Wood ’17 and Cassie Garison ’18, through a Hackman summer research grant to study the remains of former migration sites.

While there, Kourelis had a realization — his work related directly to the current migrant crisis occurring in Greece. In 2016, nearly 60,000 refugees, many of them Syrian, settled throughout the Greek countryside in camps, some of which were around the corner from Kourelis’ research site.

“Refugee camps from the 19th and 20th centuries exist right next to each other, but because they’re impermanent settlements and because people move on, they get forgotten,” said Kourelis. “We look at buildings as evidence for human activities, agency, identity, and architectural environment. There’s a strong need to respond to the current crisis regardless of research agendas.” 

  • Nancy Le ’20 and Kostis Kourelis mapping the ruined house of a Greek immigrant who came to the US during summer Hackman scholarship research. Nancy Le ’20 and Kostis Kourelis mapping the ruined house of a Greek immigrant who came to the US during summer Hackman scholarship research. Image Credit: Nancy Le
  • Women gathered at the Melissa Network in Athens. Women gathered at the Melissa Network in Athens. Image Credit: Kostis Kourelis
  • Nancy Le ’20 on the phone with her mother at the Melissa Network in Greece. Nancy Le ’20 on the phone with her mother at the Melissa Network in Greece. Image Credit: Kostis Kourelis
  • "No land for the Poor," a piece by the Indonesian street artist WD. (Athens, Greece 2015) "No land for the Poor," a piece by the Indonesian street artist WD. (Athens, Greece 2015) Image Credit: Kostis Kourelis

With his expertise recording landscapes and settlements, Kourelis decided, in addition to the work planned with his students, to map two refugee camps in real time as they were created.

“That led to another challenge — how do you map a contemporary camp you're not allowed to enter?” he said. “The problems with access also meant the filling of gaps in historical trauma by recording something happening now that no one knows about. Our work is not helping anyone’s life directly, but we are witnessing and also coming up with a way to record exactly what happened for the record of history.”

After that summer in Greece, Kourelis thought of how to further focus his work on this humanitarian crisis.

So began a new course, “Migration Architecture,” which studied varying locations and periods of migration. Students learned the Geographic Information Systems database to analyze spaces that are subject to migration and to study spatial-analysis using maps and census records.

One student from the class, junior Nancy Le, joined Kourelis in his research in Lancaster and Greece as a Hackman Scholar. They worked with the Melissa Network, a nongovernmental organization (NGO) focused on the well-being of migrant women in Athens.

“In order to get American students in the environment of humanitarianism, which looks at people's suffering and can be short-term, you have to have a civic engagement project,” Kourelis said. “‘Melissa’ translates to ‘bee’ in English, and they are like a beehive there. They have English lessons, legal advice, day care, and internet access.” 

  • A portrait of some of the women from the Melissa Network, commissioned by the organization. A portrait of some of the women from the Melissa Network, commissioned by the organization. Image Credit: Enri Canaj

Kourelis and Le collected stories of the migrant women’s housing histories. They focused on the idea of home: a place that provides food and shelter and is often kept and cared for by women.

“Doing this work with my female students has changed my approach — if I’d been working with all male students, I would not feel comfortable going into a woman's space,” Kourelis said.

Kourelis also wanted to tell the story of Greece as a country of immigrants.

“We want to see how a migration story connects with the different homes a migrant has gone to,” he said.

Kourelis and Le held voluntary workshops asking the women, most of whom were from Afghanistan and Iraq, to visualize what home looks like to them, and then to discuss their house biographies.

“They were so willing to discuss their whole journey,” Kourelis said. “They all had lived in a refugee camp, but are now all settled in apartment environments. Now that you can discuss this idea of home, how is that idea formed? How willing are you to come to terms with the fact that you aren’t going to Germany? Athens is your new home.”

“Giving a platform to understand each other is so important, especially with xenophobic attitudes that exist globally,” said Le, a public policy and sociology major with a minor in art history. “I always wanted to help the immigrant community because I’m from one myself. It was beautiful to see these cultures together at the Melissa Network. I’ve never seen anything like that community.”

“While we were talking, a little boy, one of the women’s sons, fell asleep,” Kourelis added. “They laid him on the table. Seeing him there, I said, ‘As you talk about where you grew up, where you’re living now will be the biography of this little boy.’ We thought about the projection of home for the next generation.”

When Le called home and discussed the workshop, she learned about her own mother’s past.

“My mom was a refugee from Vietnam, and I had never heard the story of how she got to the States. She told me about her path,” Le said.

Looking forward, Kourelis and Le plan to extract their notes and write a scholarly article on the idea of home. Next spring, Kourelis will connect his work to that of others at F&M with a new team-taught, interdisciplinary course, “Forced Migrations."

“As an archaeologist, I have the privilege of a nonhuman subject,” he said. “I’m now myself learning the role of how to converse.” 

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