Stories from Berlin

There are 7 billion of us on this planet. Over 500 million of us live the EU. Every year, about 5 million babies are born here. These are figures that I am thinking about getting stamped on a t-shirt, because they are the figures that help us put into context the debate about migrants and refugees, a debate that I can’t believe we are (still) having.

In 2015, 1 million strangers arrived on our doorstep, many of them risking their lives and the lives of their children to get here, because it seemed like a less certain death than staying at home.

Because of the incredible selfishness of most EU member states, the majority of those 1 million refugees ended up in Germany. Sweden also took in a high number in proportion to its population. And thousands upon thousands ended up in a bottleneck in Greece.

Arriving home after spending the last year in Berlin, I was leafing through my Dad’s copy of the latest National Geographic when I recognised someone I knew. The woman who is pictured at the Tempelhof refugee camp about half way through this article (page 104 in the print version) is not a stranger to me. I first met Zainab about six months ago, in the company of her granddaughter. We had been running our weekly women’s group for quite a while, but up until then we had been working in a different part of the massive camp. Like many women her age, Zainab can work wonders with a ball of wool and a crochet hook, rapidly using up whatever amount of wool we were able to supply. Most women started out by making themselves shower gloves. Then they moved on to more ‘luxury’ items like hats, scarves, bags and baby clothes. It’s just what they do. After all, there is a war on.


One of the things that stood out clearly about Zainab is that she would never, ever, join in the scramble for materials if they were all spread out on a table. She would wait, patiently, to the end, and take whatever was left. She struck me not as someone who was too frail for the fight, but as a woman who was determined not to lose her dignity, and who wanted to set a good example for her granddaughter. On busy days, I started withholding some of the good quality wool so I would be sure she received her fair share. She prefers white, sometimes red. I used to pass Zainab a lot, just walking around the hangar, and she would always stop and greet me with a firm clasp of my hand and a kiss on each cheek. In the last few weeks, I saw less and less of her, and often I would give her granddaughter some wool to pass on to her. I very much regret that I didn’t see her to say goodbye.

As much as we try to create a calm and friendly environment for the women in our group, there is no escaping from the noise and tension of sharing a living space with 2000 other people and with dozens of staff and volunteers, not to mention journalists and politicians, coming and going constantly. There is literally a circus happening every day (the amazing Zirkus Ohne Grenzen, which is great for children, but maybe less so for tired parents and grandparents, or teenagers trying to study, who have no option of blocking out the noise). For a lot of people, the safest option is to hide.

Zainab’s granddaughter, Rojin, is in her early teens, and most of the time you talk to her you’d come away thinking that her biggest problem in life is not being able to afford a decent set of makeup. Like so many children at the camp, she has already learned how to internalise her emotions and relieve pressure on her parents. But one day we talked about how they were living, and she said to me in her basic German: “Ein Zimmer. Acht Personen. Nicht Gut” (One room. Eight people. Not good). The words “not good” are used by residents to cover a multitude of complaints. Assad is “not good”. ISIS is “not good”. When a bomb fell on your school it was “not good”. The accommodation is “not good”. The months-long wait for German classes or doctor’s appointments is “not good”. The food is “not good”.  Boys running around making noise are “not good”. Teenagers sneaking off and kissing behind the shower stalls are “not good”. Fear and insecurity are “not good”. 0.5mm crochet hooks are “not good”. The lack of contact with local people is “not good”. The boredom and depression is “not good”. It is only a 5 year old boy who has the courage to go around shouting that “alles ist Scheiße” (everything is shit). It makes me strangely hopeful every time I think of it.


It is about a year since the camp first opened, and many residents are losing hope of moving on to better accommodation. What began as a temporary solution has an increasing air of permanence about it, as the anticipated new arrivals have been held back in Greece and Turkey and the camp seeks to meet the terms of its original budget by holding onto its original residents. When gymnasiums and hostels began returning to business-as-usual over the summer, people were moved from one makeshift shelter to another. An Irishwoman working in a camp on the other side of town said to me that people there talked about being relocated to Tempelhof in a “to hell or to Connaught” kind of manner. To hell or to Tempelhof. It has a good ring to it.

The way you survive is by relativising. Isn’t it better than what you read about Idomeni? Better than Calais? Better than the tent camps in Turkey or Jordan? Better, a thousand times better, than being bombed to bits in Syria? Being abducted and forced to fight by the Taleban in Afghanistan? Your wife and your children being at the mercy of your local oligarch/warlord in the Caucasus? Sure, pigeons perch in the rafters and shit on your bed and on your daughter’s new clothes that you spent hours picking out at the donation distribution point because even though there wasn’t much choice, you could almost convince yourself it was retail therapy. But it could all be worse, couldn’t it?

The answer is yes, it could, and I am reminded of this every time I look at the news from Syria and read the place names which I now associate with people I know, people who used to live in this region, this province, this town, or when I read about boats capsizing in the Mediterranean and bodies being washed up on beaches. For how long can you content yourself by repeating “at least they didn’t drown” (and many of them damn near did, and they tell you about it by drawing pictures of boats underwater and adding little stick figures for their parents and siblings)?

So everything is fine, and I keep showing up with a smile on my face and a parcel of wool under one arm, and I get to know people, and they get to know me, and we spend a lot of time laughing together and drinking tea and painting each other’s nails and showing each other photographs, and sometimes we meet up at the weekends. It’s all relative, you tell yourself. At the camp, some people have decorated their walls with children’s drawings and magazine cuttings. Other walls remain bare, betraying no mark of the individuals or families living there. There are people who try to spend their whole day anywhere but there (chiefly absentee fathers doing everything they can not to appear weak in front of their children), and then there are others who withdraw into themselves, invisible behind the plastic walls of the partitions, losing their appetite for the thrice daily servings of food on plastic plates with plastic cutlery (incidentally, the kitchens in most camps are not set up to cater for people with medical-related dietary requirements).

It’s all relative, and because it’s all relative, it makes a mockery of the idea of universal human rights. It makes a mockery of our shared humanity. It feels like the universe is laughing at us.


The National Geographic article contains some inspiring stories, which remind me of a lot of the unsung heroes I’ve got to know over the last year. But overall, I feel less than hopeful most of the time. Arriving home, I don’t feel like I’ve been in one of Europe’s most popular cities. I feel like I’ve been thousands of miles away.

The EU – mainly Germany – hosts just a tiny fraction of the world refugee population, and still there are vulnerable people falling through the cracks. The most humane moments I’ve witnessed in the last year came from people bending the rules, not observing them.

Hania Hakiel, my friend and colleague in Berlin, responded to an early version of this post by reflecting more deeply on:

[…] something so obvious and so totally forgotten. These people escape the war, fine, but they arrive here as…people. Their bodies carry trauma like the bodies of many of us and like us they suffer not only from the past psychological injuries but also from headaches, toothaches, cancer… Like us they like to eat nice food and have a peaceful sleep. That is maybe why I so seldom write about my experiences at the refugee camp. They are just experiences with other people. Do you report “today I met a person” on daily basis?

I am frankly embarrassed to talk about what I’ve been doing all year because I cannot find a language in which to talk about it that does not diminish the humanity of the people I’ve met, the humanity of our encounters.

In Germany, many people have stopped using the word Flüchtling (refugee) and replaced it with Geflüchtete (an adjective describing someone who has fled). It sounds clunky, to say the least, but it matters because it actively attempts to maintain the personhood, the inalienable human-being-ness, of the one who has fled.

When we label people refugee or migrant, we often forget how many of us have a history of migration in our own family.

When we label people Muslim, we forget that being a ‘Christian’ continent hasn’t prevented us from going to war with one another hundreds of times, including two major wars in the last century.

The whole point of the Europe that has evolved in my lifetime is that it’s a place where borders are not supposed to matter, where diversity is something to be celebrated rather than feared, and where the definition of cultural heritage is constantly expanding and evolving.

If we are afraid that our culture is being diminished at home, we need only look around to be reminded of the fact that it is flourishing. This week I spotted two stories about refugees and Gaelic games. Two Iraqi brothers have found acceptance and friendship in the Berlin GAA club which meets every week at the park at Tempelhof. And in Belfast (that city of famously divided Christians), an 11 year old boy who arrived from Aleppo last December recently helped his local club win an U-12 hurling title.

If you want the best parts of your culture to survive (and the worst parts to be eradicated) then probably the best thing you can do is open it up to the world.

Yes, we’re destined to become a multicultural melting pot. But so is everywhere else.

In the same way that people who don’t vote forfeit the right to complain about elections, people who do nothing to engage constructively with refugees forfeit the right to complain about them.


Paradoxically, I think a lot of Europeans are holding back out of politeness. You don’t need someone like me writing articles telling you that refugees are people too. You know that they are people, you know that they are just like you, and that embarrasses you, and it embarrasses them too. It’s just very, very awkward for everyone. The first time I walked into the camp at Tempelhof I was burning with shame. I was afraid to meet anyone’s eye. I was ashamed of myself, I was ashamed of the EU (and I used to love the EU), and I was ashamed for the people I met there, that they had to see me seeing them this way. A lot of the time I feel like apologising.

This causes a certain tension, which I still see with a lot of new volunteers when they join the group. People are afraid to make eye contact, afraid to reach out. Afraid of rejection or misunderstanding. No one wants to be seen as a tourist. No one wants to offend anyone, no one wants their look to be interpreted as a stare. Nobody wants to be associated with charity, but nobody is quite sure how to go about making friends. There’s an elephant in the room and his name is Trauma. I talk to people in bars and at parties, tell them that we need more dedicated volunteers, and they all say “don’t you need training to do that kind of thing?”

You are afraid to be invited inside somebody’s room, because to step inside those cramped little spaces is to make a cognitive leap. Calling them rooms is an insult to the English language. You know what they’re like, you’ve caught glimpses as you pass (and tried desperately to look as if you weren’t looking), but to feel yourself inhabiting that space, even for a moment, to sit there and think: this is where these people go at the end of the day, this is the only place they have to come back to and feel safe…you’re afraid to invade what little privacy they have, but you’re also afraid to make yourself vulnerable by entering that space.

And you’re right to be afraid. Getting involved in other people’s lives has a transformative effect. It takes so much effort to communicate verbally, and still the language barrier means that physical contact is one of the main ways people relate to one another. There is so much hugging and kissing going on, so much looking deep into each other’s eyes, so many children are using you as a human climbing frame, that at times you feel like your body is very slowly disintegrating. You arrive carrying your parcels of wool or paint or paper, and you leave weighed down with fruit and the tiny packets of jam and honey given out at breakfast time which people have been saving up to give to you. And you still have those moments at two in the morning where you wonder if everyone secretly hates you.

And on and on for months and months. You get close to people, and you start to feel afraid that they will surely move to a better place soon, and maybe you won’t ever see them again. You get close to people, and you start to hope that they will be moved to a better place soon, and you won’t ever see them again. Presumably they feel the same about you. Fear and hope wear the same face.

And you get used to it. Everything is relative. Things could be better, they should be better, but they could always be worse too. Alles ist Scheiße. You care. You don’t care. You care. You don’t care.

An 11 year old boy who wants to be either a doctor or an architect draws a fine two-storey house and explains that you and he and his family and two other volunteers are going to live in it. You say: “that’s nice, can it have a balcony please?” And he draws a balcony and he puts you standing on it, looking out at the swing and the apple tree.

The apples are big and red and rosy.

You can almost feel the breeze.

Mobilising Affect: Peacebuilding as an Affective Practice

The term affect (emphasis on the first syllable) affects me (emphasis on the second syllable) rather negatively. I have been dancing around affect theory for some time now, and it’s more like being in a boxing ring than a ball room. I think of affect as a slippery young cousin of semiotics, lighter on its feet and even harder to get a hook into. It’s been around since Spinoza, the 17th century Dutch philosopher and lens grinder of Portuguese Jewish origins, whose understanding of affect included “affections of the body by which the body’s power of acting is increased or diminished, aided or restrained, and at the same time, the ideas of these affections.” But it’s only really found its way into the limelight of the social sciences in relatively recent years, and it arrived on my radar at a point when I was reluctant to engage with yet another fashionable turn in cultural and social research.

Like semiotics, a lot of affect theory seems to pride itself on taking the obvious and restating it in a way nobody can understand. At least semiotics had the decency to refer to itself by a relatively obscure word, and not hijack one that already has a place in our common sense understanding of how the world works. As we grow, we learn that certain things affect us – sunset on the sea, a paper-cut, Andrex puppies, cruelty and injustice – in the sense that they trigger an emotional and/or physical reaction. Their affect can be once-off or repetitive, limited to the time it takes to blink away a tear or suppress a giggle, or part of a life-affecting sequence of events. We are also aware that people affect one another – through their presence, touch, speech and image – and many of us become conscious manipulators of this from childhood. So why do we need a body of theory telling us this phenomenon exists? Are we not just needlessly picking at the frayed ends of reality, in danger of undoing the whole magic of social relations?

As I consider my own reluctance to wade into these murky theoretical waters, I realise that I am already in them, that my whole life is steeped in affect, and that wilful ignorance is no longer an option. My work over the last two years has been turning more and more towards affect – as shown by my joys in reflexivity and a growing fascination with psychosocial theories. I need to shake off my primary response to the theory of affect, and start plumbing its potential as a research concept. My starting point for this is not the philosophical treatises of Spinoza, nor the late 20th century reprisal of his work by cultural theorists Deleuze and Guattari (and their translator, Massumi). Instead, I turn to the lucid prose of Margaret Wetherell, an Auckland-based Professor of Social Psychology whose no-bullshit approach includes something I consider very important: an up-to-date grip on psychological theory. For Wetherell (in an interview given to Theory, Culture & Society in 2014), the affective turn:

reflected an understandable desire for something different in social research – a desire to recognize the way the world moves us. It was exciting (and it was transgressive) to talk about bitterness, envy, joy and paranoia in the same breath as social and critical theory. But it led cultural studies researchers, human geographers and social theorists into becoming amateur psychologists and not doing it incredibly well.

In her book, Affect and Emotion: A New Social Science Understanding (2012, Sage), Wetherell offers a definition of affect that is easily grasped:

By affect, I will mean embodied meaning-making. Mostly, this will be something that could be understood as human emotion.

However, she indicates that affect is useful precisely in understanding those moments where human emotions are ‘nebulous’, ‘subtle’, ‘mixed’ or ‘ambivalent’, and she insists that affect is best thought of in conjunction with practice rather than as a static phenomenon. Her understanding of ‘affective practices’ rests in turn on three core contentions:

  1. Affect is best conceptualised as part of a flow that is dynamic, mobile and contingent.
  2. Affect most often resolves into relatively predictable patterns, but it has the potential to be disruptive, i.e. a force for change.
  3. Affect is both individual and communal: when it is scaled up, affect reveals the workings of power, including the regulation of emotional value and privilege.

(All this is available to read in chapter one of the book, free to download from the SAGE website. There is of course a much vaster literature on affect, some of which I may refer to in later posts, but this working definition already gives us a lot to think about.)

How might the affective turn affect us in peace studies? It is notable that many of the themes suggested by affect theory tend towards negative social behaviour: football hooligans and right-wing nationalism seem to be recurring tropes, as social researchers explore the intersection of identity and citizenship with militarism, patriotism and xenophobia. Personally, I would prefer to explore affect in the context of peace movements and humanitarianism, with a view to understanding what prompts grassroots mobilisation, how are some nonviolent interventions sustained while others fade away, how is affect connected to emotional reciprocity and power struggles (e.g. between victims and perpetrators, or donors and beneficiaries), how affect as a process of embodied meaning-making can be navigated across cultural and gender differences, and what exactly happens when there are ruptures in a system (e.g. when certain bodies become displaced) or in other major contingencies (e.g. the making or breaking of a ceasefire or peace accord)?

It strikes me that there is still a lot of room within Peace Studies for this kind of inquiry. While psychological and psychosocial approaches have made several inroads in the field, this has mostly been confined to the area of trauma and healing, or focused on communities of oppression and reconciliation (Wetherall herself is investigating affective practices in the context of decolonisation in New Zealand). Questions of affect and emotion in peace activism, on the other hand, are often simplistically tied to preconceived notions of social justice or civic duty, encompassed in a somewhat cultic – and often gendered – doctrine of love, and stripped of their potential to reveal the mysteries of ambivalence and Schadenfreude inherent in most peace processes. In other words, people aren’t saints, conflicts (even the most asymmetric ones) seldom boil down to good-versus-evil, and a deeper probing of our emotional behaviours (and awkward research moments) can demonstrate this very readily.

What would be the point of this line of research? The aim is not to discredit the work of peacemakers and peacebuilders (indeed, I tend towards the necessary self-deception that everyone is doing the best they can, as much as they can, all of the time). Nor is it to bring the study of peace into disrepute or to cast aspersions on the hero(in)es of nonviolent struggle. If anything, I think the usefulness of affect theory is in helping to articulate and to answer questions such as:

  • Why did a narrow majority of Colombians recently vote against a peace deal that would have ended five decades of violent conflict?
  • Why do people consuming and producing mass media care more about victims of the war in Syria than the one in Yemen, and even less about the earthquake in Haiti?
  • What has helped mobilise positive grassroots responses to the global refugee crisis, and why has this (so far) failed to lead to a mass movement or tangible policy change?
  • What explains the successes and failures of feminist or queer politics in relation to peacebuilding at the local, national and international level?

What affect does, in each of these instances, is allow us to step into the shoes of the people whose actions make up the response to our questions. It gives us an insight into how they feel and think in response to certain episodes, and how they make sense of their own physical and emotional reactions, thereby illuminating what would otherwise be a largely unconscious or unarticulated process. Ethnographies of peace and conflict rarely capture the full complexity of affect – perhaps because doing so would run the risk of breaking down any semblance of a coherent narrative, or perhaps because affective practices are often reliant on social scripts which are culturally unintelligible to outsiders. However, a deeper awareness of affective practices just might lead to more empathetic peacebuilding, drawing more individuals into the work of caring, recovering and rebuilding after social trauma, and equipping researchers and mediators with invaluable cultural competences.

Something that might be worth a try, anyway.

Art, expression and dialogue: towards social transformation

In recent months, I’ve neglected the written word dreadfully. Hence the decision to adopt a more personal tone in this post, which is address to those of you who were so supportive of my writing throughout the PhD and who may have been wondering where in the world I’ve gotten to…The answer is, I’m still in Berlin (currently sitting on my balcony listening to the rattle and hum of S-Bahn trains pulling in and out of the nearby station), still engaging with refugee and migration issues at the local level, and still…still…still toying with different ideas about post-doctoral research. Which I promise to write more about in the future. For now, it being September 1st, I thought I’d treat you an old-fashioned essay on What I Did On My Summer Holidays. (It’s a sign of how much time I’ve spent in full-time education that I use the term ‘summer holidays’ interchangeably with ‘July and August’ – to be clear, what follows is about work, not an extended vacation)

For those in need of a reminder/introduction: not long after I arrived in Berlin last October, I became involved in an organisation that serves as an intercultural community and volunteering hub for old and new Berliners. I began working in a voluntary project that uses art, craft and storytelling as a basis for transcultural dialogue and emotional recovery in the context of the refugee crisis. Specifically, we (a group of more and less privileged locals, migrants and refugees) work with people in and from refugee camps to create safe spaces for self-expression and healing. To use more jargon: it’s an art-based form of psychosocial intervention with strong elements of social transformation. To use less jargon: we use art in a way that encourages people tell their stories and formulate their needs and desires, while building a small grassroots community.

One of the main things I’ve come to appreciate is that time is of the utmost value in this line of work. It is with time that you come to see beyond the surface impressions which arise when you first step inside the camps – mostly shock and indignation – and start to recognise the relentless, monolithic, self-serving nature of the system. You start to see the small changes, the subtle and not-so-subtle additions and alterations, the chain of decisions being made all along the line, which all add up into a picture of institutionalisation, punctuated by moments of resistance. (For me, it’s horribly reminiscent of the evolution of Direction Provision in Ireland – a temporary solution which becomes a permanent fixture on the landscape of social injustice.) It is only after a few months of observation, when you’ve realised that this is more than just a contingency plan – this is THE plan – that the real sadness and anger kick in.

Yet it seems to me that only when you reach this point can you appreciate the agency and resourcefulness of those struggling to keep their dignity intact in these living conditions. When you find yourself forced to laugh or cry because the security guards (who seem to have tripled in number) will no longer let you carry craft scissors into the camp, you get a tiny glimpse of what it must be like to live every day in a system that treats you as a securitised object rather than a person. I do not want to overstate the potential for empathy to develop out of these encounters, in a situation that remains so riddled with inequalities. And of course, I do not want to make blanket statements about the experiences of such a large and diverse group of people as those who fall into the category of refugee. But I do believe that with time, small pockets of empathy emerge, and, given the right treatment, can be expanded into meaningful, ongoing encounters.

From empathy and survival we move to transcultural solidarity and resilience. And from there – perhaps to personal agency, perhaps to political activism. Frankly, there is no sense that I can see in trying to instigate the latter without having a firm basis in the former. Here is where feminism really has to prioritise connections between women – empathy and solidarity – over fighting the patriarchy. I would add that this is a point where age and motherhood (as well as class and ethnicity) emerge as important variables on the axes of identity, and where feminism really has to shed the illusion of being a movement composed of young, unmarried/childless, middle class, white, western women (like it or not, the majority of volunteers I’ve worked with the last six months fall into at least 4/5 of these categories, and personally I fit all of them). Despite the difference in context and scope, this resonates clearly with the findings of my thesis. Memories of fieldwork constantly interrupt and interweave with the work I’m doing here, testing and strengthening its ethical foundations.

The author of the aforementioned article on Direct Provision references Wallace Heim’s essay on Slow Activism (Sociological Review 51: 2003), whereby:

“slowness refers not only to the duration of the event and the drift which can be momentary or extend over years, but to its temper. There is a resistance in slowness which responds to the reductive aspects of haste and frenzy. The locus of change is one person at a time, in a process of communication which is dependent on finding enough common meaning between the artist and participant to sustain a dialogue. This mutual adjustment is method.”

Although we who are engaged in this project do not consider ourselves artists, art provides an apt metaphor for the creative and intuitive nature of the work (we have also called ourselves magicians and gardeners on occasion). Undoubtedly, our participants are artists in a similar sense, whether we are painting walls, drawing on pavements, crocheting and embroidering, creating photo albums or hand-writing letters to one another. It is a delicate encounter, but one which has, I think, taken a firm root in the minds of all who have been involved long enough for it to form a habit.

Time is undoubtedly what it takes to create and sustain dialogue, but there are other more fragmentary ways in which we can visualise art in relation to conflict transformation and peacebuilding. For instance, the well-known mediator John Paul Lederach writes about the importance of the “artistic five minutes” in this essay:

“In the larger picture of politics and social change, many would say, “And so what? What difference does something like this artistic five minutes actually make?” I am not sure I can answer that question. On the other side of the coin, I would ask a different but parallel question: How, when, and why did politics and developing responses to needed social change come to be seen as something separate from the whole of human experience? The artistic five minutes, I have found rather consistently, when it is given space and acknowledged as something far beyond entertainment, accomplishes what most of politics has been unable to attain: It helps us return to humanity, a transcendent journey that, like the moral imagination, can build a sense that we are, after all, a human community.”

For me, a large part of the summer has been about coming to terms with the tension that arises between these efforts to create a human community and the frequent comings and goings of volunteers. Naturally enough, summer has been an especially busy time with many beautiful but short bursts of energy and enthusiasm from those passing through Berlin for a brief period. I find it is difficult to keep focused on the different layers: from our core community that has been working together for several months, to the wider community of well-intentioned  and free-spirited individuals who come and go so casually. How do we ensure that the meaning is not lost when the experience can be so fleeting? Then again, I have to admit that the last eight months have felt like a lifetime, and my feet are itching for change. I feel homesick for a different place on every day of the week. And I do wonder, sometimes, how to resolve the contradictions between local and global activism.

Well, as you can see, I’ve begun the slow drift back from observation and experience to reflection and analysis. My feet seem to have found that path of their own accord, after several months of stumbling in the dark. Over the next few weeks (which will probably be my last ones here, for a while anyway) I hope to find time to share more stories and reflections, to address European politics more specifically, and to bring in some comparative insights from my research in the South Caucasus. On a personal note, thank you to everyone, family and friends, who has supported the work I’ve been doing. And to those involved in this or similar efforts who have made the time to read this – thank you for inspiring me and please continue doing so in the future!

Peace, violence and security (ii): reflections on a refugee shelter

Let’s take another example of the links between peace, violence and security which I began discussing in my previous post. Recently I’ve been spending some time with women and girls in a refugee camp in Berlin (this is not an academic project, but perhaps it might inspire one). I am part of a group of female volunteers who visit this shelter on a weekly basis bringing materials for art and needlecraft. We organise a weekly ‘creative circle’ where women from inside and outside the shelter come together on an equal footing to engage in hobbies and try to overcome language barriers. We help teach the younger girls how to do things like sew and knit, and some of our volunteers look after small children so that their mothers can be absorbed in their own tasks. The core idea? To create peace in an otherwise stressful environment; to help sustain individual efforts to preserve mental peace and stability; to provide a space where worries can be shared and solidarity sought. To take the empty concept of ‘shelter’ and give it a practical meaning.

The project is in its early stages, and now is not the time to write a full review of it. But one thing that has struck me from this and other initiatives is that security offers a useful lens for seeing how the refugee ‘crisis’ has played out in Berlin. Around 70,000 refugees arrived in the city in the last year. The vast majority are scattered throughout the 120 or more shelters that have sprung up in old sports halls and hospitals, disused office blocks, and of course Tempelhof, the former airport for west Berlin. Visiting just a handful of these shelters, it is clear that ‘security’ is a primary concern for those in charge. To gain access to Tempelhof, for example, one passes through an external security check, followed by a second check inside the building, followed by a third (and fourth, and fifth) check every time you move between the hangars. Usually these checkpoints are manned by groups of three or four security guards, all dressed in black. So it is not unusual to encounter 10 or 12 security guards on a single visit. Residents are also checked whenever they re-enter or move around within the building. In ten weeks, I have only ever seen one female security guard. I have only met one social worker (who wasn’t particularly friendly). I have never looked around and thought “this seems like a really safe place.”

Of course, if you have fled war or persecution in your home country, and had to survive awful things on the journey here, then it probably does feel relatively free from violence. On the other hand, what if you are worried that your asylum claim will be rejected and you and your children will be deported? What if all you want to do is make progress in your German class, but you can’t sleep at night because the noise is so loud? What if you are eight months pregnant and wondering if you will have to bring a baby into this place? What if you can’t help but feel threatened by the presence of so many men, both refugees and security guards, who for all you know could be violent and intimidating? How would you feel if you were living indefinitely in a place where taking a shower was a complicated, semi-public event and you weren’t able to cook or shop for yourself, and you didn’t know when the situation was going to change, and if it was going to change for the worse or the better?

You’d feel pretty insecure, right?

So if security guards are there to maintain security, then whose security are they maintaining? The building? The equipment? The bunk beds and portaloos that some company paid money to have installed?

We worry (not entirely without reason) about right-wing attacks on refugee shelters, but in the meantime we turn a blind eye to the subtle violence impacting the everyday lives of refugees. But the beauty of structural violence – the reason it is so hard to combat – is that it seems that nobody is to blame. Across the world, refugees are treated like prisoners and refugee camps are run like prisons. That might be an exaggeration, but it is closer to the truth than to say that refugees are being given every possible assistance in building a secure life for themselves. Why is the security of things so highly valued (and remunerated) while peace for the people is pushed to the margins, squeezed into whatever corners and hours volunteers can manage to arrange?

I already suspect that things are changing, and that the energy and determination of Berlin’s Wilkommenskultur is making a large dent in the system – welcomed by many on the inside. But what I cannot shake is the feeling that there is some flaw in our thinking which allowed the system to develop this way in the first place – which apparently designed a humanitarian response without a sustained psychosocial component. And for all the good work being done by volunteers (many of whom are themselves refugees), we are still left with the problem of unpaid emotional labour. Which is also, naturally, a feminist issue…

And that is where I have got to in my thinking. Stay tuned for more updates.


P.S. If you would like to make a donation to the project I mentioned, you can do so through Give Something Back To Berlin (specify that it is for Open Art Shelter). Merci!

Peace, violence and security (i): reflections on a conflict zone

I’ve been thinking a lot about security lately, inspired by a couple of great feminist books – ones I won’t name because I’m embarrassed to admit I didn’t read them earlier. Their main arguments were already known to me: feminist scholars have challenged the idea of state-defined (or national) security, and introduced a concept of security that is related to women’s sense of control over their own lives. To do so, they examine patterns of peace and violence in women’s everyday lives, regardless of the proximity to conflict zones. Thinking about peace, violence and security all together has been reshaping my understanding of two situations which have been on my mind a lot. The first is the conflict over Nagorno-Karabakh, which escalated again this month, and the second (which I’ll deal with in a separate post) is the refugee ‘crisis’ as witnessed here in Berlin.

Let’s start with what happened in Karabakh. To say that “violence erupted” or “clashes broke out” is to point to the sense that something – violence, clashes, conflict, war – has been simmering below the surface for some time. Yet by suggesting that conflict is somehow dormant in the periods between clashes, the media erases the traces of violence, pain and injustice that are re-inscribed in everyday life. The wounds of war are etched more deeply with every day that brings news of a minor ceasefire violation, a soldier killed or wounded, civilian homes under attack, a mine explosion, an incident involving a prisoner of war, a diplomatic argument, evidence of cultural desecration, or the commemoration of a major loss inflicted more than twenty years ago. These are stories that never make the international news headlines, but are part of everyday life for Armenians and Azerbaijanis, especially those living in conflict-affected communities.

Other forms of violence are also present in the conflict. Take for example the economic blockade which prevents Armenia, and even more so Nagorno-Karabakh, from reaching its full potential as a society. What is economic violence if not an all-pervasive tactic of war, with psychological and cultural effects, which disproportionately impacts the poor? The continued denial of the right of Azerbaijani IDPs to return to their homes is a similar kind of violence. At least half of IDPs live in over-crowded or unsanitary conditions, and they lack full voting rights. The destruction of their livelihoods and the impact on family structures does more than anything else to ensure that the trauma of displacement will also affect the next generation. We could go on…what about gender violence, which is legitimated through the construction of protective masculinity and vulnerable femininity, the valorisation of the military (which chews up and spits out young men’s bodies) and the degradation of women’s rights (which are inevitably sacrificed to the war machine)? What about government corruption, which has the effect of magnifying economic violence while seeking to blame it all on the conflict?

Once we start thinking about everyday violence, it becomes much easier to imagine what everyday security means. Everyday security does not mean risking losing your sons and brothers because they have been sent to the front line (even if they have volunteered for it). Everyday security does not mean watching your government invest in bigger and better tanks and missiles, while you cannot even access the gynaecological care which you urgently need. Everyday security does not mean waking up every morning afraid to check the news, or struggling to remember a dream you had of home. Everyday security means knowing that you and your family are safe and free to pursue your own needs and interests. The latest clashes are devastating in the sense that they reaffirm the sense of everyday insecurity, rather than shattering the illusion of security, in the region. No one who is familiar with the region was surprised by this “outbreak” of violence. Moreover, they know that enforcing the ceasefire and even renewing the commitment to negotiations is only one of many steps needed to address security issues.

How does this concept of security relate to peacebuilding as it is practiced in the region? One of the main aims of peacebuilding is establishing cross-border dialogue, in the hopes of reducing stereotypes and harmful perceptions, and providing common ground for peaceful solutions. The other is more akin to peace education: promoting the idea of nonviolent conflict resolution and civic participation in the peace process (for feminist NGOs this also means opposing gender-based violence and promoting UNSCR 1325 on Women, Peace and Security).

But peacebuilding does not end there. The idea that the dogma of peace might slowly be infused into society through trainings and seminars must also take reverse feedback into account. Peacebuilding must aim to create a platform where everyday security concerns can be articulated and addressed at the appropriate level – local, national, or international – and in the context of cross-border dialogue. It seems to me that this tends to happen in spite of, rather than because of, the usual peacebuilding format. Last week I spoke to several people who are deeply concerned that their peacebuilding work has been derailed. People can’t imagine how they are going to re-establish trust in the community. This has been a recurring problem for peacebuilders, but it is one that could be creatively avoided (to some extent) if peacebuilders geared their work more towards listening than telling. Maybe the imposition of ‘peacebuilding’ on conflict-affected communities brings with it its own forms of violence and exclusion?

Personally, I do not want to abandon the idea of peacebuilding and I believe that there is value and purpose in bringing people together. But I also agree with the anonymous feminists who wrote this week that peace and conflict resolution programmes can only succeed when coupled with the dismantling of patriarchal and militarist systems. This simply cannot be done without rethinking security from a feminist perspective.

The final stretch (six steps for finishing your PhD)

I’ve refrained from commenting on the final stages of my PhD up to now, so as not to feel I was jinxing the outcome. Happily, my viva came around at the end of February, and my thesis passed without corrections. I’ll try to devote a post in the near future to some of the questions that came up, but first, for what it’s worth, here’s some general advice on getting across the finish line.

  1. (Re)read the manual

This is especially true if your thesis diverges from the scientific method (introduction – method – results – discussion) by presenting and analysing findings together (e.g. a series of thematic chapters). I rarely plug books this whole-heartedly, but if you haven’t read Authoring A PhD by Patrick Dunleavy, ignore the rest of what I have to say and just go and get a copy. As well as invaluable advice/reassurance on structure, it’s very helpful on style (thanks to the Thesis Whisperer for the original suggestion).

Want some bonus reading? Savage Minds, a group blog for sociocultural anthropologists, will make you feel less alone in dealing with the challenges of ethnographic writing (take a good look at their writers’ workshop series!).

  1. Write, write, write

There will be days when it feels like getting blood from a stone. But there are some things that usually make it easier:

  • A positive mental attitude. Positivity is not one of my strong suits, but writing is, so I developed a mantra: it’s not about getting it done, it’s about reaching the flow. This came from the realisation that whenever I’m in the flow of a written assignment, my stress and anxiety melt away – and I actually enjoy what I am doing.
  • Structure. Following Dunleavy’s advice, I broke every chapter into sections, and every section into sub-sections, so I was left with chunks of text usually between 1000 and 2000 words (750 and 2500 were the limits). Taking the thesis one section at a time made it much more manageable, and much easier to track progress.

Remember to stop and smell the roses

  • Routine. My ideal mornings involved writing as much as I could from home. Then I’d go for a short run or nature walk; spend the afternoon editing or preparing for the next section; have an hour off to talk to a friend and unwind; and work on footnotes for as much of the evening as I could stand (often with the help of some music, a glass of wine, and the neighbour’s cat for company. If possible, I suggest you borrow a cat for the last two months of your PhD).
  • Systematisation. I was allowed two drafts per chapter. Draft one = any old mishmash of previous efforts, copied and pasted to meet my word count. Draft two = my attempt to turn found text into readable content with clear structure and style. This draft went to my supervisor and proof-readers, and was modified based on their comments. The chapters were placed in sequence for the final round of polishing (with the help of my supervisor and two amazing proof-readers). In parallel, I worked on footnotes for each chapter, ticking things off on a wall chart as I went along.
  1. The proof-reader is always right

This is true when they are reassuring you that your thesis is interesting, readable and most likely going to pass. It is also true when they point out that your repeated use of ‘scare quotes’ to highlight contested concepts, metaphors or field-related jargon is disconcerting for the reader, or when they attack your use of the word ‘within’ 20 times in one chapter when just ‘in’ would have sufficed. It helps to have a range of proof-readers, including some who know your field and your work in depth, some who are intellectually curious and kind people, and some who will preface their replies with “I hope this isn’t too nit-picky, but…” It is a good idea to tell each of these people in advance why you have asked them in particular to read this chapter (to all my proof-readers, thank you again from the bottom of my heart!).

  1. Think about your examiners

Several people have asked me how examiners are appointed in Ireland. Some were horrified that the student has to compile a shortlist of potential external examiners. Your supervisor contacts them in turn, until someone agrees to take on the role. An internal examiner is appointed from your department – you discuss this with your supervisor.

Selecting your examiners has advantages (you can think about who you really respect in your field) and disadvantages (is it your fault if you end up with a dragon?). Conference attendance is a good way to get a sense of potential examiners – who can you imagine having a lively discussion with?

The point I want to emphasise though, is to think about this well in advance and submit your list a couple of months – or at least weeks – before your thesis is due. I say this as someone who sent in her list the week after she submitted, and ended up waiting four months for the viva.

One of the reasons I waited was because I was trying to see how the thesis would shape up, particularly which of two disciplines would come out strongest. In retrospect, this was a weak excuse for not gritting my teeth and getting on with it. Thinking about the viva when you’re three chapters in and still unsure of your conclusion is nerve-wracking – but it isn’t worth a four month wait!

  1. Prepare for the viva

If you can, find a couple of recent graduates who can tell you how their viva actually workede – their advice matters. The Irish system is relatively tame. There are usually five people present: you, the two examiners, a chairperson (whose job is to make sure things go according to regulations), and your supervisor (who has the right to attend, but not to speak). The student makes a short oral presentation, followed by about 90 minutes of discussion. The examiners have a brief chat in private (witnessed by the chair) and then you and your supervisor are brought back to hear the result. It sounds simple, but it was one of the most surreal experiences of my life.

Remember, the outcome of the viva is, to all intents and purposes, decided in advance. Your examiners have read the thesis and decided whether it is, or can be brought up to, PhD standard. The purpose of the viva is to confirm their decision (by demonstrating that it’s all your own work and/or that you know exactly what went wrong, and how to fix it). So long as you are prepared to stand by your thesis, while accepting some criticism, there’s no reason to be nervous. But since you’ll be nervous anyway, take plenty of long walks and avoid caffeine and sugar in the days leading up to it.


Sunset on the eve of my defence. Try to get as wind-swept as possible.

A good way to warm up for the viva – one or two weeks in advance – is to practice some basic questions. What was the most interesting aspect of your research? Which part did you enjoy most, and why? What are you most proud of? These questions might not be all that likely to come up, but preparing the answers can rekindle your enthusiasm.

Do also consider the nastier questions (What are the weaknesses of the thesis? What alternative methods could or should you have considered?) – but don’t dwell on them too much. Jot down some possible answers, discuss them with your supervisor or a friend, and think about how to reframe negatives as positives (Why was your approach the most feasible at the time? How might you incorporate this counterargument into future publications?).

Use the time before the viva to review key literature, and get up to date with any publications you might have missed – including ones that came out after you submitted. Read some of your examiners’ work and think about what questions they might raise.

Finally, reread your thesis – even if the thought of it brings you out in hives. I found reading my own work difficult, but in the end I had a very manageable list of points (five to ten per chapter) that I thought I might be asked to elaborate on, while being more confident in the overall thesis.

  1. Bear in mind…

The viva is meant to be a constructive process; the chairperson is there to offer you a break, refill your water glass and pass you the tissues. Everyone will (probably) be kind.

There will be questions that surprise you. There may also be questions that are phrased as a series of three or four related comments. You might only manage to respond to one of these points before the next follow-up question is asked. Don’t panic – you will be offered a chance at the end to say anything that you feel needs to be said.

Lastly, whatever the outcome, congratulate yourself on making it this far. And if you are lucky enough to be given a full pass, be prepared for the elation to rapidly give way to exhaustion. Five years of accumulated stress dissolving in a single moment can feel a bit like being run over with a steamroller. But once you’ve grown accustomed to that empty space where the thesis used to be – the possibilities are endless.

16 Days Of Activism Against Gender-Based Violence: What’s Education Got To Do With It?

Today, Human Rights Day, is also the last day of 16 Days of Activism Against Gender-Based Violence, an annual campaign running from November 25 to December 10. Last year, I wrote a blog post about the origins of this campaign and the gap between UN discourse and grassroots feminism. This year, I’ve written a longer post discussing the new campaign theme: Make Education Safe for All!

A new take on an old theme

Since 2011, the theme for the 16 Days Campaign has been From Peace in the Home to Peace in the World: Let’s Challenge Militarism and End Violence Against Women! Lasting four years, this was the longest-running theme in almost quarter of a century. Arguably, it helped sustain interest in the Women, Peace and Security agenda in the crucial period between the 10th anniversary of UNSCR 1325 and the High Level Review this October. Following on the heels of the High Level Review (which brought forth another Resolution – UNSCR 2242), this year’s theme was announced as From Peace in the Home to Peace in the World: Make Education Safe for All!  To me, this marks a step back from the focus on women as peacemakers in recent years. It also corresponds with civil society efforts to broaden the WPS agenda so that it is not just about getting women into peace processes (primarily as peace advocates) or seeking justice for women affected by conflict: it is also about realigning base values and engaging men and boys in building a gender-just peace from the bottom up.

Although women are absent from the slogan, the new campaign theme is in keeping with the broader aims and principles of feminist peacebuilding. While some feminists do support wars, feminist peacebuilders tend to agree that much of the money spent on war should be invested into areas such as health and education, on “books, not bullets,” as Nobel Peace Prize winner Malala Yousafzai says. There is near-universal agreement that education is one of the most crucial sites for tackling both gender-based violence and radicalisation among young people. These issues are often priorities for women’s organisations in conflict zones, and on the day-to-day level may eclipse the struggle for women’s political participation and their role in peace processes.


A mural in Italy depicting Malala Yousafzai. Photo credit: Nicholas Gemini, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons.

This last point is especially true in areas where (1) radicalisation of young men and women poses an imminent threat to social stability, (2) the state offers little or no purchase for women’s political participation or the Women, Peace and Security agenda, and (3) there is limited or no opportunity for women’s organisations to circumvent the state by appealing to international actors – I am thinking in particular of women I have met from the North Caucasus, though many women’s organisations in the South Caucasus value informal education and youth work as much as lobbying/advocacy, if not higher.

Some campaign statistics

Drawing on data from UNESCO, the official 16 Days Campaign press release highlights the negative consequences of war and militarism on education, especially for young women and girls:

“Recent data shows that approximately 38 million people are internally displaced worldwide, while 16.7 million are refugees. Girls and young women in particular are most adversely impacted by insecurity and crisis, with the most recent estimates showing that 31 million girls at primary level and 34 million at lower secondary level are not enrolled in school, and 15 million girls and 10 million boys will never see the inside of a classroom. As many as 58 million children of primary school age do not have access to education, with approximately half of these (28.5 million) living in conflict affected areas.”

It highlights reasons why young women and girls in these precarious situations can be denied a full education: the rising instances of early or forced marriages, the danger of sexual violence or forced abduction, institutional and structural barriers such as lack of adequate sanitary facilities.

The statement continues:

“In 2014, global military spending stood at $1.8 trillion, while experts cite a $26 billion financing gap to achieve basic education for all by end of 2015.”

In other words, what we spent on arms last year would have been enough to end lack of access to basic education, worldwide, almost 70 times over.

The challenge of this year’s campaign is not only to promote safe access to education for all, but to draw the link between militarism, conflict and unequal access to education for young women and girls. In the rest of this post, I focus on how this message might resonate with western feminists, and how it pushes us to reconsider the relationship between the universal and the particular.

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