The Pozen Center Welcomes Professor Lindsay Gifford

The Pozen Center is pleased to announce the appointment of Lindsay Gifford as Assistant Research Professor. In taking on this role, Gifford, who was previously at the University of San Francisco, where she was an assistant professor of International Studies and Anthropology, notes, “I’m tremendously excited to be joining this community. The intellectual community at Pozen is so dynamic, and I look forward to being in conversation about the seminal literature in the field.”

Professor Gifford’s doctoral research focused on civil society and democratic movements in the Middle East. This work took her to Syria where, as she recalls, “I started thinking about how everyday politics works in authoritarian environments, and how individuals who are severely constrained under those dictatorships still try to carve out spaces for autonomy, personal liberty, and civil discourse.”

After studying the everyday politics of working class Damascus neighborhoods—including time spent with rotating credit associations run primarily by Syrian women—Professor Gifford’s work led her to Amman, Jordan. There she looked at the Iraqi and Syrian experiences of being displaced in the region, as she tried to better understand how Middle Easterners seek out security and rights within an environment of protracted volatility and conflict. This work eventually took her to Europe, where she studied the disparities between how respective populations of Iraqis and Syrians are treated by countries in the Global North. 

Professor Gifford is currently finishing up a research project on what she calls “moral economies of resettlement” in Finland, which looks at how local Syrian refugee communities try to justify their inclusion in (and Iraqi exclusion from) the Finnish welfare state.

Professor Gifford describes her role as that of a cultural broker, translating the reality on the ground back to communities that don’t have or shy away from contact with refugee populations. In doing so, she hopes to help build “a stronger consensus about the need to engender and support rights for as many people around the world as possible, particularly in our local communities where we have some measure of control.”

“These refugee stories and large-scale population movements are really important for members of the international community to understand,” Professor Gifford says. Despite numerous examples of refugee communities searching out their own internal solutions over extended periods of time, there remain “a lot of misconceptions about Middle Eastern refugees: what they want, what they’re looking for, and what they’re trying to achieve.” 

Professor Gifford’s work also looks at misconceptions of refugee populations residing here in the US. Her research on a large Iraqi community in El Cajon, just east of San Diego, revealed surprising dynamics between newly-arrived Iraqis and more established, integrated generations. “We outsiders might think, ‘Well, of course you accept your community and you take care of them,’” she says. “But there’s a lot more nuance in the refugee experience—nuance those of us who aren’t deeply enmeshed with it might be surprised to learn about.”

In her upcoming research, Professor Gifford will continue interfacing between US and Middle Eastern communities and drawing links between the shared concerns of those communities, all in the context of a larger fight against xenophobia, racism, and Islamophobia. Through her teaching and experience of the Syrian war, for example, she became connected with pockets of the hip-hop community in the Middle East. Her American students quickly found parallels between common themes in American hip-hop and that of the Middle East: urban blight, instability, and community disinvestment, to name a few.

“I saw how my students got so excited by seeing the kind of art that was coming out of the region—things they could relate to,” Professor Gifford says. It’s an area she considers ripe for additional research. 

Having taught extensively about refugees, forced migration, and displacement, Professor Gifford is also excited to share her expertise with UChicago students and the Pozen community. “I take a global perspective,” she explains, “because I think it’s important to understand the ways these issues play out around the world”: to draw distinctions between those who fled their home country because of persecution as opposed to those who have been internally displaced, for example, or who have been displaced by development projects or climate change. 

“There are many questions at the cusp of refugee studies that I think can be explored quite fruitfully at the Pozen Center,” Professor Gifford says—questions centered on nuances of the refugee experience and the human rights gaps created by things like statelessness. “I’m hopeful that we can think through some of these issues at Pozen, to hopefully help fill some of those gaps and even to reimagine how it is that people obtain rights throughout the global system.” 

Given her extensive fieldwork, Professor Gifford is the first to admit that working in refugee studies can often feel hopeless. “But these are all human situations that we have created,” she points out, “and that means they’re all human situations that we can potentially work our way out of.”