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“When you sit for three or four hours with someone, asking them questions, there sometimes comes a point where they get around to saying something they’ve never said to someone else before. Maybe it’s something they haven’t even said to themselves,” says Marlon Davis. “And those are the moments from my internship I’ll never forget.”

Over the summer, Davis interned with Trust After Betrayal (TAB), a London-based non-profit that conducts research on communities where trust has been weakened or destroyed by violence. The organization’s work focuses primarily on the reintegration of ex-combatants into communities from which they’ve been alienated, but also on the challenges of joining new communities.

Supported by a flexible Pozen Center grant of $5,000, Davis traveled to Houston, where he assisted TAB in their work advancing the integration of former Afghan special forces (ANASOC) members who were evacuated after the American military withdrew from their country in 2021.

I was trying to make direct material changes in the lives of people I met, people I sat with and shared cathartic moments with.

TAB’S Houston project had two overlapping goals. The first was the compilation of a publicly accessible oral history of ANASOC immigrants: a narrative about the Afghan military that foregrounds Afghan perspectives, tracking the problems they face as they join new communities. The second was the production of a policy paper aimed at activists, nonprofits, and legislators in a position to push for improvements in the lives of Afghan veterans.

Davis conducted long, detailed interviews with former ANASOC members, trying to chart as specifically as possible what had helped and what had impeded their integration. He also co-wrote a research brief on the role procedural justice can play in the disarmement, demobilization, and reintegration of formerly armed armed actors.

Theory Informing Practice, Practice Informing Theory

For Davis, it was refreshing to approach human rights questions through a concrete, impact-oriented project “I was trying to make direct material changes in the lives of people I met, people I sat with and shared cathartic moments with,” he says.

He also came away with a new perspective on his future academic goals. As a political science major, Davis works within the tradition of post-colonial theory. He is especially interested, he says, in “the question of how people formulate their identities against the backdrop of collectively traumatic experiences, like conflict with a colonial power, or the experience of systemic violence.”

These were exactly the sort of problems his Afghan interview subjects were dealing with. He saw firsthand how their lengthy, in-depth conversations informed his sense of their lives and needs just as much or more than anything he’d read for class.

“As I continue my academic career, I now know that I want to build a toolkit that allows me to do more ethnographic research,” he says. “Whatever theoretical or intellectual work I’m doing, I want it to be informed by live, immediate contact with people giving their own accounts of their own experience. There are a lot of big conceptual debates within human rights discourse that are interesting and valuable, but also sort of fall away when you’re on the ground, dealing with questions of how to improve real people’s welfare.”

“It was invaluable for me to have that experience of understanding human rights in this more intuitive way, then bringing that experience back to my coursework and reading. I know it will influence the direction my work takes for the better.”