"For Emory Assistant Professor Dr. Isabella Alexander, a normal day in Morocco consists of scavenging dump sites for food scraps with her brotherhood and hiding memory cards in the soles of her shoes. At night, she sleeps on the ground, always remaining alert to the sounds of an approaching police raid. An American journalist fluent in the local dialects, Alexander said that even as a foreigner, filming the routine human rights abuses against sub-Saharan migrants and refugees around Morocco's Spanish enclaves leaves her exposed to routine police harassment by both Spanish and Moroccan officials. She has spent many years living in the makeshift forest camps surrounding Ceuta and Melilla and continues to return annually, spending the months that she isn't teaching hidden from state-authorities and signs of city life. Now, she plans to expose the story of Africa's unseen migrant and refugee crisis to the world.
Alexander is currently completing a book titled, "Burning at Europe's Borders," and plans to release it alongside her first feature-length documentary film, "The Burning: An Untold Story from the Other Side of the Migrant Crisis," early next summer. While at Emory, she offers undergraduate and graduate courses focused on international human rights and the current crises of migrant and refugee displacement around the world. According to Alexander, the human rights crisis in Morocco is growing due to two systemic processes - individuals from war-torn and poverty-ridden countries across the sub-Saharan are crossing through Morocco in their attempts to reach Europe, and all Africans detained within Europe are being deported to Morocco, rather than being properly repatriated to their countries of origin. This crisis is reminiscent of the Syrian refugee crisis as families often break apart in the hopes that one among them will be able to reach a better life. Those traveling north turn to smuggling rings to aid in their movement towards Europe's southern borders. Yet, the small number who successfully make it to the E.U. learn that even after applying for refugee status, the rejection rate for sub-Saharan Africans is over 80 percent.
As a young white American researcher, Alexander said her positionality as an outsider to the crisis has helped her establish trust with a diverse group of actors, including Moroccan governmental agents, Nigerian smuggling rings, Spanish border guards, and the brotherhoods camped out in northern Morocco. “[My position] there makes me more vulnerable in a lot of ways. And I think my very vulnerability is the reason why I have been able to gain access [to these spaces] because I'm not read as a threatening force.”
It was painful to hear her describe the mentality of many young migrants and refugees, after living through years of brutal police harassment. “I don’t think death is the ultimate fear [for migrants and refugees],” Alexander said. “They talk about death so casually, their lives like a game of chance. I think the ultimate fear is never escaping the cycle they're trapped in." After having spent so many years in the camps with the brotherhoods, and having seen many of the young men killed at the hands of border guards, Alexander's commitment to the cause has become clear even to those there. “I listen to how [migrants and refugees] talk about journalists,” Alexander said. “They often tell me how journalists come to steal their stories, but how they believe I am there to help them tell their stories.” She prioritizes giving the migrants and refugees an active role in all of her research projects, including her most recent documentary film.
Back in the classroom, Alexander’s students attempt to unpack her anecdotes from the field. One of her students, Caroline Cohen (20C), asks herself how this is happening and how she didn’t know anything about it before taking Alexander's class last spring. Cohen spoke about how the overload of news content can be desensitizing, but how the personal stories are hard to forget. Alexander has a similar philosophy and hopes that the human element of the migrant and refugee crisis that she exposes to her students in class will also resonate with audiences who see her film and read her book. “I think the power of good storytelling is that you can pull individuals out from the masses and people can connect with those individual stories in a more intimate way. Once you have one individual who comes to mind - one face, one story - when you hear about a particular crisis in the news, it becomes that much harder for you to turn away.” Though Cohen says information coming from the news can sometimes be overwhelming, the connection that Alexander’s anecdotes make between the migrant crisis and the individuals effected by it is difficult to ignore. “The situation [in Morocco] is terrible,” Cohen said. “And I feel like I really understand just how terrible it is for the first time."
In preparation for the documentary’s official release, Alexander has been screening rough cuts of the film for university audiences across the country. “I always have a handful of European and Moroccan students in the audience at my screenings," she said, "and the fact that they are equally shocked to learn that this is unfolding in their backyard is, to me, evident of just how important it is that this story be broken."
After taking Alexander’s class, Johnna Gadomski (20C) decided that she would intern at a refugee aid center in Atlanta this summer. “I had never thought of the right to migrate as such an essential part of our basic human rights,” Gadomski said. “[Alexander] definitely changed my perception of human rights, and how subjective the application of them can be. Who gets human rights? And who decides? Her class has made me question why certain people are not afforded the rights they deserve.” Gadomski also spoke to how much she appreciates Alexander’s effort to integrate materials from her own research into her classes. “She’s done a really good job of never reducing [the migrants and refugees] down to stories of vulnerability but maintaining their humanity as complete individuals,” Gadomski said.
Alexander said ultimately, she hopes that like her class, her larger work will impact the public’s understanding of the migrant and refugee crisis and lead to concrete changes at the Spanish-Morocco border. “We draw a stark line between these two categories - the migrant and the refugee - and I hope my work encourages audiences to think about how they are often one in the same, and how the label that is assigned to an individual is often based on racial or gendered prejudices about them and their ability to assert vulnerability in crises." We, too, hope that her work will reach and inspire broad audiences as it has done here on Emory campus..."
I'm deeply honored for my work on the other side of the migrant crisis to be profiled by State Senator Will Brownsberger today...
"Every once in a while you run into a story that you can’t quite believe and you just want to hear more.
I recently found myself seated for dinner next to Isabella Alexander - an anthropologist who has spent many months living in the makeshift camps home to sub-Saharan African boys and men trying desperately to reach Europe.
Her courage, putting herself out there alone in a dangerous environment, borders on recklessness. But the story she brought back deserves hearing, and surely, there was no other way for her to get it. It starkly illustrates the increasingly painful dilemmas that we will all face around immigration policy in the decades to come..."
Thrilled to be back at Brown University as a keynote speaker in their 'Materiality of Migration' series...
Presenting on a panel organized by two academic heroes of mine, Glenda Garelli and Martina Tazzioli, at the American Association of Geographers this week I discussed...
Over the last five years, the European Union has significantly restructured its own borders through a new politics of border externalization, increasing its third-party agreements for the containment of migration flows and strengthening collaboration on border patrolling, surveillance, and interception at the external frontiers of Europe in countries across North Africa.
While these political agreements have been of great interest to scholars, what remains unexplored is the materiality of practices through which border cooperation is enacted... E.U. training programs for third countries’ coast guards and border patrols and technical equipment for monitoring migrant journeys by land and sea. Also lacking exploration are the new spaces that these practices are producing at the external frontiers of Europe and the embodied experiences of the migrants who end up trapped there.
Our panel mobilized "counter-mapping," as a tool for challenging the geopolitical map of Europe and investigating the bordering practices being enacted in spaces distinct from the European territory. What are the new spaces of control and mobility that are produced through border cooperation between the E.U. and third countries? How are migrant subjects working agentically to embody or challenge the identities that are assigned to them there? And how can we challenge the Eurocentric perspective that “border externalization" implicitly assumes in order to better document the spatial processes that are being ignited at the external borders of the E.U.?
When a group of students came to me earlier this year asking me if I would help them start a new organization on campus to serve the needs of Atlanta's growing refugee population, I had no idea how far we would come in such a short time...
Today, I'm especially proud of one student, Farah, for pouring so much of herself into this mission over the past months. Working with our small team, she's been foundational in creating 'Refugee Revive' from the ground up. Now an established link between Emory University and the diverse refugee community of Clarkston, GA, the organization was recently selected as a finalist for the prestigious Hult Prize! The students will be flown to San Francisco where they'll have the chance to compete with other finalists for a one million dollar grant. In the following weeks, they'll be workshopping their business plan with industry experts and preparing to pitch to the Hult Foundation's panel of world leaders and shakers why 'Refugee Revive' should be selected as the winner - as the world's brightest young business minds who have come together to solve one of the planet's biggest challenges with an innovative idea for sustainable and community-centered enterprise.
This is only the beginning...!
"We asked each student who was inducted into Phi Beta Kappa Honor's Society this semester to name the one faculty member who has most supported them in their academic excellence, and who exemplifies the highest degree of intellectual rigor and passion in their own academic pursuits." - Phi Beta Kappa
I was so honored when I recently learned that I'll not only receive the great honor of induction into the Phi Beta Kappa Honor's Society again this semester, but that I'm the first to be selected in two consecutive semesters of the academic year. I want to thank Jit Hui for this highest of honors and for being a constant source of inspiration for me!
I am continually inspired by the work that my students do, and yet Jit and Karly are a rare combination of brilliance, compassion, critical global awareness, and deep commitment to social justice work. I can only imagine how many communities will be impacted by their brains and their passion in the coming years. It is students like them who make me feel better about the future of our world.
Don't miss your chance to sign up for an exclusive early-release trailer to THE BURNING... Add your email address to the list by this Friday!
Proud to be profiled by the Creative Visions Foundation as one of the projects fighting for migrant & refugee rights in this difficult time... #TheBurning
The New Americans Project is a movement that gives young Americans a voice on critical social issues and works to change the face of the Migrant & Refugee 'Crisis' by sharing stories from our own community.
We've got an incredible new team of college students [see below!] running #NAP this semester, and they want you to know...
"#NAP is telling a new story about what it means to be American. Think you know your community? Think again."
Follow us on Facebook or Instagram to show your support for those who bravely share their stories every day!
I don't know if this is exactly how the story goes, but this is how my mother used to tell it to me and this is how I remember it…
One morning, a young woman went for a walk on the beach. The tide was low, and the night's storms had washed thousands of starfish ashore. As she walked, she noticed an old woman ahead of her in the distance. Every few steps, the old woman reached down, picking a starfish up in her hand and tossing it back into the water, just past the breaking waves. As the young woman got closer, she could see how the old woman strained every time she reached down. She see could see how the edges of the starfish were beginning to turn brittle and brown in the early morning sun. Feeling sad for the old woman's effort, she called out to her, "There's no way you can save them all!" The old woman took another step forward without looking back. She reached down, picking another starfish up in her hand, and the young woman thought she mustn't have heard her over the sound of the waves. But then the old woman turned around, and before tossing the starfish back into the water, she said to the young woman, "I can save this one."
In the past week, as we feel the reverberations of hate and fear spreading throughout our communities, I've been thinking about how easy it is to feel overwhelmed by the thousands washed ashore. But I've also been thinking about how sometimes, the best thing we can do is reach out for one. So this weekend, I encourage us all to turn away from the news and reach out to those closest to us. Let's offer each other a hand.