This week, I was thrilled to officially join the Speaker Series at Atlanta's most innovative high school - TNS - and speak to the newest generation of change-makers about how they can be the change they want to see in the world.
The topic? COMMUNITY.
"The community I feel most a part of is one you might not expect when first looking at me.
It's a hidden community - hidden in the forests that cover the mountains around a town called Zoutia.
It's a changing community. Depending on the time of the year, it's as small as 10,000 or as large as many tens of thousands.
It's a young community. In fact, it's made up of young people who are just your age. The youngest is usually 11 or 12 years old and the 'elders' are 24 or 25, but the majority of them are teenagers just like you.
It's a male community, with around 90% of the population being boys and young men.
It's a diverse community - comprised of individuals from across the African continent. Most are coming from countries in Western and Central Africa - countries like Sierra Leone, the Congo, and Cote D'Ivoire - and they live together in 'brotherhoods' that are divided along lines of nationality and common language.
This community is home to those who have lost their parents to war or poverty and who, as the eldest in their families, were expected to set out in search of a better life. It's their responsibility to provide for their younger siblings and their own communities offered them no way to do that, so they journeyed north, often traveling thousands of miles on their own until they reach their final border crossing.
Now, who can tell me where this community is?"
@newsincerity | The Other Side of the Border
"American professor and filmmaker Isabella Alexander was wrapping up her latest film shoot when the Algerian government stopped her – she was detained for almost two weeks.
When she was finally released and returned to the US, she immediately began planning her next trip back. Why? She needed to finish work on her film before the fall semester started at Emory University, and she wasn't about to to let anything stop her. These are stories that need to be told.
Her documentary “The Burning" (@smallworldfilms) follows three individuals who’ve fled poverty and wars raging across Africa. They find themselves trapped in Morocco – a Northern point of the African continent – before attempting to cross into Europe and find safety in a new life. The film shows us the immense suffering they must endure to reach their destination and the dreams they share.
Whether abroad or at home in Atlanta, Isabella is helping migrant and refugees tell their stories. She even created a course at Emory called "The New Americans Project" (@newamericansproject). It's centered around a student-led social media project that shares the stories of immigrant and refugee students on campus every week and gives youth a platform to share their voice on critical social issues.
“What's unique about NAP is that it targets youth audiences to become active in the global issues of our time, showing us that these issues are a lot closer to home than we might first imagine. You don't have to travel halfway around the world to meet someone whose life has been impacted by migration - we can start by asking our neighbors if they have a story to tell.”
Finding ways to forge personal connections with neighbors from different cultures is the essence of #NewSincerity so, stay tuned – we’ll be reconnecting with Isabella, The Burning, and The New Americans Project soon!"
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!
"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!