Today the world is in the midst of the largest migration crisis since World War II. The displaced population has reached an alarming number of 67 million, according the United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR) 2016 Global Report. Of that 67 million, over 20 million are refugees. As is the case in many global events, the narratives of the media and politicians is critical in forming public discourse surrounding refugees. Kayla Davis, a graduate student in the Department of Anthropology, is concerned that the humanity of individual refugees is becoming lost in sweeping political statements.
To combat the polarization of refugee-related discourse, this past spring Davis developed a presentation to educate residents of Knoxville and Johnson City, Tennessee, about the facts of the refugee crisis. Davis hypothesized that making fact-based, non-partisan information available would encourage people to support refugee resettlement in the United States.
Davis developed a community response survey to gauge interest in her presentation and to gain a better understanding of local views regarding refugees. She found that, while many people wanted to become better equipped to combat false information about refugees, overwhelmingly the responses tended to center around national security and whether refugees are a threat to Americans’ safety.
“Even among the people who are allies of the refugee community, many did not know the basic concepts I had shared with them,” Davis says.
Davis was invited to speak more often to organizations that were more politically progressive, rather than more conservative groups such as Republican organizations, Baptist churches, or traditional Bible study groups, and feels this was a significant limitation to her mission.
Over the course of the spring 2017 semester, Davis gave presentations to UT Child and Family Services, Carson-Newman University, UT Department of Sociology, Covenant Presbyterian Church in Johnson City, Bible Study Girls Kingsport, UT Department of Anthropology, and the UT Conference on Refugees and Displacement, reaching nearly 400 people. She also connected with the Extension Program at UT and conducted two professional development webinars.
Davis’ presentations covered the history of the term “refugee,” a clarification of immigration definitions, where refugees are leaving from and where they are going, an overview of refugee camps, and the American refugee resettlement process. A pre- and post-presentation survey handed out to attendees helped Davis gauge the impact of her presentations.
Ultimately, Davis found that one educational lecture alone is unlikely to change a person’s deeply rooted opinions.
“While the facts are certainly important, I would pair educational programs with social action and personal connections with refugees if the goal is to change voting habits and public policy on refugee resettlement,” Davis says.