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Being engaged with the Middle East

Sheila Carapico (chair), Marina de Regt and Erika Cortes.

By Erika Cortes         Anthropology is a way of life. It, if I may, is life. It can present us life at its most complex state. And, more often than not, the topics we choose to work on as anthropologists usually stick with us beyond purely academic pursuits.

Since I first started my career as an anthropologist, I’ve been drawn to and engaged with issues regarding human experiences in armed conflicts, forced displacement, and life in vulnerable situations in a broader sense. But the three-month fieldwork and writing process for my Masters thesis at the VU were a pivotal point in my still short but already moving and exciting career.

I went to Turkey (Gaziantep and Istanbul) to do research on the narratives and experiences of Syrians that had been forced to migrate and were trying to survive the crisis across the border. During these three months, I spent most of the time living and experiencing the city-spaces with the persons who participated in the research. Participants, kind and amazing people from different parts of Syria, shared with me their more deeply rooted thoughts, their feelings of despair, their hopes or lack of hope. We built strong bonds and I will always be incredibly grateful to all of them.

When you are treated with such kindness and when you are welcomed into someone’s life, especially a life filled with uncertainty and anguish, you acquire a responsibility with them. Keeping engaged and in contact with the people who have participated in your research is not always easy, or even possible in some cases. But continuing to engage yourself with the topic, sharing and updating your research isn’t only possible but useful, gratifying and sometimes necessary.

After finishing my Masters and coming home to Colombia in 2014, I’ve talked in various and varied academic spaces, both home and abroad, sharing different aspects of the Syrian crisis and the experiences and narratives of the Syrians who participated in my research. In November 2016, I had the wonderful opportunity to be part of an all-women panel at the Annual Meeting of the Middle East Studies Association (MESA) in Boston. Dr. Marina de Regt, my thesis supervisor at the VU and dear friend, co-organized the panel, which discussed feelings, frustrations and obligations while doing fieldwork in the Middle East. In my presentation I focused on the emotional implications of fieldwork with people in vulnerable situations as well as issues of well-being and personal experiences, and how being from Colombia also shaped my point of view and way of addressing the field. Marina spoke about the difficulties of keeping in touch with her friends in Yemen, not only because of the obstacles of communication but also because of the emotional effect on herself. The audience was touched and came up with many similar issues based on their own experiences working in the Middle East. This was a very heartfelt panel, and it made it far more clear how important it is to continue discussing and sharing our work with the world.

Erika Cortes is alumna of the Master in Social and Cultural Anthropology at the VU. She is currently working as consultant at the Bogotá Office of the High Counselor for Victims of the Armed Conflict.

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