Understanding the plight of refugees from the Middle East | Interview with Dr. Marcia Inhorn

Understanding the plight of refugees from the Middle East | Interview with Dr. Marcia Inhorn

We met with William K. Lanman Jr. Professor of Anthropology and International Affairs at Yale University, Dr. Marcia C. Inhorn to discuss the Middle East refugee situation in the U.S., struggles with fertility and reproductive health and so much more. Enjoy!

Leading medical anthropologist Dr. Marcia C. Inhorn discusses the Middle East refugee situation in the U.S., including government assistance and employment pressures, and struggles with fertility and reproductive health. She gives special attention to the global status of refugees from Syria, Lebanon, Afghanistan, and Iraq. William K. Lanman Jr. Professor of Anthropology and International Affairs at Yale University where she serves as chair of the Council on Middle East Studies, Dr. Inhorn talks with Dr. Jed Macosko, academic director of AcademicInfluence.com and professor of physics at Wake Forest University.

We are in the middle of the worst refugee crisis in modern history, I mean larger than the refugee crisis after World War II…” – Dr. Marcia Inhorn

Check out Dr. Inhorn’s books: America’s Arab Refugees: Vulnerability and Health on the Margins and Un-Settling Middle Eastern Refugees: Regimes of Exclusion and Inclusion in the Middle East, Europe, and North America

See Dr. Inhorn’s Academic Influence profile

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Interview with Anthropologist Dr. Marcia C. Inhorn

Interview Transcript

(Editor’s Note: The following transcript has been lightly edited to improve clarity.)

00:13Differences between refugees

Jed Macosko: Hi, I’m Dr. Jed Macosko at academicinfluence.com and Wake Forest University. And today we have as our guest, professor Marcia Inhorn, from Yale University, who’s an anthropologist, and she specifically studies the people groups of the Middle East, and including people from the Middle East who have become refugees in the United States. So I just wanted…Since that’s your new book, I thought we would start there professor Inhorn. Tell me a little bit about things that you’ve learned specific to people from the Middle East who speak Arabic compared to other refugees. I’m sure you bump into other refugees when you’re looking for the people that you’re trying to specifically study.

And are there big differences?

Marcia Inhorn: Well, yeah, thank you for asking that question. I’m really glad to be here. Yeah, the US has been a welcoming country throughout its history, and people from all over the world. We have a real immigrant story in this country. And then I would say really in the post-World War II period, refugees really started coming into this country in different waves.

The Middle Eastern refugees influx into the US started, I would say, in the 1950s and 60s with Palestinians coming to this country, followed in the 1970s and 80s by Lebanese coming into the country because of the civil war that occurred in Lebanon.

And then, if we all remember, there was the first Gulf War in 1990 and 1991, which then started a wave of Iraqis, especially from southern Iraq coming into the United States in the 1990s, and then the 2000s and 2010s have seen additional groups of Arab refugees coming from not only Iraq, that continues, but Syria, obviously the sort of influx of Syrians.

And I would add Afghan refugees, they’re not Arab, they’re not Arabic-speaking refugees. But we’ve had a long war in Afghanistan. And so there are Afghans coming into the US as well.

This is a sort of untold little known story, I don’t think most Americans really think about the fact that we have refugees coming from the Middle East and refugees coming from other parts of the world.

There are refugees obviously coming from parts of Africa, where there has been political violence and war. There were refugees that came during the breakup of Yugoslavia and the horrible violence that happened in Yugoslavia, so there are Bosnian refugees in the United States, there are refugees from parts of South East Asia in this country, Cambodia and Myanmar.

So America has many different refugees. And let’s talk about in the 1980s, refugees came after the Vietnam War as well, there were really thousands of refugees that came into this country.

So America has this history of taking in people who are suffering and fleeing from violence and war-stricken countries, and this includes people who fled from the Middle East, really, I would say the primary populations being Palestinians, Lebanese, Iraqis and Syrians.

And I ended up really focusing on this Arab refugee population, because before I came to Yale as a professor, I was a professor at the University of Michigan and a Middle East scholar. And there in Michigan, Michigan really has the largest North American Arab population, it’s a huge population living mostly in the areas around Detroit.

And I thought, “Wow! There’s a Middle Eastern population, write it, within an hours drive from Ann Arbor, Michigan.” And so I started heading there, going back and forth for five years, I did a really big study in what they call Arab Detroit, the capital of Arab America, and working in a health clinic because I am a medical anthropologist, and this is where I found a lot of people suffering and including a lot of people who had come as refugees suffering from health problems that they were having trouble overcoming.

And so that really became the basis of my study in my book, which is called America’s Arab Refugees: Vulnerability and Health on the Margins. People, I must say, not living in really good circumstances, rather impoverished and not having great access to good healthcare.

04:49Healthcare and Arab refugees

Jed: So what did you find about that group, specific to that group as opposed to maybe other refugees you came across, do they all have similar problems with access to healthcare, or was there certain specific problems that the Arab refugees were facing?

Marcia: Yeah, I mean, when refugees initially arrive in the United States, they’re given now about eight months of assistance, both cash assistance and healthcare assistance, but there’s a real push then at eight months for people to find their own employment and sort of get on their feet.

And to tell you the truth, eight months isn’t very much time. When Vietnamese refugees came to the States in the 1980s, they were given three years of assistance, three years of cash assistance, healthcare and assistance with language.

And because of that, three years, Vietnamese refugees have done remarkably well in this country, they actually…Often, they have, in terms of median income and education, they’re actually doing better than many other populations in this country, so one could say that overall, Vietnamese refugees really were a success story, we helped them as a country, and they succeeded.

But now, and this has to do with welfare reform, and a lot of policy decisions that were made in the last few decades, refugees who come really don’t get long-term assistance and they’re expected to sort of pull themselves up by their bootstraps and make it. And what we know happens now in the US is that refugees are sort of under a great deal of pressure to get jobs quickly, and because of that, they end up often going into very low paying kinds of jobs, and they often have to work two or three of them, in order to make enough money basically to feed their families.

And so that pressure really leaves people in a bad place, often without medical insurance, without a good social safety net. And what I found in my particular study was a group of people who were mostly impoverished, mostly didn’t have medical insurance.

Mostly didn’t really have even cash to basically cover office visits. And in my particular study, I was dealing with people who had reproductive health problems, they were struggling, they really wanted to have children.

And I should say that for people in the Middle East, the vast majority of them are married, and the vast majority of them wanna have children, it’s a very child-centric region of the world, very marriage-oriented and also very child-centric.

And so these were people who sort of had to flee from their homes, they came to America, they got what we would call low wage jobs, and they wanted to have a child and were struggling to have a child. And so I found a lot of infertility problems. And if we wanna get into the sort of reason, is war is not good for reproductive health.

A lot of people had been through harrowing war experiences, including men in my study, men who had been exposed to things that are…Materials used in war that are really not good for human reproductive health.

…what happens to people who are suffering from a problem that they dearly wanna overcome in a country that's kind of forgotten them.” – Dr. Marcia Inhorn

So there was a lot of male infertility in this particular population, people suffering and didn’t have the money that they would need to try to use some of the forms of assisted reproduction that might have solved their infertility problems.

So my book is really just looking at the effects of poverty, marginalization, discrimination, lack of a social safety net, and what happens to people who are suffering from a problem that they dearly wanna overcome in a country that’s kind of forgotten them. To be quite honest, the sort of politics are…America hasn’t really done well, by it’s Arab refugee population.

08:48Refugees aren’t terrorists

Jed: So does that lead to the kind of unrest that might bring about pockets of dissent against the United States? And we know obviously in the 9/11 attacks, there were Arab Americans living in the United States, or at least Muslim Americans, is that where that comes from? Or can you explain that for the totally clueless audience like me, where all that came from?

…no refugee of any kind from any place has ever committed an act of terrorism on US soil.” – Dr. Marcia Inhorn

Marcia: Yeah, I think that’s one of the major points that I want to refute in my book. And I must say, no refugee of any kind from any place has ever committed an act of terrorism on US soil.

Jed: Thank you for putting that at rest.

So even though they’re sad, that’s never happened, that they turn against the United States that welcomed them out of the war-torn region that they were from?

Marcia: No, most feel gratitude to be safe, to have been allowed to come to a place of relative safety, right? And so refugees are not dissenting, politically agitating group of people, they’re here, they’re glad to have brought their children off into safety, if they have children, they wanna start over, they actually…They wanna start over and actually, they wanna have the American dream.

Most of them would like to have a house. I’ll tell you a lot of refugees who come are actually educated people who had good positions and professions back in the home country, and one of the sad sorrows is that they probably, in many cases, will never be re-educated and re-certified to practice their professions in this country.

…the US is responsible for several of the major wars in the region, that have ended up displacing people from their homes, and particularly Iraq, but also Afghanistan.” – Dr. Marcia Inhorn

So you’ll see doctors, engineers, lawyers who come and they end up doing jobs that are really, honestly beneath their professional skills and sort of level, but they… So no, the refugee situation is not…We don’t wanna connect it, we wanna disconnect it from notions of Muslim radicalism.

And my whole book is really about the moral responsibility I feel of the US to take in Arab refugees, particularly because the US is responsible for several of the major wars in the region, that have ended up displacing people from their homes, and particularly Iraq, but also Afghanistan.

So my book is really saying, “If you destroy somebody’s home and country, you have a responsibility to help the people whose lives were destroyed.” And I spent a lot of time in this book really focusing on the Iraqi population.

Jed: Okay, well, thank you for clarifying that for me, and I’m glad I asked a really slightly obnoxious question so that you could really clarify that.

Marcia: It’s an important, really important question for the US, nobody thinks about this population, and they’re a law abiding population that wants to succeed here.

11:50What’s next?

Jed: And you’ve written the book about it, you’ve made it known to the whole world what this group of people faces and how precious they are to the United States.

Where do you wanna go next with your research?

Marcia: Yeah, in a way, this research for me, this piece of research is done. I completed it and I’ve written the book, but I am very committed to really promoting anthropological and other kinds of work, focusing on the situation of Middle Eastern refugees in other parts of the world as well.

So actually, right now, we have a book that is going to be coming out next year called Unsettling Middle Eastern Refugees, Regimes of Exclusion and Inclusion in the Middle East, Europe and the United States, looking at where Middle Eastern refugees have ended up, whether they’re being settled or unsettled, whether they’re being given safe haven in different countries in the world.

And so I’ve been, I would say, a person, a senior anthropologist, that’s really mobilized a group of junior colleagues around the world who are doing really important work on the situation of refugees in a number of different countries, especially in Europe.

Jed: Yeah, can you share where in Europe, your junior colleagues have done their work?

Marcia: Yeah. So you probably remember 2015 was the real crisis year in terms of refugees pouring into Europe often in very unsafe conditions, coming in small dinghies from Turkey and parts of the Mediterranean trying to reach Europe.

And so those people landed in particular places, they landed in Greece, Greece still has a huge refugee population. So there are anthropologists working in Greece, but then refugees, I would say, particularly Syrians, there’s a huge population of Syrians who’ve made it into Europe, and they’ve spread out…Some Syrians have made it to Norway, to Finland, to Scandinavia, to parts of Western Europe, France, the Netherlands.

I have a doctoral student who’s working with Syrian refugees in both France and the Netherlands. So I would say Western Europe and Scandinavia did receive some of these refugees coming, especially in the 2015 to 2020 period.

But again, the sad part is that Europe, parts of Europe, progressive countries in Europe also have closed their doors to many people who really would like to gain citizenship and access to parts of Europe. And so there are still many millions of refugees who are actually stuck, if you will, in neighboring Middle Eastern countries.

If you really look at the total population of Arab refugees, the majority of them are still in the Middle East. They’re in the countries primarily of Turkey, Jordan, Lebanon, those are probably the three countries that have taken in the largest number of Syrian refugees, their neighboring countries, where Syrians really fled over the border.

And a country like Lebanon, a country that I love, I spent one of the happiest years of my life with my family in Lebanon doing a project there. Lebanon’s a small country that’s having a lot of problems of its own, including, as you probably recall, a huge explosion in downtown Beirut that really displaced 300,000 people, yet Lebanon, this small country has taken in 1.5 million Syrian refugees, they are still there 10 years on going no place. It’s not safe for them to go back to Syria.

And so countries in the region are trying to grapple with this huge population of people who’ve been displaced. And so if we look at the three countries that have had the largest numbers of displace, forcibly displaced people, it’s Syria in the last 10 years. Iraqis since the US war in Iraq, since 2003, Iraqis, huge numbers have had to flee, and Afghans because of the long US war in Afghanistan.

To be quite blunt, the US perpetuated and has started and perpetuated two major wars in the Middle East since the year 2000, the first being in Afghanistan, it started in 2001, it’s the longest war in modern US history, it’s still going on, it hasn’t ended. And in Iraq, in 2003, we started the second Iraq war, it’s called Operation Iraqi Freedom, but it is a war that started in 2003, President Barack Obama officially ended that war in 2011, but there still are thousands of American troops on the ground in Iraq.

So neither Iraq nor Afghanistan are stable countries, people are still being displaced from them, and then there is the Syrian refugee crisis. It’s really daunting. I mean, it’s a daunting situation of people being forcibly displaced.

We are in the middle of the worst refugee crisis in modern history, I mean larger than the refugee crisis after World War II, it is a major humanitarian crisis.” – Dr. Marcia Inhorn

We are in the middle of the worst refugee crisis in modern history, I mean larger than the refugee crisis after World War II, it is a major humanitarian crisis. And I’ll add another humanitarian crisis to that list one, not started by our country, but Yemen is in a terrible crisis because of a war going on between a number of Middle Eastern countries in the Gulf, and it is…I think that UNHCR calls it the worst humanitarian crisis going on in the world right now, and again, one that we pay very, very little attention to.

So a region that I care deeply about, I mean, the Middle Eastern region has got so many wonderful things about it, but just the perpetual political violence, partly the responsibility of the US is very heartbreaking to me as a scholar that I’ve spent 30 years devoted to the region.

And so to answer your question, to wrap it up, I feel like the one thing that I am trying to do is trying to bring to the world awareness of this refugee crisis, and to bring the work of junior scholars out into the world as well, with a book that’ll be coming out next year called Unsettling Middle Eastern Refugees.

Jed: And it seems like the main point of that book is just awareness.

Marcia: It is.


Jed: Is there like there was with the earlier book about refugees in the United States, this sort of message that they’re not the terrorists, they’re the ones that are trying to live out the American dream, and they’ve just not been given quite enough assistance. Is there some sort of take home application message to the new book that’s coming out, or is it just more awareness?

Marcia: Yeah, no, I think that we call it regimes of exclusion and inclusion, really looking at the ways that, yes, refugee populations are marginalized, they’re turned away, they are not given citizenship rights and so forth, but there are places in the world and good people in the world who are doing the best that they can to try to include and to integrate refugee populations into local communities.

The book has a lot of really positive examples too of places that have been welcoming. Parts of Germany have been incredibly welcoming, parts of Scandinavia have been incredibly welcoming to refugees, and parts of America have been incredibly welcoming, including I’m gonna say New Haven, Connecticut.

I’m very proud to be living in New Haven, Connecticut, it’s a safe haven community. We have a very active refugee resettlement agency here called IRIS, and we are a community that’s taken in its fair share of Afghan, Iraqi and Syrian refugees, and there are a number of amazing local catering, food, refugee food non-profits that have been developed in New Haven to give refugee women chefs a chance to make delicious meals and to sort of serve our local community.

There’s a lot of activism for refugees going on in Connecticut, and I feel very proud of it. And actually the end of my book, I sort of put the showcase on New Haven and Yale University for all of the good work that it’s doing to help legally, economically to really support the local refugee population.

Another really important point, I think I need to say this. A lot of the refugees who’ve come to the US, who have been allowed in in recent years, they’re called SIVs, they have special immigrant visas.And why is that? They are the ones who helped US troops on the ground in Iraq and in Syria, in Afghanistan.

There’s been special programs to make sure that men and women who helped the US in its various operations in the Middle East also that they do get entrance to this country. So I think if there’s one group of refugees coming to the US from the Middle East now, it’s particularly men who help translate, drive, do work with American troops, and so they’ve been given special priority, especially over the last four years, I would say.

21:21Sign off

Jed: Wow! That’s great. What an uplifting bunch of things that you have brought to the attention of the world through your great anthropological skills, and we are so honored to have had you on the show. Thank you very much for spending the time with us and we look forward to reading your book.

Marcia: Thank you, it’s been a pleasure talking with you, and thank you so much for focusing on this latest and I think pretty important book. Thank you so much.

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