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MIDDLE EAST ENCOUNTERS 69 DEGREES NORTH LATITUDE: SYRIAN REFUGEES AND EVERYDAY HUMANITARIANISM IN THE ARCTIC

  • Nefissa Naguib (a1)
Abstract

In late 2015, approximately 2,000 Syrian asylum seekers made their way into Norway via the Arctic passage from Russia. What ensued are “global moments,” breakthrough events that have reshaped lives and futures for both the refugees and those who aided them, and it is the latter group on which this article focuses. As refugees began arriving in Arctic Norway, Refugees Welcome to the Arctic, an ad hoc grassroots organization, was formed to assist them. This group of ordinary people, most of them with no previous humanitarian experience, took action in defiance of Norwegian government policies, and providing food became the focus of their efforts. Refugees Welcome to the Arctic members often described being motived to act by their own traumatic memories of the region's experience of World War II, a time of deprivation and brutality suffered at the hands of the retreating German army. Food, as an enactment of compassion, is shown to be a powerful means through which people connect in very personal, concrete ways to the humanitarian enterprise.

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NOTES

Author's note: The anonymous IJMES peer reviewers remain anonymous and I thank them for their helpful comments and suggestions. I am indebted to my interviewees for sharing their thoughts and stories with me. They affirmed that there is such a thing as enduring global connections. At the Department of Social Anthropology, University of Oslo, I am fortunate to work with colleagues who are inspiring and tough minded. I want to especially thank Christian Krohn-Hansen, Marianne Lien, Signe Howell, Marit Melhus, Thorgeir Kolshus, Keir C. Martin, and Paul Wenzel Geissler for encouraging me to pursue this project and for commenting on an earlier presentation of this work. My argument was strengthened by participants at the Momentums Workshop in Oslo and questions from Gísli Pálsson, Marcia Inhorn, Louisa Lombard, and Bård Kårtveit. Just as I thought my journey to Arctic Norway was ending, this essay was beginning. Linda George set a quick pace and provided thoughtful advice every step of the way. She patiently moved the essay along and edited it with a perfect touch. I am once again grateful to my husband, Bjørn, this time for introducing me to Arctic Norway, a place he knows well and that is close to his heart.

1 Levinas, Emmanuel, Otherwise than Being: Or, beyond Essence, trans. Alphonso Lingis (Pittsburgh, Pa.: Duquesne University Press, 1998), 53 .

2 I borrow this term from a study in which I participated ten years ago, with an interdisciplinary team of scholars, titled “Global Moments in the Levant,” which examined “breakthrough” events over a period of 10,000 years. These breakthrough events were defined as those that “call for significant adaptation leading to new forms of cooperation or conflict.” One of the major focuses of that study was to understand how global moments alter the lives of local groups and communities. My own project examined memory and the Armenian diaspora, particularly from the perspective of those who provided humanitarian aid to refugees arriving in Jerusalem in 1922. See Manger, Leif and LaBianca, Øystein S., eds., Global Moments in the Levant (Bergen: BRIC, 2009).

3 Statistisk sentralbyrå/Statistics Norway, “Refugees in Norway,” 28 January 2016, accessed 11 June 2017, http://www.ssb.no/en/befolkning/artikler-og-publikasjoner/refugees-in-norway.

4 Author's personal communication with Norwegian border police in Kirkenes during the winter months of early 2016.

5 Author's translation of interview with Mona Bentzen: “Mona startet en folkebevegelse,” Dagsavisen, 16 September 2015, accessed 5 July 2017, http://www.dagsavisen.no/innenriks/navn-i-nyhetene/mona-startet-en-folkebevegelse-1.391786.

6 Naguib, Nefissa, “Humanitarian Pluralism: The Arctic Passage in an Age of Refugees,” International Journal of Middle East Studies 48 (2016): 377–81.

7 Arctic Norway has a history of migration, with migrants, mostly from neighboring countries, coming to work in the iron ore and fishing industries. The region has also accommodated many Tamil families fleeing the Sri Lankan civil war, with most of the migrants employed in the fishing industry. See Grønseth, Anne Sigrid, “In Search of Community: A Quest for Well-Being among Tamil Refugees in Northern Norway,” Medical Anthropology Quarterly 15 (2001): 493514 .

8 Quotes from RWTA volunteers were recorded during research carried out in Kirkenes in the fall and winter of 2015 and into 2016. Research included participant observation and interviews, as well as informal encounters. I have given only first names to protect the privacy of my interlocutors. I am immensely grateful for their explanations and the thoughtful conversations to which I have been privy.

9 Author's personal communication with Norwegian border police in Kirkenes during the winter months of early 2016.

10 Malkki, Liisa H., The Need to Help (Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press, 2015).

11 Ortner, Sherry, “Dark Anthropology and Its Others: Theory since the Eighties,” HAU: Journal of Ethnographic Theory 6 (2016): 4773 .

12 Ibid., 49.

13 A group of anthropologists met in Oslo in October 2016 for a workshop funded by the Department of Social Anthropology, University of Oslo. The workshop was titled “Momentums: Histories, Localities and Futures in the Anthropology of Ruptures and Hope.” It was an invitation to use our research to move beyond incredulity and toward those vibrant moments in our fieldwork. From our distinctive fieldwork experiences we wanted to capture in our writings the enchanting instances, events, and sagas when human and nonhuman interlocutors are swept up and passionately carried along. Among them or standing on the side is the gaping and skeptical anthropologist, caught between simultaneous subjectivity and objectivity. This is the beauty of an anthropology that provides us with the academic freedom of exploration. We decided to create a new school of anthropological engagement, which we call Anthropology of Momentums. This essay is part of this critical experiment aimed at discovering how to convey those enraptured moments that draw us to our field sites, instead of sanitizing such experiences and reducing them to an act of translation. The aim is to allow ourselves to be scientifically caught up in the enchantment of anthropological fieldwork.

14 See Ticktin, Miriam, Casualties of Care: Immigration and the Politics of Humanitarianism in France (Berkeley, Calif.: University of California Press, 2011); and Fassin, Didier, Humanitarian Reason: A Moral History of the Present (Berkeley, Calif.: University of California Press, 2012).

15 De Waal, Alexander, Famine Crimes: Politics & the Disaster Relief Industry in Africa (Oxford: James Currey, 1997).

16 Barnett, Michael, Empire of Humanity: A History of Humanitarianism (Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 2011), 221 .

17 See, for example, Baron, Beth, The Orphan Scandal: Christian Missionaries and the Rise of the Muslim Brotherhood (Stanford, Calif.: Stanford University Press, 2014); Benthall, Jeremy, “Islamic Humanitarianism in Adversarial Context,” in Forces of Compassion: Humanitarianism between Ethics and Politics, ed. Bornstein, Erica and Redfield, Peter (Santa Fe, N.Mex.: School for Advanced Research Press, 2010), 99121; Chatty, Dawn, Displacement and Dispossession in the Modern Middle East (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2010); Feldman, Ilana, “Looking for Humanitarian Purpose: Endurance and the Value of Lives in a Palestinian Camp,” Public Culture 27 (2015): 427–47; Naguib, Nefissa and Okkenhaug, Inger Marie, eds., Interpreting Welfare and Relief in the Middle East (Leiden: Brill, 2008); and Watenpaugh, Keith David, Bread from Stones: The Middle East and the Making of Modern Humanitarianism (Oakland, Calif.: University of California Press, 2015).

18 Redfield, Peter, Life in Crisis. The Ethical Journey of Doctors without Borders (Berkeley Calif.: University of California Press, 2013).

19 Ibid., 231.

20 Malkki, The Need to Help, 133.

21 Jackson, Michael, Minima Ethnographica: Intersubjectivity and the Anthropological Project (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1998).

22 Mintz, Sidney and Du Bois, Christine M., “The Anthropology of Food and Eating,” Annual Review of Anthropology 31 (2002): 99119 .

23 Naguib, Nefissa, Nurturing Masculinities: Food, Men, and Family in Contemporary Egypt (Austin, Tex.: University of Texas Press, 2015).

24 Rakopoulos, Theodoros, “The Crisis Seen from Below, Within, and Against: From Solidarity Economy to Food Distribution Cooperatives in Greece,” Dialectal Anthropology 38 (2014): 189207 .

25 Ibid., 203.

26 Appadurai, Arjun, “Gastro-Politics in Hindu South Asia,” American Ethnologist 8 (1981): 494511 .

27 Moore, Henrietta L., Still Life: Hopes, Desires and Satisfactions (Cambridge: Polity Press, 2011), 24 .

28 Bloch, Ernst, The Principle of Hope (Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 1995).

29 de Beauvoir, Simone, Mémoires d'une Jeune Fille Rangée (Paris: Gallimard, 1958).

30 Miles, Siân, ed., Simone Weil: An Anthology (New York: Grove Press, 2000).

31 Pollock, Susan, “The Subject of Suffering,” American Anthropologist 118 (2016): 726–41.

32 Naguib and Okkenhaug, eds., Interpreting Welfare and Relief; Naguib, Nefissa, “For the Love of God: Care-Giving in the Middle East,” Social Sciences and Missions 23 (2010): 124–45; Naguib, “Storytelling: Armenian Family Albums in the Diaspora,” Visual Anthropology 21 (2008): 231–44.

33 Levinas, Emmanuel, Humanism of the Other, trans. Poller, Nidra (Urbana, Ill.: University of Illinois Press, 2003).

34 Ortner, “Dark Anthropology,” 59.

35 Stoller, Paul, Sensuous Scholarship (Philadelphia, Pa.: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1997), 86 .

36 Ibid., 87.

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International Journal of Middle East Studies
  • ISSN: 0020-7438
  • EISSN: 1471-6380
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