While Diya Chopra ’18 was studying abroad in Spain last spring, she noticed what seemed to be a glaring gap in the daily news coverage about Europe’s refugees. There was scant mention of the teenagers who arrive alone, without parents or other relatives, money, or possessions.
“They’re not children, and they’re not adults,” the Bowdoin anthropology major said. “They’re not represented in literature.” But she knew they were there and she thought their unique situation was an important part of the story.
Chopra proposed doing an independent anthropological study on unaccompanied young refugees, looking at how their voices are represented and “what effects silence and surveillance have on them,” she said. She secured a Surdna grant from Bowdoin to support a summer of travel and research.
“Diya…had the amazing opportunity to see how large transnational organizations work with smaller humanitarian organizations and with individuals seeking asylum,” said her advisor, Professor of Anthropology Krista Van Vleet. “Her project, like some of the best contemporary anthropology, has been multi-sited and transnational.”
As an intern with the Geneva-based Global Humanitarian Lab, which is hosted by the United Nations, Chopra was able to connect with two charities in Budapest and Greece that helped her research. She spent the bulk of the summer, from June 18 to July 25, in Thessaloniki, Greece, where she worked with Arsis, a nonprofit that runs a youth shelter and youth center for refugees. There she got to know a group of young refugees, all close to her own age. In the breaks between teaching English classes, Chopra interviewed several of the teenage boys living in the shelter.
In total, she interviewed thirteen refugees between the ages of thirteen and nineteen. They came from Pakistan, Syria, Afghanistan, and Algeria. They were all boys — the majority of unaccompanied, young refugees are male because the journey is often considered too perilous for girls.
Because Chopra speaks Hindi (she was born in Dehli, India), she was able to communicate easily with the Pakistani refugees who speak Urdu (the two spoken languages are quite similar). She used a translator to communicate with the boys from Syria and Algeria.
“One of the things I learned about these refugees is they have agency,” she said. “They’re portrayed often as victims, but they have agency. They have a voice. They have plans.”
While the Syrian boys often told Chopra they were fleeing the chaos of war, the other boys said they were seeking new and better lives. Some had parents back at home; others were orphans. “They had interesting aspirations,” Chopra said. A couple dreamed of becoming cricketers or football players in their new country. Some wanted to go to school; others desired to begin working right away. One hoped to become a civil engineer, another wanted to move to Germany and become a translator. Yet another sought work as a tattoo artist.
Van Vleet said Chopra’s research focus “extends our understanding of youth and of humanitarianism by bringing attention to the ways that unaccompanied minors envision their futures. Often, children are presented as innocent victims in the media or by humanitarian organizations….But Diya’s research shows how these young people represent themselves through talk about the future as well as the (often traumatic) past.”
While her conversations tended to be focused on the boys’ aspirations, Chopra did also hear a bit about their journeys to Europe. One of the boys traveled for six months from Pakistan through Iran, Iraq, and Turkey, walking or hiding in trucks. The boys sometimes encountered human traffickers; at least one saw girls get raped. A 14-year-old told Chopra that he couldn’t tell her how he got to Greece. “I will start crying,” he said.
Chopra also interviewed the staff at the youth shelter where the boys were living. “I wanted to see how they work with youth compared to adults,” she said. Because the young refugees are not legally considered adults or children, the Greek system struggles to deal with them, according to Chopra. “They are either categorized as humanitarian victims or delinquents in the legal frame,” she said.
Van Vleet said her department encourages students to do independent research because learning happens at so many levels in these projects. “Diya has developed skills in critical thinking and communication, as she navigated logistical and methodological issues (such as how to communicate across multiple languages) and developed approaches to conceptual issues (such as how to define the category of ‘youth’),” Van Vleet said. “Her analysis is still in process but it’s exciting to see how she has been able to bring her own empirical data into conversation with theoretical scholarship in anthropology, and with policy and popular press writing about a complex contemporary issue.”
This semester, Chopra is analyzing the information she collected over the summer. In every interview, she asked what support the young refugees had appreciated, and what support they would like to see. She will send her final paper to ARSIS with recommendations on how they can better serve unaccompanied minors who arrive at Europe’s doors.
“I became more sensitive to the refugee crisis,” Chopra said, when asked how the experience had changed her. She is interested in a career in international development. “The media shows a very negative view, but I gained a lot of inspiration from the refugees because they were so determined to work through these situations.”