History without borders: How historians engage in humanitarian work

Johanna M. Wetzel Blog Post


author: Marcia C. Schenck


According to the UNHCR, less than 1% of all refugees of university age have access to tertiary education, compared to 34% of young people in general. To make matters worse, of the approximately 70.8 million displaced people worldwide, including 25.9 million refugees, well over 80% live in developing countries where the tertiary education sector is already overburdened and underfunded. Article 26 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights states that "higher education shall be equally accessible to all on the basis of merit". For the overwhelming majority of the refugees, however, this is mere theory. In the context of flight, availability and accessibility, but also appropriateness and adaptability, of the higher education offers for refugees are often lacking. This is where the programs offered by Princeton University’s Global History Lab in conjunction with partners all over the world come in; they are intended as an experiment in humanitarian learning. This blog post is dedicated to presenting projects from the field of history that employ innovative approaches to the challenge of integrating refugee voices into the study and making of history.


The Global History Lab

The Global History Lab (GHL) is both a Massive Open Online Course on global history and an experiment in humanitarian higher education. In his course, Professor Jeremy Adelman, Director of the Global History Lab, and the Henry Charles Lea Professor of History at Princeton University, has been connecting refugees in Europe, Africa and the Middle East with students from all over the world, including at Princeton University, for the better part of a decade. This course seeks to promote understanding of global integration - but also of disintegration - through group discussions of global history case studies, ranging from trade along the Silk Road to the global effects of the Cold War. More than 15,000 students have already enrolled.


The History Dialogues Project

The central idea of the History Dialogues Project (HDP) is to guide refugee learners and their non-refugee team-mates, who where consumers of historical knowledge in the GHL, in undertaking their own research project, thereby becoming producers of global history knowledge. The project creates space for dialogues between students and instructors at nine partner institutions based in Princeton, Madrid, Paris, Potsdam, Athens, Kigali, Kiryandongo refugee settlement, Jerusalem, and Sulaimani to open up the way we teach and study global history to narratives produced from different perspectives and locations. After receiving training in blended research methods - centrally oral history-, reflecting on ethical and security concerns, but also on storytelling methods, students formulate their own research questions and learn how to design and implement their independent research projects. They undertake the research in constant conversation with their peers and the team of instructors. The outcome are narratives that exercise what Arjun Appadurai has called the right to research, in an eponymous essay that argues against the concentration of research in highly capitalized and specialized centers in the Global North. Student-researchers’ voices result in a medley of global histories that put the margins at the center and build on what Jeremy Adelman calls “the power of place.” In the past, students have told stories about migrant influences on traditional Rwandan dance; the effects of migration on Twa culture in Burundi and Rwanda 1959-2019; thirty years of Kakuma refugee camp from the perspective of long-time displaced residents; the history of the boda boda transport system in Kakuma; the history of female leadership in the UNMISS Protection camp in Juba, South Sudan; and migration movements of East Africans to Yemen, to name but a few fascinating projects. The seed is beginning to grow as more people in conflict regions can access the tools and possibilities not only to critically analyze historical narratives, but also to tell their own (his)stories. Gerawork Teferra, an Ethiopian student from last year’s cohort describes the effects of having taken the GHL and HDP in the following words:


I become a historian who is able to consciously and systematically observe the environment and different happenings, create relationships, co-construct and interpret narratives by linking them to the past; think about the context, causes, and forces that brought such happenings; and also look for similar happenings around the world to see the global picture. In general, it is a new experience that makes me see and interpret life in more complete form.





Marcia C. Schenck is Professor of Global History at Potsdam University, is teaching and managing the History Dialogues Project, and researches the Organization of African Unity’s response to refugees on the continent from the 1960s to the turn of the 20th century.

She can be reached at marcia.schenck@uni-potsdam.de, https://www.uni-potsdam.de/hi-globalgeschichte/index.html, https://www.marciacschenck.com, Facebook: Marcia C. Schenck, Twitter: Marcia Schenck




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