Telling Refugee Stories

According to a 2015 United Nations report, there are now more than 55 million refugees globally. That means more people are fleeing their homes due to violence or persecution than at any time since World War II. Nora Tyeklar, a UT doctoral student in linguistic anthropology, says the way we talk about refugees matters. Tyeklar studies the process by which people claim refugee status, with a focus on the experiences of Roma fleeing Hungary to resettle in Canada. She spoke with the Alcalde about the challenges refugees face—and about how her own immigrant experience shapes her work.

The Alcalde: Who are the Roma, and what barriers do they face?

Nora Tyeklar: Roma are an ethnic minority with groups living all over the world. There’s linguistic evidence the Roma originated in India and over hundreds of years migrated to Europe, as a matter of survival. So whether you want to call them the world’s original refugees, or longstanding migrants, that’s more accurate than calling them free-spirited wanderers or nomads—or ‘gypsies,’ which is offensive to many Roma, and is actually a misnomer.

In Europe they’ve been persecuted since their arrival. There’s deeply seated prejudice against them that continues to this day. In Hungary, Roma can be evicted from their homes, and children are sometimes taken from their parents by the state on sketchy grounds—and are usually segregated in schools.

How did you become interested in language learning and linguistics?

I did a scholarship in Hungary—young people of Hungarian origin could go there and do an intensive language course and learn history, culture, and literature for a year. When I started the program I hadn’t spoken a full sentence in Hungarian for, like, eight years. And by the time I finished, I was back to near-native fluency. The speed with which that came back, once I fully immersed myself in it, was really astounding to me.

Is your work influenced by your own experience learning English as an immigrant?

It evolved more organically. But one of my really early memories is my mom and my brother dropping me off at one of the first elementary schools I went to in the U.S. I remember watching them walk away from me down the hall, just crying. It was such a new situation—and it was in a language that I didn’t know at all.

When did you start thinking about how moving to a new country as an adult, and trying to learn a new language, might affect refugee claimants?

After I did a program at UMass in applied linguistics that focused on language teaching and language acquisition, I started volunteering in Boston with refugee organizations, and I saw how trauma could affect people. As refugees, the expectation is for them to become self-sufficient—which means learning English is supposed to happen within eight months. Which just seems like a lot!

Walk me through what you’ll be studying and what some of the specific challenges are for the Roma from Hungary.

Constructing a credible refugee claim [means] establishing a narrative that proves that, if you were to return to Hungary, you would face violence, torture, or some other cruelty. And that’s really hard to do because you have to gather evidence of that through paperwork, such as police reports and proof of doctor visits. But the thing is in Hungary, the Roma will not go to the cops because the cops are corrupt.

I’m interested in how larger-scale discourses in the media and in government show up in smaller communicative events, like telling your story during a refugee hearing. Telling your story in this context has big, life-or-death consequences.  In Canada several former ministers of immigration would use anti-Roma and anti-refugee rhetoric, and called Roma “bogus.” The media picks up those discourses. When that happens there’s very little room for creating empathy. In recent years a high number of claims have been rejected or abandoned—thousands of Roma got deported back to Hungary, where they still encounter violence on a daily basis, and where they’ll often be in major debt or homeless, because to fund going to Canada, they’ve borrowed money or sold all their possessions.

What are some examples of common discourses we hear about refugees in the countries where they are resettling?

‘Refugees are swarms … there are waves of refugees … they take our jobs’ … stuff like that. It would be better to talk about them as resources, as assets bringing skills—but that’s very capitalistic, and still doesn’t get at their humanity. Why not start from recognizing their dignity and humanity?

What effect do you hope your work has?

Romani voices are left out of how they’re represented. I hope to change that. Our stories are how we express ourselves. It’s how we make ourselves known. —Interview by Katie Matlack

This interview has been condensed and edited for length and clarity.


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