Open Your Mind: Q&A with refugee and migration researcher Christina Clark-Kazak

Appearing at regular intervals in YFile, Open Your Mind is a series of articles offering insight into the different ways York University researchers champion fresh ways of thinking in teaching and research excellence. Through York University’s integrated approach to teaching and research, undergraduate and graduate students, as well as postdoctoral fellows, enjoy the active mentorship of world renowned scholars, access to cutting-edge research infrastructure and an exciting and engaged environment for the pursuit of learning. Their approach, grounded in a desire to seek the unexpected, is charting a new course for future generations. 

Today, the spotlight is on Christina Clark-Kazak, acting director of the Centre for Refugee Studies and associate principal, research and graduate studies at Glendon.

Christina Clark-Kazak
Christina Clark-Kazak

Q. Please describe your field of current research into refugees.

A. My research focuses on three areas: age main streaming in refugee policy and programming; the interrelationship between international development and forced migration; and the development of interdisciplinary methodologies for forced migration research, particularly in relation to ethics.

Q. What inspired you to pursue this line of research? Who or what sparked your interest in this line of inquiry?

A. Before I became a full-time academic, I worked for eight years in international development with the Canadian government. I was responsible for developing child protection policies and programming in west and central Africa and was posted to the Canadian Embassy in Kinshasa, Democratic Republic of Congo, as acting head of aid.

When I met with children in forced migration experiences on the ground, I was struck by the disconnect between their experiences as important actors, and the prevailing approach to refugee children as helpless victims in need of protection. I felt that our policy and programming for children was not based on a real understanding of their lived experiences. I wanted to take a step back from the immediacy of international development work to gather empirical data with children and young people in situations of forced migration, and to think more deeply about appropriate responses. This led me to pursue my doctoral work exploring the political engagement of Congolese young people in Kyaka II refugee camp and Kampala, Uganda. After completing my doctorate, I initially returned to the Canadian government, but I missed the creativity of the research process and so decided to change careers.

Q. How would you describe the significance of your research in lay terms, especially given the circumstances in Syria and Africa?

A. Using a social age analysis, my research seeks to understand differential forced migration experiences based on age in relation to other axes of “difference,” including gender, sexuality, ability, race and religion. First, I look at demographic changes provoked by migration. For example, in the Syrian refugee population, there are only half as many people over the age of 60 as there were prior to the conflict. Where are these missing older Syrians? What are the implications of absent elders for intergenerational relations and social reproduction in Syrian refugee situations? Second, I analyze how biological development may be impacted by contexts of forced migration. For example, in the early stages of life, there are particular nutritional needs that are important for development. However, in many migration contexts, these needs are not being met, with detrimental impact on biological development. Third, I am also interested in how social meanings of age change due to migration. For example, in the Congolese communities in which I have worked, a person is not considered an adult until he is married (male) and has children of her own (female). However, due to the uncertainty of refugee contexts in Uganda, many Congolese young people are not able to pursue education and/or secure stable employment. This delays marriage and childbirth, which, in turn prolongs youth. In response, some young people have started to move out of intergenerational family structures before marriage, which was previously socially unacceptable in the Democratic Republic of Congo. Finally, I analyze intergenerational relationships in contexts of migration. For example, refugee young people often learn the language of the host country more quickly than their parents. They thus become interpreters for their families and gradually take on broker and/or spokesperson roles. This challenges intergenerational hierarchies within families and in some cases causes changes in age norms.

Q. How are you approaching this field in a different, unexpected or unusual way?

A. Many of the responses to refugees – both in Canada and internationally – are based on fixed chronological age categories as an imperfect proxy for biological development. Conceptually, my research demonstrates the need to complement this dominant focus on chronological age with a more holistic understanding of what I call social age – that is, contextually specific understandings and meanings attached to different stages in the life cycle as well as intergenerational power relations. In my analysis, I try to separate out biological processes of aging from social markers and expectations based on age. This is a conceptual shift similar to the distinction between sex and gender. Empirically, my research shows that many of the assumptions made about age categories are not actually borne out in the data. For example, children are often categorized as dependents, but in many cases other family members depend on children for reproductive roles in the family (sibling care, fetching water) and work outside of the home. Similarly, older refugees are often assumed to be burdens on social services, but research shows that they are fundamental to social relationships, especially in cultures that revere ancestors, but also make important economic contributions to their families and communities through childcare and remunerated labour. We cannot respond adequately to refugee situations without taking into account the complexities of aging and intergenerational relationships.

Christina Clark-Kazak during a field work experience at the Kyaka II refugee camp in Uganda
Christina Clark-Kazak during a field work experience at the Kyaka II refugee camp in Uganda

Q. How does your approach to the subject benefit the field?

A. As a former practitioner and a current academic, I strive not only to theorize issues of age, but also to provide practical tools and examples in an attempt to change age-biased policies and programming. For example, I am currently developing a policy brief for the Canadian government on how they can mainstream age issues into migration programming. This is based on my concept of social age, as well as a detailed age-based analysis of Canada’s Immigration & Refugee Protection Act and its regulations. I am also attempting to politicize age by problematizing pervasive age discrimination and present it as an equity issue. I draw on feminist and post-colonial theory and try to demonstrate that ageism is as much a social justice issue as sexism and racism.

Q. What findings have surprised and excited you?

A. My work with Congolese young people living without parents in Kyaka II refugee camp and Kampala showed that these “unaccompanied minors” (the legal term used to describe refugees under the age of 18 without a parent or guardian) are the most politically active in community decision-making, in some cases setting up their own clandestine organizations in contravention of Ugandan law. This finding contradicts all of my previous development programming experience and commonsensical notions that young people without their parents are inherently the most disadvantaged. After nine months of ethnographic research with refugee young people living on their own, I came to understand that while they face many structural barriers, they also have more leisure time and more control over daily decision-making than their accompanied peers, as well as access to resources, programming and decision-makers designated for “unaccompanied minors.” They leverage these financial, time and human resources into greater access to decision-making at household and community levels. This research shows the limitations of static chronological age categories and the importance of understanding context-specific and relational opportunities, challenges and vulnerabilities.

Q. Every researcher, from novice to experienced, encounters roadblocks and challenges during the process of inquiry. can you highlight some of those challenges and how you overcame them?

A. Most of my challenges have been related to ethics, which is why this is one of my research interests. Ethical dilemmas arise in research with forced migration because of the need for methodologically sound research in contexts of great deprivation and need, as well as the challenges of research with people who may be undocumented or in conflict with migration law. I’ll give an example: when I was conducting research with refugee young people in Kampala (who did not have legal permission to live outside refugee camps), one of my respondents disclosed a situation of sexual violence in the home where she was living. In this situation, does the ethical principle of “do no harm” become an ethical imperative to prevent harm that would be occurring regardless of the research? I believe so, but I also acknowledge the need for sustainable, well-thought-out responses that don’t conflate research with development programming. In this situation, I drew on relationships with community members and organizations to support this young woman in finding her own solutions to the risks she faced.

Q. How has this research opened your mind to new possibilities or new directions?

A. As I work more and more across the age spectrum, I have begun to think about how to politicize age into an equity issue. Often age categories are approached in terms of certain needs-based assistance programs (for example, unaccompanied minors in Kyaka II refugee camp receive extra material assistance). However, this is a limiting approach that does not address unequal power structures underlying protection problems. In my new work on age discrimination in migration policies in Canada, the United States, the United Kingdom and Australia, I have been challenged to think more about the philosophical, ethical and practical dimensions of discrimination – positive and negative; direct and indirect. This has opened up new lines of enquiry and partnerships with medical practitioners, psychologists, philosophers and lawyers.

Q. Are there interdisciplinary aspects to your research? If so, what are they?

A. As alluded to above, age issues are interdisciplinary to the extent that they incorporate medicine, psychology, anthropology, sociology and law. Migration and development are also inherently complex and thus require inter-disciplinary perspectives. All of my degrees – including my doctorate in International Development Studies – are interdisciplinary. While this creates opportunities for conversations across the disciplines, it also poses some challenges in academic contexts that are still primarily organized by disciplines. I am sometimes accused (rightly!) of not only lacking a discipline, but also lacking discipline more generally – in terms of theoretical or methodological rigour – and also face difficulties in framing my research for disciplinary evaluation committees and funding bodies.

Q. Did you ever consider other fields of research?

A. Not necessarily other fields of research, but definitely different career paths. During my undergraduate degree, I was interested in pursuing teaching and while volunteering with refugee claimants in Canada, I have considered becoming a lawyer. My current position allows me to teach at a university level and analyze immigration law and policy, but from more interdisciplinary perspective. So, I feel privileged to combine my interests in these ways.

Q. Are you teaching any courses this year? If so, what are they? Do you bring your research experience into your teaching practice?

A. As both Acting Director of the Centre for Refugee Studies (CRS) and Associate Principal, Research and Graduate Studies at Glendon, I, unfortunately, have less time for teaching. This year, I am responsible for the International Studies professional internship course, which provides students with opportunities to apply theoretical knowledge of international issues within organizations as diverse as the Canadian government, non-governmental organizations and the United Nations. I am also co-directing the CRS’s annual professional development course on refugees and forced migration issues. This is a training opportunity for academics, practitioners and policy-makers working with displaced populations. This year, we have over 50 participants from across Canada and around the world (US, UK, Germany, South Africa – to name a few) working in government, settlement agencies, the United Nations, universities and research centres. We host a range of guest speakers who address topics ranging from environmental displacement, to legal processes of status determination, to health issues to media portrayals of refugees. For example, Harvard law professor Jacqueline Bhabha gave a public lecture on child distress migration; refugee activist Paula Gomez shared her art programming work; and, Special Advisor on Syrian Resettlement, Deborah Tunis talked about Canada’s response to Syrian displacement. I participated in the course in 2000 when I was still a practitioner with the Canadian government and have directed or lectured in the course every year but one (even during parental and sabbatical leaves!) since my arrival at York in 2009. Given the diversity of participants and speakers, the interactiveness of the course, and the dynamic nature of the topic and field of study, I always learn something each year. The course really showcases York’s leadership on refugee issues.

Q. Your work is focused on refugee populations. How are you bringing your experience with these populations and the particular circumstances they experience in the into the classroom?

A. I normally teach the “Introduction to Research” course for my department. While students choose their own research topic and we workshop their ideas, I always bring in examples and guest speakers from my own work with refugees in development contexts. In my “Global Politics of International Development” course, I am able to draw on both my practical experience and my research with refugees. I have taught a graduate course on migration, which really allowed us to delve into a host of specific issues in Canada and internationally. I also involve students in all of my research projects as active members of the research team. For example, in her first year of the International Studies undergraduate degree at Glendon, Emily Leahy participated in the SSHRC storytellers project based on her work with me on the social age analysis of Canada’s migration law.

Q. What books, recordings or films have influenced your life?

A. My work has been inspired by many people’s writings, including my doctoral supervisor Jo Boyden, a leader in childhood studies; Liisa Malkki’s work on representations of refugees; and Chantal Mouffe’s concept of multiple subject positions.

Q. What are you reading and/or watching right now?

A. For work, I am re-reading a seminal edited volume on age as an equality issue by Sandra Fredman and Sara Spencer. I don’t have time to read for pleasure except for with my children – that hour reading in bed at the end of the day is one of our favourite times. My four-year-old son is currently into the Berenstain Bears and Franklin. My seven-year-old loves adventure and mystery novels. We have finished Enid Blyton’s Famous Five and Adventure series and are now halfway through the Hardy Boys series. I am happy to say that, without prompting, she noticed the lack of female leads in the Hardy Boys and is determined to write her own series, titled The Mystery Girls.

Q. What advice would you give to students thinking of pursuing a graduate degree or embarking on a research project for the first time?

A. Choose a topic that you are passionate about. Research is hard work and there are always unexpected challenges. What sustains me during these times when it is easy to doubt the importance of research is an underlying conviction in the significance of the questions being asked – whether conceptually, empirically, methodologically or practically. Some students chose topics strategically based on what they think will be popular in an admittedly tough job market. However, research easily becomes all-consuming and, since we spend so much of our time and energy thinking about the issues we research, it is important that they bring us joy.

Q. If you could have dinner with any one person, dead or alive, who would you select and why?

A. My parents. (OK, that’s two people, but they are inseparable!) I haven’t lived in the same city as my parents since I was 17 and, as the third of five daughters, I have very rarely (if ever) had the chance to have dinner with them uninterrupted. They are kind, witty, thoughtful, smart, creative and adventurous, and have inspired thousands of young people through their life and work with the Sail and Life Training Society. I have so much more to learn from them.

Q. What do you do for fun?

A. Plan and host parties; go for walks; sing; and take my kids to the beach. Despite having spent my childhood on boats, I, sadly, no longer have opportunities to sail.