York PhD student examines the diversity of refugee experiences

Dina Taha’s work has taken her from Egypt to Canada and back again on a journey of research and discovery about the lives and survival strategies of Syrian refugee women. From a career as a teacher, researcher and graduate student in Cairo, Taha came to York University to pursue a PhD in sociology.

Dina Taha
Dina Taha

Driven by a passion for social justice issues, she worked as a research assistant for the Refugee Research Network, led by Professor Emerita Susan McGrath and hosted by York University’s Centre for Refugee Studies. More recently, she was hired as a research and knowledge mobilization coordinator at Making the Shift, part of a youth homelessness innovation lab, also located at York.

During her doctoral work, Taha returned to Egypt and conducted an intensive series of interviews with Syrian refugee women who had escaped the conflict in Syria by settling in Egypt, and marrying Egyptian men. This fieldwork, conducted in the summer of 2017, led Taha to analyze the decisions of the Syrian women (and a smaller group of the Egyptian husbands) based on their own narratives. Her work aims to highlight the specificity of localized circumstances faced by people displaced by war as a corrective to the homogeneous and vulnerable image that the term “refugees” conjures in the popular imagination.

Taha adds a sophisticated understanding of the choices made by Syrian refugee women about their social relationships, children’s well-being, and economic futures, rethinking notions such as agency, victimhood and empowerment. A short animated video hosted on the Refugee Research Network at the Centre for Refugee Studies at York, provides a snapshot of Taha’s work.

In addition to her doctoral work and various research and knowledge mobilization positions at York, Taha has been involved as a research assistant in the CRS-hosted Local Engagement Refugee Research Network (LERRN), a SSHRC Partnership Grant that involves a team of researchers from York, McGill University, Carleton University and the University of Ottawa, as well as other international university partners and NGOs in Jordan, Kenya, Lebanon and Tanzania.

As part of her participation in LERRN, Taha has just published a working paper that provides a critical review of and intervention into refugee research. Specifically, the paper explores the relevance of intersectionality as an analytical framing to understanding refugee lives. Intersectionality is a term that that was first coined in the late 1980s by Kimberlé Crenshaw (a York honorary graduate at Convocation in June 2019) and has evolved since to recognize the ways in which various dimensions of oppression such as race, class, and gender are overlapping and mutually reinforcing (Crenshaw 1989).

Taha suggests that intersectionality helps us to understand refugees as a diverse group whose “experiences are shaped by multiple identities such as gender, race, national origin, class, age, (dis)ability and sexual orientation” (Taha 2019). People’s experience is co-constituted across many axes of difference in which nationality, race, ethnicity, class, gender and location among other relationships. For people displaced by war, there is no ‘common’ experience of the dehumanized refugee. Taha shows how and why Syrian woman made the decisions they did.