Dispatches: Undergraduate Researchers in the Field

Last spring, thirteen Harvard College students received travel grants from the Weatherhead Center to support their thesis field research on topics related to international affairs. Since their return in September, the Weatherhead Center has encouraged these Undergraduate Associates to take advantage of the Center’s research community by connecting with graduate students, faculty, postdocs, and visiting scholars. Early in the 2017 spring semester, February 2–3, 2017, the students will present their research in a conference that is open to the Harvard community. Three Undergraduate Associates write of their experiences in the field last summer:

Kais Khimji

Kais Khimji ImageCanada Program Undergraduate Fellow. Committee on Degrees in Social Studies, Harvard College. Research interests: Canada and the Ismaili Imamate: The relationship between His Highness the Aga Khan IV and the Canadian federal government.

Studying something which you have lived out your whole life is an odd experience: the process of defamiliarizing yourself with a subject matter to render it a suitable object for academic analysis is both rewarding and discombobulating.

I am a Shia Nizari Ismaili (henceforth Ismaili): we are a transnational community of Muslims who are united by our allegiance to His Highness the Aga Khan IV. As a descendant of Prophet Muhammad, His Highness currently serves as our forty-ninth hereditary Imam, or spiritual leader. The Imam’s role entails the continual interpretation of the faith according to the times; this central authority figure differentiates the Ismailis from other Muslim communities.

I spent this past summer exploring the relationship between the Canadian government and the Ismaili Imamat, the spiritual leadership of the Ismaili community currently held by His Highness the Aga Khan IV. While this may seem to be a political—and distant—topic, elevated from personal, on-the-ground realities, its unfolding has determined the course of my life; in fact, I attribute my Canadian citizenship to it.

The goal of my research is to explore the nature of the relationship between the Imamat and Canada: What possibilities does it allow for and how does it structure those possibilities? What are the incentives from both sides for materializing those possibilities via the avenue of this partnership? How has the emerging legal personality of the Ismaili Imamat, within the idiom of modern international law, impacted the institution’s expression, role, and self-understanding?

As a historically persecuted minority, we have relied on the institution of the Imamat to navigate, adapt to, and persevere within different—often inhospitable—economic, political, and social contexts. There are approximately fifteen million Ismailis scattered across twenty-five different countries, with large migrant communities in east Africa, western Europe, and North America.

The peculiar—and often unremarked—characteristic of persecuted transnational bodies in the political history of humankind is their ability to persist in a scattered arrangement that lacks a cohesive apparatus. And yet, in its contemporary form, the Ismaili movement coheres and manifests itself as a global network that guides its members on matters of faith, offers a locus for identity formulation, and provides social services reminiscent of a state, though it is not one. The Ismaili polity’s grip on its followers is curious phenomenon: its status as political, social, or religious is foggy at best, as it blurs the boundaries of our traditional categories.

This polity-like character of Ismailism is explained by the dual responsibility of the Ismaili Imamat to provide spiritual guidance and to enable the material well-being of the global Ismaili community. This twofold obligation arises from a distinctive feature of Ismaili thought: the lack of dichotomy between the material and the spiritual. The current Imam has approached this mandate through an institutional articulation; he sits at the head of a vast and complex nonprofit organization, the Aga Khan Development Network (AKDN). The AKDN is a global constellation of secular NGOs committed to economic and social development, healthcare, education, and cultural preservation. A number of scholars have contended that the AKDN serves as a bureaucratic manifestation of the authority of the Ismaili Imamat, as it is a conduit for the numerous developmental and diplomatic relationships His Highness engages in with nation-states around the world. 

Among these diverse geographies and nationalities, the Ismaili Imamat participates in a particularly close relationship with Canada, where some 100,000 Ismailis reside. His Highness is one of six people to have been bestowed honorary Canadian citizenship (others include Nelson Mandela, Aung San Suu Kyi, and Malala Yousafzai) and, in 2014, he became the first religious leader to address a joint session of the Canadian Parliament. The Imamat has established numerous noncommunal organizations in Canada such as the Aga Khan Foundation Canada, the Aga Khan Museum, and the Delegation of the Ismaili Imamat—all of which closely interact with Canadian government institutions. Most recently he has partnered with Canada to create the Global Centre for Pluralism.

My summer research entailed interviewing Canadian government officials and Ismaili institutional leaders, as well as other figures who have been and are currently involved in the construction, participation, and articulation of this relationship. I am also in the process of analyzing a number of legal agreements and protocols of understanding signed by different divisions of the Canadian government and the Ismaili Imamat. I ultimately would like to argue that the interaction between Canada and the Ismaili Imamat serves as a template for a noncompetitive relationship between a Muslim transnational network and a Western nation-state. Given the resurgence of populist rhetoric and right-wing exclusivist nationalism couched within the vocabulary of “otherizing” discourses, I think this case study is particularly pertinent within the current climate of divisive politics. 

Henry Sewall Udayar Shah

Image of Henry ShahWilliams/Lodge International Government and Public Affairs Fellow. Committee on Degrees in History and Literature, Harvard College. Research interests: Comparative study of urban exclusion and eviction in India and France.

Over the course of 2016, I conducted research in two distinct places: Paris during the month of January, and Mumbai during the summer. The differences between them are clear and stretch beyond the 7,000 kilometers of distance between the two metropolises. Mumbai is subtropical, boiling with cinematic exuberance, while Paris is grey, encased in marble, and reliably brooding.

Yet Paris and Mumbai are more similar than they may appear. The two cities are unquestionably the economic and cultural centers of their respective countries. Their train stations bustle with families and young people from the countryside, whether Avignon or Andhra, coming to the city to make a fortune or make a name. Both cities also pulse not just with cash, but with visible poverty. Mumbai may be the setting of the hit film Slumdog Millionaire, but there are slums only five miles from the Eiffel Tower.

In Paris, I finished up research with Roma (pejoratively know as Gypsy) adolescent migrants participating in a government-funded integration program. I then had the honor to deliver a conference presentation titled “Act with or act for: the participatory approach of RomCivic” at the School for Advanced Studies in the Social Sciences (EHESS). This work began the previous summer, when I worked as an intern for the FXB Center for Health and Human Rights at Harvard.

The January experience allowed me to see the whole research process through, from initial brainstorming to fieldwork to a polished final product. This temporal gift allowed academic and personal growth. At first, I saw the youth among whom I conducted ethnographic research as victims, deprived of basic rights and lacking the ability to make better lives. The challenges to them and their families are great, and are in need of redress. Yet many of these young people developed strategies and used the limited resources available to them to build resilient lives in France. My presentation focused on strategies for and challenges blocking long-term integration. I was able to see this research through and also deepen my relationships with older and wiser colleagues in academia, expand my understanding of my informant population, and explore the rich French NGO landscape. This work was an attempt to complement the work of my European mentors, many of whom build expansive and rigorous documentations of challenges without giving equal attention to solutions.

Image of veranda outside archivesWhen summertime came, I went to Mumbai with an overly ambitious goal: think about slums, urban migration, and poverty across two continents, (at least) four languages, and in an entirely different historical context. The obstacles were numerous when I hit the ground. Archives were locked, did not even exist, or were guarded by impassive men drinking tepid tea. My NGO hosts, like all nongovernmental workers I’ve ever met, were understaffed and overworked. During the monsoon, it rained as if, well, there was a monsoon going on. I was not disappointed, but reinvigorated and challenged towards redefining my project. My dogged diligence won out. I trudged to consulates and permission offices, photocopying desks and a dead-end alley in Dadar.

I discovered a series of exciting documents on beggars and vagrants—Victorian-era colonial terms for the visible and wandering poor—in the Maharashtra State Archives. I pored through sheaves of crumbling paper as rain spilled in from the leaky roof, taking notes as I went. My contacts at the NGO encouraged me and sent me interesting articles, contacts, and projects to help push my thinking in new directions. I left without a comparative project, but with something more exciting in hand: a set of data and experiences that haven’t ever been explored by scholars.

This fall, I’ve turned towards my thesis. I’m digging into legal, humanitarian, and cinematic construction of beggars and vagrants in Bombay from the early 1920s to the late 1950s. I explore the past lives of the visibly poor as sites of not just anxiety and threat to the urban order, but as individuals bearing profound aspiration and achievement against all odds in the industrial metropolis. Both projects have reshaped the ways I think about poverty, migration, policy solutions, and history as I work towards a career in human-rights advocacy at the intersection of litigation and the academy.

Charlotte Solmssen

Image of Charlotte SolmssenUndergraduate Research Intern. Department of History, Harvard College. Research interests: Impact of empowerment techniques on the stabilization and integration of Roma communities in France.

Out of the 20,000+ Roma economic migrants living in France, I got to know thirty this past summer. I was researching the program impact of the empowerment-focused NGO les Enfants du Canal and analyzing the structure of the organization, all while working alongside their volunteer team.

Les Enfants du Canal (EDC) is a leading organization in the realm of homelessness and poverty issues. EDC addresses many aspects of homelessness: What societal factors prevent people from exercising their right to education, healthcare, and nondiscrimination in employment? Within EDC, the three-year old program RomCivic works on homelessness within the Roma community by empowering young adults to lift their own communities out of poverty. The RomCivic program has two main goals: to address poverty and discrimination against the Roma, and to empower young adults and young parents within the community.

From the Algerian War to the Syrian refugee crisis, there have been several waves of immigration in France—but almost no immigration pattern has been as turbulent as that of the Roma. In order to address this problem, I conducted interviews with several groups of people: young Roma volunteers at EDC; members of the Roma communities in which EDC provided child care and access to health care; the management of EDC; and with EDC’s partners focusing on the legal, medical, or educational aspect of Roma integration. Each of these groups drew the same conclusion about the impact of the program: the responsibility and stability provided by RomCivic was life changing. By giving governmentally recognized responsibility to young adults and young parents, RomCivic expanded their horizon. They transformed into role models for the community and liaisons into French society. They began to believe it was worth making long-term career goals and investing in their children’s education. By giving them a place in French society, they felt they could flourish within the French system while maintaining Roma cultural ties.

Image of Roma children performing in a circus

I was particularly touched by the story of a young Roma woman named Natasha. She came to France for its economic security, but was quickly disheartened by the discrimination she faced. Before RomCivic, every day was an emergency, a race to provide basic nourishment and shelter. Her days were full of uncertainty, which stifled any long-term investments in education, career, or personal development.

RomCivic allowed Natasha to put her unique skillset to work. Compassionate, clever, and personable, she accompanied young Roma mothers to hospitals and provided medical translation. Now that she is getting ready to leave the program, she is more than a valued member of French society and an indispensable employee at a local store—she is also confident in her cultural identity and her abilities.

RomCivic helps leverage the skills of people like Natasha in order to lift a community out of poverty—against all odds. In the words of Natasha, “We learn how to deal with difficult situations, not to panic, and to help others. For that, we are very proud.”

As a neurobiology concentrator, I am grateful to have had this opportunity to work on the front lines of poverty action and human rights. As I study the biological basis of human behavior, it is fascinating to see how introducing an intangible concept like empowerment can have such a positive effect on community behavior. Empowerment requires a mentorship structure and the trust to delegate responsibility, but the increase in access to healthcare, education, and employment creates a positive feedback loop. This has a ripple effect through the community as these empowered young adults become role models for the next generation. 

Photo Captions

  1. The veranda outside the Maharashtra state archives. Credit: used with permission from Henry Sewall Udayar Shah
  2. Children from multiple Roma communities perform together in the "Cirque des Rêves," or Circus of Dreams, planned and led by RomCivic volunteers. Credit: used with permission from Charlotte Solmssen