Prompting change

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Assistant Professor of Peace and Conflict Studies Susan Thomson is travelling to Cape Town, South Africa, this summer to continue her research on the experiences of refugee women. Her work is sponsored by a grant from the Picker Interdisciplinary Science Institute and builds on research conducted last summer in Cape Town and in Nairobi, Kenya, funded by the Lampert Institute for Civic and Global Affairs.

Thomson will document the realities of refugee life using a diary study research method, in which participants provide written responses to prompts in a journal. According to Thomson, prompts for participants are designed to be broad and allow each woman to “write from their heart.” For example, prior prompts include “What was your life like before you had to flee your country?” and “What does it mean to be a refugee in a new country?”

This summer, Thomson plans on working with approximately 30 women who have come to Cape Town from countries as far north as Ethiopia and Somalia. “One thing that surprised me is how much the women who are writing with me have enjoyed the process,” Thomson said. “Participation is totally voluntary and unpaid, so there is little incentive to write.”

Women working with Thomson have found both joy and refuge in the work, and will be listed as co-authors in Thomson’s resulting book. “My role is to simply translate their raw writing material into something publishable,” Thomson said.

After learning so much from her subjects, Thomson wants to use her research to prevent others from having to follow in their path. She hopes, one day, to bring the experiences of refugee women to policymakers in order to inspire change. “It takes a lot of courage and patience for women to work with me,” Thomson said. “They might never see the benefits of what we are doing, but we hope that we are able to use their stories to improve the future.”

Read more on Thomson’s experiences in Africa in the Colgate Scene.