My Wellesley
Nadya Hajj

Nadya Hajj

Assistant Professor of Political Science

Through her fellowship with the Freedom Project, Nadya Hajj has promoted ideological heterodoxy and tolerance regarding the discourse and portrayal of Arab and Muslim refugees.

Dr. Nadya Hajj teaches Comparative Politics, Political Economy, and Middle East politics. She studies how refugee communities, and in particular Palestinian refugees, created order in the midst of chaotic political economic landscapes.  Her research has been published in the Journal of Policy Studies and Comparative Politics. Her new book is titled, Protection Amid Chaos: The Creation of Property Rights in Palestinian Refugee Camps (Columbia UP, 2016).

Here is how Dr. Hajj explains her work and how it relates to the Freedom Project:

The common discourse and portrayal of Arab and/or Muslim refugees in the media today is largely a negative one.  These refugees are portrayed as evil terrorists or pitiful helpless people. In order to promote an alternative narrative, I devised a three part academic salon series on the genesis, survival, and prospects of refugee conditions for Palestinian and Syrian refugees. Freedom Project funds allowed me to bring speakers to campus, pay them a modest honorarium, and set up discussions with students.  The salon series offered short presentations followed by ample time devoted to discussions between faculty and Wellesley students. One student said to me, “I thought refugees were different than me, but after listening to the speaker…I learned they are human with the same desires and fears. Hearing his stories and how he built a productive life for himself inspired me to get involved in my local church’s resettlement program at home.”

In addition to the academic salons, I used Freedom Project funding to pursue research on the burial practices of Palestinian refugees. The central aim is to present an alternative narrative of survival and death in refugee camps.  Moving away from hyper nationalist host state rhetoric and the claims of populist parties; refugees have forged their own pathway for burial of the dead.  Freedom Project funding allowed me to hire a research assistant in the refugee camps to collect data in real time during the funerary practices.

I collected more than a dozen interviews in summer 2017 with families that had lost a loved one. In addition, funding permitted me to hire a Wellesley computer science student that could “scrape” data, using a program called Selenium, from internet based groups that documented funerals in the camps for the diaspora.  I was able to create maps that display the activation of the camp diasporanetwork every time an individual dies in the camps.

Dead bodies often have vibrant political lives (Verdery 1999, Volk 2010).  Some bodies are buried in prominent places to foment and galvanize nationalism while others are buried anonymously or denied proper burial altogether to squelch popular protest (Verdery 1999, Volk 2010). For most refugees it is a political quagmire to find a proper burial spot and give sanctuary to the dead when host countries deny their individual freedoms and are reluctant to offer cemetery plots for non-nationals.  Burying their dead with dignity is testimony to the refugee struggle against arbitrary power and the political resilience of their community.  How do refugees living in transitional political spaces find sanctuary in death?

Using qualitative interviews (from 2004, 2005, 2007, 2012, 2016, 2017), religious texts, and historical documents I trace how Palestinian refugees in Nahr al Bared (NBC) refugee camp located in Northern Lebanon sought practical political-religious solutions to giving sanctuary to their dead. In the face of host country limitations and nativist oppression, Palestinian refugees sought practical political solutions for finding sanctuary in death.  Rather than looking to political elites like the PLO or host country officials, Palestinian refugees created burial solutions rooted in their community's pre-1948 religious and political traditions and melded them with modern ICTs (internet communication technologies) to: 1) give dignity to the dead; 2) shift the death narrative away from elites; 3) strengthen and reaffirm bonds with the refugee diaspora.

The second book builds on the research from my first book, Protection Amid Chaos. The right to own property is something we generally take for granted. For refugees living in camps, in some cases for as long as generations, the link between citizenship and property ownership becomes strained. How do refugees protect these assets and preserve communal ties? How do they maintain a sense of identity and belonging within chaotic settings? Protection Amid Chaos follows people as they develop binding claims on assets and resources in challenging political and economic spaces. Focusing on Palestinians living in refugee camps in Lebanon and Jordan, it shows how the first to arrive developed flexible though legitimate property rights claims based on legal knowledge retained from their homeland, subsequently adapted to the restrictions of refugee life. As camps increased in complexity, refugees merged their informal institutions with the formal rules of political outsiders, devising a broader, stronger system for protecting their assets and culture from predation and state incorporation.