Reimagining the Experiences of Refugees and Immigrants

My name is Patoimbasba Nikiema. I am a fifth-year graduate student completing a PhD in French and Francophone Studies in the Department of French and Italian and a doctoral certificate in Gender, Sexuality, and Women Studies. My research focuses on the ways in which 20th-21st transnational writers from the Caribbean and North and Sub-Saharan Africa reimagine experiences of exile and diaspora in light of contemporary forms and routes of migration in Africa and the Caribbean.

My research is motivated by a shift in thinking about exile that can be seen in spaces like the “Atelier de la Pensée” – an intellectual platform that gathers thinkers and scholars from Africa and its diaspora every year in Dakar, Senegal – which call for Africans to, rather than leave the continent, reimagine it in terms of possibilities and lay the groundwork for its development. Focusing on works by Achille Mbembe, mostly on his call for Africans to get rid of their desire for exile and to reconsider a new geopolitical order of mobility, and Felwine Sarr’s conceptualization of an afrotopian perspective that situates the continent in a contemporary postcolonial experience of self-reliance, my research starts by analyzing the experience of marginalization immigrants from Africa and its diaspora experience in Western countries as a central dynamic that leads to thinking about a return to origins. My research follows by examining the idea of return as a renewed social, economic, and political participation in the homeland.

Two terms that are essential in my analysis of the existence of African and diasporic exiles are the notions of assimilation and integration. Drawing from Rogers Brubaker’s work on assimilation, ethnicity, and nationalism, I argue that assimilation creates significant social dissymmetries in that it seeks to make the immigrant completely similar to the home population. Consequently, assimilation denies otherness, and in its search for similarity, it not only seeks a complete mutation of racial and national identity but pushes dissimilarity to the periphery. Unlike assimilation, integration, as Axel Honneth demonstrates, is a process of inclusion that does not strip the individual of his/her social, cultural, and national identity. It is, therefore, a form of social recognition that is constructed on the acceptance of differences.

The Humanities Engage Summer Immersive Fellowship allowed me to work with ARYSE (Alliance for Refugee Youth Support and Education), a Pittsburgh nonprofit that gave me the opportunity to have close contact with immigrant youth in Allegheny county. It was an enriching experience that allowed me to assess immigrant children’s integration in Pittsburgh, compare different methods of integration, and see how they incorporated new values that differed from those found in their homeland. The program helped me understand the tangible differences between assimilation, as explored in afropean narratives that evolve around protagonists whose racial and cultural origin remain a serious threat for their integration in European countries, and integration as practiced by ARYSE – which builds on immigrants’ background to ensure a positive inclusion in American society.

My summer experience, which aligned well with my research on postcolonial literature, constantly reminded me of Ato Quayson’s question, “What should the ultimate objectives of a responsible postcolonial discourse be?” In this position, I had to move from a mode of engaging subjects for my sociopolitical research on issues of integration and assimilation to developing observable social relationships with immigrant youth.  I had to channel the political theory I was comfortable with and able to employ at a distance into taking an active part in molding immigrant youth’s socialization in the US.  I also had to pivot from my academic engagement with Khadi Hane, a Senegalese author who writes eloquently about the plight of African youth in France, to drawing openly from my own life experience as an immigrant from Burkina Faso to create engaging stories for the youth I worked with. The atmosphere in ARYSE was perfectly designed for such cross-fertilization, and as a result, I was able to transform from a doctoral student with a dissertation project into a counselor of immigrant youth. My desire to see change – that is, a move from assimilation to integration – shifted me from being solely a scholar of political stances to a trusted mentor with deep personal involvement in the lives of youth. This did not happen without influencing my conception of the return. Indeed, my experience confirmed my assumptions that a successful integration may modify immigrants’ and exiles’ vision and participation in their home country and also influence their conception of the return.

The summer immersive proved essential for my understanding of possibilities after my studies. Working with immigrants, refugees, and asylees is something I did not envision before the opportunity Humanities Engage offered me. As a result, it is a field I have started to explore in the US. Academia (which I thought would be the only door after my studies) is no longer the sole career I contemplate today. The possibility of being a counselor for the academic, social, and economic integration of immigrants is something that I have become very excited about.

In retrospect, I would have loved to have had an immersive opportunity before writing my dissertation. As I have learned, contact with people from fields that are indirectly related to one’s domain of research can provide inspiration for new approaches to analyzing certain topics and open one to ideas not perceived before. For people planning to do an immersive fellowship in the future, I would say to prepare to explore other domains and be as flexible as possible. Immersion will give you a different understanding of your possibilities.

Patoimbasba Nikiema
October 14, 2020
Learn about all the Summer 2020 Immersive Fellows and their experiences with their host organizations.