Faculty fellow Wendy Pearlman helps explain the Syrian humanitarian crisis through Syrians’ own voices

March 22, 2017

In 2016, the Buffett Institute introduced its Faculty Fellows program, where four tenure-line faculty are awarded a one-course reduction in their normal teaching load for up to three years to pursue research opportunities and contribute to the intellectual leadership of the Institute.

Wendy Pearlman in TurkeyWendy Pearlman (left), 2016-2019 fellow, researches the comparative politics of the Middle East and North Africa, with a focus on conflict and social movements. She has been involved with Buffett Institute activities since her arrival at Northwestern in 2008, when she joined Buffett’s Middle East and North Africa faculty working group (which transformed into the MENA Studies Program in 2013). She has also served as an EDGS faculty associate, a member of the Comparative Historical Social Science coordinating committee, and an occasional collaborator/participant in Buffett-sponsored groups such as the War & Society Working Group, the Keyman Program, and the Center for Forced Migration Studies.

The fellowship came at a critical time for Pearlman, whose work focuses on documenting the stories and sharing the personal narratives of displaced Syrians in the Middle East and Europe.

Since 2012, Pearlman has traveled to Jordan, Turkey, Lebanon, Germany, Sweden, and Denmark to speak with Syrians who were displaced in the aftermath of Syria’s 2011 civil uprisings and subsequent government crackdown.

“When I began, I was most interested in the Syrian uprising itself: about their participation in protest, and how people came to overcome fear to participate in demonstrations,” Pearlman says. “I was speaking with Syrian refugees because it was too dangerous to go inside Syria. Over the years, the refugee component of people’s experience has become more and more salient. In the beginning, most Syrians thought their displacement would be short, and that it would just be a matter of time before they’d go back to Syria. With the years passing, the refugee component has become more and more important to them, and it’s also become a larger part of my own research focus.”

That focus has inspired her to compile and publish a book of Syrian first-person narratives, a type of oral history of Syria from 1970 (the beginning of the Hafez al-Assad regime) all the way to the present war and refugee crisis. It will focus on life inside Syria under authoritarianism, people’s participation in protest, how protest became war, and how civilians cope with civil war and forced migration.

“Field research just requires funding and support, so I’ve been enormously grateful for support from groups like Keyman, EDGS, and now the Buffett faculty fellowship, which has been extremely generous,” she says. “As every professor in the world knows, one of our biggest constraints is time. Our productivity is limited by time, and teaching is amazing, but it’s also wonderful to have a little bit of respite to focus on writing. I could not have done [this research] as quickly as I did without this support.”

The timing of her research is important as the Syrian war continues without a clear resolution in sight. As of this writing, Syrians and citizens from five other Muslim-majority countries are banned from traveling to or applying for visas to the US, and the Syrian refugee resettlement program is on hold indefinitely.

“Right now, there’s a public discussion and a media discussion that often doesn’t allow for Syrians’ voices to be heard. People are talking about Syria not necessarily having ever met a Syrian, talking about refugees without having a real sense of what it means to be a refugee, and that makes for a very skewed discourse, a very misrepresentative portrayal of who people are. I would hope if I can contribute anything, it’s a different point of view,” she says. “I feel extremely privileged to have had the chance to meet and be inspired by Syrian refugees, to feel that my life has become better and I have become a better person because of what I’ve learned and how I’ve been exposed to some amazing people – people who have sacrificed tremendously, who have taken enormous risks. Those are all voices and stories that I want to help communicate and transmit.”

“My mission has been to write something that I hope will help Americans to understand the Syrian conflict and to understand Syria, and also to care. And those have been my two missions [writing this book]: make Syria a little bit more comprehensible, and also to get a sense of what’s at stake.”

Over the past year, she has already published several other articles about Syrians and their experiences, including “Narratives of Fear in Syria” in Perspectives on Politics, which won the 2016 Syrian Studies Association Prize for best article. Her next phase of research will focus more deeply on the foundations of what is now recognized as a Syrian diaspora, with special attention to refugee resettlement in Europe. 

Pearlman’s book, We Crossed a Bridge and It Trembled: Voices from Syria, is now available from HarperCollins. Learn more about her recent research at sites.northwestern.edu/wendypearlman.

Europe, Human Rights, Middle East, Peace/Conflict, Religion