Towards a Critical Refugee Studies: A Symposium at UC Riverside

Lin + Lam, Tomorrow I Leave, 2010. Digital C-print, 60” x 35”. Image courtesy of Lin + Lam

Lin + Lam, Tomorrow I Leave, 2010. Digital C-print, 60” x 35”. Image courtesy of Lin + Lam

May 25, 2016
8:30 AM – 5:30 PM
INTS 1113 & INTS 1128

Project Description

In the devastating aftermath of Hurricane Katrina in 2005, reporters, politicians and media commentators used the term “refugee” to describe storm victims, many of them poor African Americans, who were uprooted from their homes along the Gulf Coast and forced to flee in search of refuge. Almost immediately, prominent African American leaders charged that the use of refugee to refer to Katrina survivors was “racially biased,” contending that the term implies second-class citizens – or even non-Americans. For these critics, “refugeeness” connotes “otherness,” summoning the image of “people in a Third World country who “carried the scraps of their lives in plastic trash bags,” wore “donated clothes,” and slept “on the floor of overpopulated shelters.” In this context, calling U.S.-born African American refugees was tantamount to stripping them of their citizenship. As the Katrina controversy triggers associations with highly charged images of Third World poverty, foreignness and statelessness. These associations reflect the transnationally circulated representations of refugees as incapacitated objects of rescue, fleeing impoverished, war-torn or corrupt states—an unwanted problem for asylum and resettlement countries.

Through panel discussions, an artwork display, and film screenings, the conference seeks to further the emergent field of Critical Refugee Studies. It will serve as a platform for the inquiry into globally displaced populations and their histories, bringing together panelists who will explore refugees originating from Central America, the Middle East and Southeast Asia. With a focus on refugees and their agency, the symposium decenters scholarship that portrays refugees as “problems” to be solved and absorbed by the host country.

Existing literature on refugees too often emphasizes a narrative arc that interlinks trauma and survival to economic and cultural assimilation for the refugee subject. Countering this gesture, the symposium will chart the field of Critical Refugee Studies as an interdisciplinary field that reconceptualizes the refugee not as an object of rescue but as a site of social and political critiques, whose emergence when traced, would make visible the processes of colonization, war, and displacement.

Drawing from the fields of literary studies, feminist studies, cultural studies, and ethnic studies, the conference pivots on a critique of the braiding of militarism and imperialism that underlies forced migrations on a global scale. To this end, the conference will feature academics, artists and activists who have examined refugees through a critical lens, often in conjunction with a critique of empire and an emphasis on the creative expressions of refugeehood.


Mohamed Abumaye, University of California, San Diego
Victor Bascara, University of California, Los Angeles
Lan Duong, University of California, Riverside
Yến Lê Espiritu, University of California, San Diego
praCh, Rapper
Viet Thanh Nguyen, University of Southern California
Ova Saopeng, Performer
Lila Sharif, University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign
Khatharya Um, University of California, Berkeley
Mai Der Vang, Poet
Ma Vang, University of California, Merced


8:30–9:30 AM Breakfast INTS1111
9:30–11:00 AM Keywords I: Critical Refugee Studies
Mohamed Abumaye (UCSD), Yen Le Espiritu (UCSD), Lila Sharif (UIUC), Khatharya Um (UCB)
11:00 AM–12:30 PM Refugee Nation Workshop
Ova Saopeng
12:30–1:30 PM Lunch INTS1111
1:30–3:00 PM Keywords II: Critical Refugee Studies
Victor Bascara (UCLA), Lan Duong (UCR), Ma Vang (UCM)
INTS 1113
3:00–3:30 PM Poetry Reading
Mai Der Vang
INTS 1128
3:30–4:00 PM Rap Performance
 INTS 1128
4:00–4:30 PM A Conversation with Artists, Q &A
Mai Der Vang, praCh, Viet Thanh Nguyen
 INTS 1128
5:00–5:15 PM Close of Conference  INTS 1128



Lan Duong, Department of Media and Cultural Studies, UC Riverside


The Center for Ideas and Society (UCR) | The Forrest S. Mosten Conflict Resolution and Peace Studies Fund (UCR) | Center for Transpacific Studies (USC) | Department of Asian Studies (UCR) | Department of Media and Cultural Studies (UCR) | University of California Humanities Research Institute

For more information visit the UCHRI Blog.