LIFE Summer Fellowship Reflections: “Finding Home Through Migration: Narratives of Queer Refugees”

This is the second blog post in a series written by the 2021 recipients of the Duke University Libraries Summer Research Fellowship for LIFE Students. David Marin Quiros is a senior majoring in International Comparative studies with a concentration on Africa. You can find the first post here.

South Africa has a unique history in the development of human rights, which is very clear in their constitution, which grants freedoms and protections of various identities, regardless of citizenship. Because of this, South Africa becomes the place where many African queer migrants and asylum seekers come to seek refuge. However, the rise of queer-phobic and xenophobic violence has questioned the power of laws to translate to lived experiences, leading many to have to navigate the refugee process surrounded by prejudice. Their dual identity makes it difficult to find community with queer South Africans or their cisgender/heterosexual fellow refugees and families. Due to the history of colonialism in South Africa, many of the barriers they face are physically constructed into urban cities, affecting access to resources, work opportunities, and how communities are formed, which forces them to navigate through life in ways where they must think about the presentation of their identities in any given space.

My projects takes a look at social-spatial justice in South Africa, and specifically I am looking at queer refugees in South Africa living in Cape Town, looking at their movement, their relationship to the spaces they inhabit while taking into consideration the social coding of these spaces. There is an element of ethnography, as I want to listen to these individuals to understand how they would describe their lived experiences, but also how they make sense of their spaces as home, and what home means to them. I’m also including a human rights discourse to see how this discussion fits in the global migrant and queer narratives, and how queer and migrant geographies as a global phenomenon has very local and personal consequences.

I was drawn to this topic for two reasons. The first is academically, as I am intrigued by how a country with such a progressive government can struggle to apply policy into lived experiences. It challenges how we understand human rights as a system of treaties and agreements by demonstrating how localized institutions can be greater than global ones. The experience of queer refugees in Cape Town reminds us that we should have a deeper understanding of individuals and their intersectionalities when trying to improve their conditions. The second reason I am excited about this research is that I see myself in this project. Like the population I am researching, I am also a queer migrant, and I am interested in how these identities change when looked at local contexts, and how globalization impacts regional understandings of queer and migrant.

Throughout this project, I loved getting to learn about this specific intersection in a different context from the one I lived through. Also, getting to speak with the participants in my study illuminated me towards the diversity found even within various intersections. This work tries its best to be guided by the conversations I had with the participants, and take into account what they view as important elements of their lives. The conversations with queer refugees provide the critical entry point from which to begin to consider and to guide this work through the relationship of queer theory to the movement of bodies across and within different nation spaces, and to the central theme of finding and experiencing of home. This is why the idea of home is such a central focus in this work– many of these individuals, while they may have defined it differently, expressed making a home one of their most important dreams. Many of these participants expressed their appreciation for having their stories being shared to a wider audience, which makes me incredibly excited to have the opportunity to share their experiential knowledge.

Diving into this topic lead me to new bodies of knowledge I hadn’t had the chance to engage with in my classes. What was most fascinating for me was in thinking of time and space as nonlinear and implicated with one another. In beginning to understand the lives of queer refugees, I discovered the important role of the past in enabling and limiting spatial access in the present, and how this impacts how these individuals will come to understand their own identities. Additionally, I was able to think of space more than a container in which things take place, but rather as being actively produced by the actions that take place in it. In the context of this project, these new ideas allowed me to better make sense of urban space in South Africa, and how the political structures of the past and present affect queer people of color.

This project will still take some time before it will be finished, but continuing to engage in this topic in the spring semester has me incredibly excited. This experience has pushed me outside of my intellectual comfort zones, and has challenged the way I understand my engagement with human rights, both academically and in activism. I am very proud of the work I have done so far, as it has forced me to become a much more proficient writer and to further develop my emotional intelligence. I know there is much more I can learn from this project, and I look forward to being able to share the final product with my peers.

I am thankful to have had the support of Duke Libraries, both in funding my research and for allowing me to use their various different resources. I am also grateful to my faculty mentor, professor Samuel Fury Childs Daly, and Duke Librarians Heather Martin and Arianne Hartsell-Gundy. This project would not have been possible without their continued support and guidance. I look forward to continuing my research and building upon the foundational work in understanding queer and refugee movement globally.