Dr. Levin is a US scholar whose work and research center on migration with multi-layered considerations ranging from politics to semantics highlighting the role of anthropologists in understanding what is at stake for our society. As a Language Expert, Dr. Levin is proud of her involvement with the long running Albanian language program and the ASU’s Melikian Center relationship with the University of Prishtina.
You received your PHD from New York University and then taught as Adjunct Assistant Professor in the Anthropology Department at Queens College, CUNY in 2017. After New York, you joined the Melikian Center at Arizona State University as a postdoctoral fellow. In the words of T. S. Eliot “Home is where one starts from.” Where did you start from?
I started out from Belarus, which was still part of the Soviet Union when I was born and when my family began our journey to the US in 1988. As an immigrant kid in Brooklyn, I wanted to get as far away from that home as possible and just be an American. I resented having to speak Russian with my grandparents and I did not have any Russian-speaking friends at school. But home exerts a pull, even if that pull does not take the form that one would expect. As a college student in Saint Louis, I became interested in anthropology and as an anthropology major, I did an anthropology internship at the International Institute of St. Louis, a refugee resettlement agency. There, my supervisors looked to put my Russian skills, which were probably at their lowest point, to good use with a group of people that were being resettled in the US for the very first time. These people were Ahiska Turks/Meskhetians, specifically those who had been living in Russia’s Krasnodar region since the late 1980s. They had been denied many basic rights, including the rights to officially marry, own property, graduate from state institutions, etc. I learned that all of these are rights were denied them via a denial of their right to citizenship. That was a very compelling problem for me and probably why I turned to this project when I decided to pursue a PhD in Anthropology.
What about the current situation in Belarus?
These days, I try to follow events in Belarus as closely as possible and would like to go back, possibly for a longer stay, when Belarusians have been successful in their efforts to oust Lukashenko. The former president has clung to power by falsifying the results of the August 2020 election and threatening, imprisoning, exiling, and torturing members of the opposition, journalists, and ordinary people.
Do you believe that you chose anthropology or it chose you? What attracted you first to the anthropological studies?
My interest in anthropology began with an interest in non-human primates. I loved my biological anthropology classes and fully believe that the discipline chose me. In fact, I started out as a psychology major and it was my very first anthropology class that drew me in. I think that it was actually my internship at the International Institute that caused me to change to cultural anthropology.
In your presentation on the Bursa city museum of migration in Turkey (BIHM), you raise a number of important issues starting with “a politically neutral” vision of migrants and migration constructed by migration museums,” which scholars have noted presents a “striking mismatch between [museums’] valorization of immigration …and the political discourse and proposed legislation around limiting opportunities for immigrants.” So, is the Bursa museum an isolated case or is it representative of a distinct and nowadays familiar pattern?
I think the BIHM is an interesting representative of a familiar pattern. State-funded migration museums all over the world tend to celebrate the state-approved version of migration, while at the same time excluding or casting aspersions on human movement that falls outside of whatever those legal and ideological boundaries happen to be. Their pedagogical mission is to send visitors home with an understanding of (some) migrants’ struggles and an appreciation of (some) migrants’ contributions. The museums are, on the face of it, pro-immigrant. And yet, they give people a very powerful script for rejecting certain migrant communities, pushing for more restrictive immigration laws, etc., while insisting that they are actually pro-immigrant.BIHM’s attempt to pull Syrian refugees into the circle of acceptable migrants is an interesting one and certainly shaped by the AKP’s vulnerability on this issue. They are trying to convince a dubious public, including many of their own supporters, that these people can be productive members of Turkish society. The BIHM is one of their tools for doing so. It’s hard to say at this point whether those efforts have been successful!
It appears Bursa’s migration history from 8,500 years ago up to the present provides a glimpse of Turkey’s ruling party, the AKP’s immigration policy and politics, “priorities and predicaments’ as you put it. What is at stake in ‘historical’ narrations thinly veiled as apolitical by such institutions?
A lot is at stake! Certainly, first and foremost, actual people’s lives are at stake. Again, BIHM is just one instrument for cementing the AKP’s hegemonic notion of migration. I would not even claim that it is a particularly important one. I returned to this museum in the summer of 2019, after my article was published, and it was almost as empty as it was during my first visit. The exhibits had not really changed and the few attempts at updates were not very impressive. Nevertheless, I think it’s a good example of how states attempt to create narratives of the past and the present that are favorable to their political projects. Migrant and minority communities are frequently scapegoats in these efforts. Already vulnerable, they are made even more so when negative representations are so authoritative and prolific.
Your analysis of Turkey’s political climate in the context of the migration history museum paints a fairly accurate description of the controversies in our own backyard. We are and proudly call this land a country of immigrants while at the same time the legislators keep pushing for more restrictive immigration laws.
In the US, many of the most vocal proponents of restrictive border policies proclaim that they are pro-immigrant—but only those immigrants who come the right way. While this statement relies on a lack of understanding of US history and contemporary immigration policy and practice, it carries a certain kind of authority. Like many scholars of migration, I believe that this rhetoric makes life more dangerous for all immigrants and members of ethnic minorities.
Is it fair to say that the case study of Bursa Migration History Museum draws attention to the issue of legitimizing the differentiating of immigrants? Evidently, all immigrants are not created equal: the Ahiska Turks are ethnically Turkish migrants, the Balkans and the Caucasus migration is favored and perceived as “increasing the national strength”, the Syrian refugees are accepted to embrace their Turkish identity, whereas the Armenians are made a cautionary tale.
Exactly! This is, in some ways, a function of all museums. Art museums attest to the fact that not all art was created equal. What is included and what is excluded, and how certain things are included (what is written about them on information labels, where they are placed in the space of the museum, whether they are shown in isolation or as part of school, etc.) are reflections of aesthetic judgments. These judgments are shaped by culture and they change over time, but at any particular point in time, they are presented as authoritative. Members of the general public enter art museums relying on the curators to show them what real art looks like. Most people don’t have the time or inclination to look into it further, so they take the museum’s word for it. When it comes to museums that are more socially oriented or, perhaps, politically controversial, some people may come in with their own opinions and question or critique some of what the museum is saying to them. These museums can also change people’s minds. But I think that these museums are at their most powerful when they are reinforcing existing opinions—including their opinions on who is a “real” refugee or the right sort of immigrant. So, at BIHM, members of the Turkish public come in already thinking (having heard it from a wide range of sources, including history books, political debate, family, etc.) that the Armenian minority, both in the early 20th century and in contemporary Turkey, has been ungrateful and unwilling to fit in. When the museum reinforces this notion, it becomes even more powerful, perhaps especially because the museum is generally pro-migrant.
At several historical periods you touched on in your presentation more specifically the Greek Turkish population exchange, Albanians have been impacted on a large scale. Although I understand the geography and connection with the Ottoman Empire puts them “in the favorite status” many families were separated as thousands were displaced on account of religion being considered equal to ethnicity or nationality. Have you come across such stories or accounts in your line of work?
I have not, but that only reflects my relatively limited reading on this population exchange. I would certainly be interested in learning more about it.
Given the disinformation dynamic that is prevalent online and exacerbated by certain interest groups, what are the resources available to migration advocates or advocacy groups? How valuable is the work of social anthropologists in this regard?
Anthropologists, including some of my colleagues at ASU, already work with migration advocacy groups. I think they would agree that we actually have a lot to learn from the advocates. Anthropologists tend to be better at analyzing the problem than offering practical solutions, but a good understanding of the problem of disinformation would certainly be helpful to everyone.I understand that your “Albanian connection’ stems or starts at the ASU’s Melikian Center. Can you talk about it?
That’s correct. My “Albanian connection” really began with Linda Meniku. In 2019, I observed a few of her Albanian classes and attended Albanian culture night. Later on, I would also meet members of the Albanian and Kosovar Albanian communities here in the Valley who are also board members of the Melikian Center. They are wonderful people and extremely supportive of our Albanian program and the Melikian Center’s longstanding relationship with the University of Prishtina. The Melikian Center also started a reading group during the pandemic. We read the literature of the Critical Languages Institute’s languages in translation. Last spring, we got to read and discuss Ismail Kadare’s The File on H, which I thoroughly enjoyed. Over the past three years I have also gotten the chance to meet some of the students who studied under Linda, including ASU undergraduate students, graduate students from universities across the country, and professionals from across the world. They have been some of the most interesting and ambitious students at CLI. All of this has made me want to learn more and to visit Albania one day soon.The Critical Languages Institute (CLI) at ASU’s Melikian Center is a national training institute for languages, that offers summer intensive courses and study-abroad programs around the world for students, graduates, researchers and so on.
What is it like to work in this program and with colleagues from Albania and Kosovo like Professor Linda Meniku as the founder of the program?
CLI began over just over 30 years ago, in 1990, teaching just one language—Macedonian. Today, we offer 14 languages, mainly from East Europe and the former Soviet Union. Albanian is one of our longest running languages and Linda Meniku has taught it from the beginning. She is a wonderful colleague. She is warm and supportive of her fellow faculty members. She is highly adaptive, which certainly came in handy when we switched to online instruction during the pandemic. She infuses her personality, including her sense of humor, into her teaching. Her students, and their Albanian skills, attest to just how much she is able to accomplish with complete beginners in just 7 weeks.
For the readers, I’d like to repeat one of your quotes on what language learning is about. It is about being “respectful to understand someone’s culture and language. It’s a positive thing that helps to build relationshipsAfter rwo years of online classes due to the pandemic, CLI is offering summer classes in person for students and professionals interested in learning Albanian, right?
We are excited for students to return to the ASU campus and our study-abroad locations, including Tirana, for the summer 2022 program. We are, of course, working with ASU’s Global Education Office and university leadership to ensure that we take all of the necessary precautions in this still very complicated time.
I thank you for the interview and wish to discuss more of your work in the near future.