Some come from Syria, Afghanistan, Somalia, or Burundi. They are refugees, migrants, and other displaced populations who have relocated to Roanoke or Blacksburg. 

At first, those recently resettled may seem to have little in common with those whose families located to the Appalachian region several generations ago or those indigenous to the area who were forcibly displaced. But at the heart of migration is the quest to find a place of belonging, to find a home where one can prosper and feel safe.

The study of human resettlement is a familiar one for Virginia Tech, with a history of long-standing projects focused on people who have been displaced. The College of Liberal Arts and Human Sciences is now bringing university researchers and the community together to focus on the topic through the new Center for Refugee, Migrant, and Displacement Studies.

“Although based in the college, the center has a university-wide mandate to conduct, support, and promote humanistic and interdisciplinary research on issues of migration and displacement,” said Katrina Powell, founding director of the new center and a professor in the Department of English. “We are researching the broad issues of displacement, which includes forced relocation caused by civil unrest, government-induced development, eminent domain, climate change, natural disaster, and colonialist expansion.”

Portrait of Katrina Powell with mask
Katrina Powell, an English professor, is founding director of the Center for Refugee, Migrant, and Displacement Studies. Photo by Leslie King for Virginia Tech.

Three other Virginia Tech experts join Powell as the founding members of the Center for Refugee, Migrant, and Displacement Studies: Brett Shadle, professor and chair of the Department of HistoryRebecca Hester, an assistant professor in the Department of Science, Technology, and Society; and Georgeta Pourchot, coordinator of the International Refugee Research Project, based in Alexandria, Virginia.

Shadle, the center’s associate director of outreach, has research interests involving the histories of race and of refugees. He is the education coordinator for the Blacksburg Refugee Partnership and serves as faculty advisor for a Virginia Tech student organization, Coalition for Refugee Resettlement.

“Numerous organizations across Virginia — including the Blacksburg Refugee Partnership and the Coalition for Refugee Resettlement — seek to help resettled refugees and immigrants create new homes,” Shadle said. “The center can offer them research and outreach support to better inform their work. More important, perhaps, is our focus on refugee voices in identifying the issues that the center can help to address.”

Portrait of Brett Shadle with mask
Brett Shadle, a history professor, is associate director of outreach for the Center for Refugee, Migrant, and Displacement Studies. Photo by Leslie King for Virginia Tech.

Hester is the center’s associate director of education. She focuses her research on Latin American migration and sociocultural studies of health and medicine, along with critical security and race and gender studies. 

“It is currently estimated that at least 80 million people — including a significant number of unaccompanied and refugee children — are displaced,” Hester said. “Given climate change, the growth of populist governments and associated civil unrest, global poverty, and growing social inequity, we can only estimate that the number of migrants, refugees, and displaced people will grow exponentially. The center will provide a space for researchers, students, and community members to understand, discuss and, for those who have been displaced, relate to the complex social, political, economic, and cultural implications of this reality.” 

Hester’s current project with the center involves supervising students working on a podcast titled “In Place” and creating a Pathways minor in displacement studies. Pathways minors are a key feature of Virginia Tech’s general education program, which includes core and integrative concepts, as well as learning outcomes for undergraduates.

Portrait of Rebecca Hester with mask
Rebecca Hester, an assistant professor of science, technology, and society, is associate director of education for the Center for Refugee, Migrant, and Displacement Studies. Photo by Leslie King for Virginia Tech.

The center’s associate director of international initiatives is Pourchot. To this new role, she brings experience in foreign policy, refugees, terrorism, democratization, and international security, as well as the International Refugee Research Project, an interdisciplinary initiative she leads that examines the challenges facing refugees as they integrate into their host countries. 

“The new center will put Virginia Tech on the map as a global leader developing new generations of professionals in the field of displacement,” she said. “It will engage undergraduate and graduate students, faculty, and alumni in research, education, and service in a field in dire need of empathy, compassion, resources, and skills to serve oftentimes forgotten populations.”

Portrait of Georgeta Pourchot with mask
Georgeta Pourchot, coordinator of the International Refugee Research Project, is associate director of international initiatives for the Center for Refugee, Migrant, and Displacement Studies. Photo by Eric Pourchot.

The new center brings together previous work, including an initiative with other higher education professionals and service providers to launch the Virginia Consortium on Refugee, Migrant, and Displacement Studies. This statewide consortium, established in 2019, gathers researchers, service providers, volunteers, and community members who are invested in providing reciprocal research for and with displaced populations. 

Now administered by the Center for Refugee, Migrant, and Displacement Studies, the consortium works to bring these groups together to understand the issues facing community members as they transition to living in Virginia.

“We have already held several community-building events,” Powell said. “Through the Center for Rhetoric in Society, we collaborated with several campus units, including the Moss Arts Center, and local volunteers with the Blacksburg Refugee Partnership. Together we hosted a welcoming event for new refugee families.”

The group also hosted a workshop with Rachel Weaver, an assistant professor in the Virginia Tech School of Visual Arts and a multimedia artist. Raised in areas of rural poverty, her work explores personal and cultural memory, resilience in the face of adversity, landscapes and people in flux, and ecological systems.

For the workshop, families could collage, draw, and write to reflect upon the homes they had left and to share their experiences of building new homes in Southwest Virginia.

The center, which was approved by the Office of the Vice President for Research and Innovation in 2020 and will hold a formal launch event sometime in 2021, will continue its work with the statewide consortium. Yet that collaboration is just one part of the larger picture.

“As a research center, we want to influence decision-making and sustainable solutions for forced relocation and large-scale population movement,” Powell said. “We plan to continue our previous work and to collaborate with other researchers investigating forced relocation.” 

In recognition of the important work that already exists on campus related to displacement, among the new center’s immediate priorities will be to establish partnerships and to support faculty and students interested in these issues.

Powell, whose own research focuses on displacement narratives, helped co-found VT Stories — an oral history project that preserves oral histories for a more inclusive history of the Hokie community and that is part of the Council on Virginia Tech History. She also brings to the center a project funded by Voice of Witness, a nonprofit that advances human rights by amplifying the voices of people affected by and fighting against injustice. “Resettled: Beginning (Again in Appalachia)” is an oral history undertaking that records the stories of people who have resettled in the area

Powell said the project — like the new center — brings together narratives to highlight shared experiences of displacement.

“With the pandemic, people are losing work and they might have to move to find alternative employment,” Powell said. “Or because of a natural disaster, such as a flood, they may have been displaced. Even though each case is different, people who have been displaced can face similar systemic barriers as they relocate. 

“We believe by understanding these commonalities and the history of forced relocation in this country, we can highlight the ways displacement affects us all,” Powell said. “We examine these similarities to better understand the effects of racial, gender, and place-based differences on migrant and refugee experiences.”

Powell adds that the poignancy of these shared experiences helped fuel the enthusiasm of Laura Belmonte, dean of the College of Liberal Arts and Human Sciences, in creating the new center.

“Our daily lives are punctuated with stories of people around the world who are profoundly affected by displacement and migration caused by economic dislocation, climate change, political oppression, and violence,” said Belmonte. “I’m proud to support a center devoted to the study of these vulnerable populations.

“I believe this center is a perfect reflection,” Belmonte added, “of our college’s dedication to bringing analytical rigor, compassion, and visibility to some of the most pressing challenges of our time.”

— Written by Leslie King