What can faith bring to discussion on migration? A report on an Oxford conference ‘Migration, Faith & Action: Shifting the Discourse’

by Fiona McCallum

On 8th – 9th May, I headed to Oxford to present the first DIMECCE conference paper based upon fieldwork conducted by the UK team. Arriving in ‘the city of dreaming spires’, I was slightly disappointed to discover our location was actually the modern surroundings of the Mathematical Institute. However, the excellent facilities, superb catering and the exchange of ideas soon had me forgetting that I was not sitting in a historic college.

A historic college and a modern one

   Where I had hoped to be – a historic college                   The conference venue – Mathematical Institute

The objective of the conference was two-fold: to explore the discourses faith traditions provide surrounding migration and to examine the role that faith communities and faith-based organisations play concerning migration. Therefore, the title ‘Migration, Faith & Action: Shifting the Discourse’ was a provocative, perhaps ambitious attempt to challenge the economic-based focus which tends to be prevalent in policy-making circles and perhaps to a lesser extent within academia when discussing migration.

The conference convenors were Oxford postgraduate students who won a prestigious competition to host a conference and were excellent in arranging an interesting programme and organising proceedings on the day. Their initiative was sponsored by Las Casas Institute at Blackfriars and The Oxford Research Centre in The Humanities (TORCH), University of Oxford.

As one presenter was unable to attend, the ‘Faith and Migration’ panel I was part of became a de facto Middle Eastern migration panel. Dr Tahir Zaman, a Visiting Fellow at the Centre for Research on Migration, Refugees and Belonging at the University of East London, UK, in his paper entitled ‘Home, Sacred Home: Islamic Theologies of Migration in the Emplacement Strategies of Displaced Iraqis and Syrians’, provided an interesting discussion on how the concept of the umma (community of Muslims) has been employed by both Iraqi refugees in Syria and Syrian refugees on the Turkish-Syrian border as a coping strategy with their situation in contrast with the ‘guest’ term used by Middle Eastern states which can be seen as ambiguous due to its temporary category.

My paper was called ‘From Local to Global: Middle Eastern Churches and Migration – The UK Case Study’ and explored some of the themes which have come up in the early stages of the UK fieldwork. Using the case studies of the Coptic Orthodox and Syriac Orthodox denominations, I explored how the churches attempt to provide community needs, community responses to these attempts and challenges faced in church efforts to deal with the situation of now being global churches with adherents outside of the traditional Middle East region. In particular, I emphasised the notion of unity under the patriarch, the significance of having their own church building and the complexities of meeting the needs of both first and second generation members of the congregation. The paper appeared well-received with comments that the importance of having own space and its link to a sense of belonging is similar in many faith-based migrant communities.

One of the most useful presentations for the DIMECCE project was Dr Bernardo Brown’s (Leiden University, Netherlands) anthropological study of Sri Lankan migrant workers in Italy and the experiences of the Sri Lankan Catholic chaplaincy in catering to their needs. In his paper entitled ‘The Pitfalls of a Multicultural Church: Notes on Sri Lankan Transnational Workers and the Migrant Chaplaincy in London’, Dr Brown identified similar themes such as the debate among clergy regarding engagement with Italian culture and society, fears about the impact of integration and/or assimilation on maintaining Sri Lankan culture, discussion about homeland events including a growing human rights discourse, language issues regarding the second generation and some tensions regarding sharing places of worship with Italian Catholic communities. This fascinating presentation also left me thinking that the DIMECCE team should further explore literature on Catholic migrant churches in Europe in order to learn what themes have been addressed and to exchange ideas in the future.

This conference highlighted the benefits of interdisciplinary scholarly exchange with several keynote discussions from theologians and migration scholars. However, one of the highlights for me was the film screening of the documentary ‘Everyday Heroes’ which tells the story of a group of Mexican women known as ‘Las Patronas’ who provide assistance to migrants from Central America travelling through Mexico – primarily on the roofs of trains – hoping to gain entrance to the United States. This moving film reinforces a message that is often lost in the debate on migration but one which bringing faith back in should perhaps assist in highlighting, that is that migrants are first and foremost human beings. We were privileged to have Norma Romero, a member of ‘Las Patronas’ who were winners of Mexico’s 2013 National Human Rights Award, to answer our questions about the documentary and the work of the group. I would encourage you to watch this film if you ever have the opportunity.

Overall, this was an interesting conference although as is often the case, perhaps the attendees were those who already wish to bring faith back in to the migration discussion and the challenge now is to have a wider impact upon the academic and policymaking community. In terms of DIMECCE UK, it was a successful outing for our first conference paper and we look forward to many more in as pleasant and interest settings as Oxford.

Tourist attractions in Oxford

Oxford sights

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