Ruth Mitchell-Pitts Award Profile

Berlin and Researching Refugee Experiences

A chain-link fence encloses rows of light grey containers made to house refugees.
Refugee accommodations on the airport runways of the Tempelhof Airport (where the Berlin Airlift happened). These container accommodations were just closed in mid-June.

This summer, Michelle Dromgold-Sermen, an incoming fourth year PhD Student in the Sociology Department at UNC, was the recipient of the Ruth Mitchell-Pitts Award, and spent over a month researching migration in Germany.

Tall coniferous trees stand in front of a park with a large orange rock. On the horizon, a single tower rises against the sky
The East German TV Tower viewed through the trees of the Tiergarten.

Q: What are your primary research interests?

A: I specialize in international migration, gender and the Middle East. I received my BA in German/Europe Area Studies and International Relations from American University in Washington, DC, a M.Sc. in Middle East Studies from the Middle East Technical University in Ankara, Turkey and a MA in Sociology from UNC. My research focuses on questions of refugee and migrant belonging and incorporation.

Q: Could you tell us a little about your experience as a recipient of the Ruth Mitchell-Pitts Award?

A: As a recipient of the Ruth Mitchell-Pitts Award, I am spending five weeks this summer in Berlin doing exploratory interviews with Syrian refugees living here. Having already conducted similar interviews with Syrian refugees in the United States for my MA, I am curious to find out how individuals fleeing the same civil conflict adapt and incorporate themselves in different places. I am particularly interested in understanding whether or not refugees in Berlin feel like they belong here in Germany or what they think would need to happen for them to have a sense of security and belonging. I am looking forward to comparing these findings to the experiences of refugees resettled in the United States and contrasting these experiences in two different national contexts. While refugees resettled in the United States have the ability to become U.S. citizens, refugees in Germany have a much more precarious status. Most interestingly, the more Syrians I speak with, the more I appreciate the broad range of personalities, beliefs, traumas and dreams that Syrian refugees continue to carry with them in these new places.

Barbed wire sits on a chain link fence, enclosing some shrubs and residential buildings.
Residential refugee accommodations in containers in the suburban neighborhood of Zehlendorf.

Q: How has this opportunity shaped your research or relationship with Europe and the EU?

A: This is an excellent opportunity for me to conduct exploratory interviews to determine how differences in state asylum and refugee policies in Germany and the United States might impact refugees’ experiences in these two countries in similar or different ways. These interviews and my time here will inform the specific aspects and comparisons of refugee belonging that I choose to pursue in my dissertation. This opportunity has encouraged me to learn more about the situation that refugees and asylees are experiencing at the city and national level in Berlin. Furthermore, I am situating these local urban experiences in Berlin within the broader context of how EU migration, refugee and asylum policies shape refugees’ sense of belonging.

Water cascades down a rock formation to meet a calm lake amid lots of green foliage.
The waterfall in Victoria Park in Kreuzberg.

Q: What advice would you give to a student considering a travel/research experience?

A: When considering most things in life, I tend to ask myself, “If I do not do X, will I later regret that I did not experience it?” In choosing to study abroad, consider whether you might regret not having studied abroad later in life. I studied abroad as an undergraduate in Berlin at the Free University in 2008. Perhaps if I hadn’t had that experience, I wouldn’t have the language skills, personal connections or familiarity in the city to be back here in Berlin today doing research as a PhD student…

Thank you Michelle for the great interview and photos!

To learn more about where CES grants send students, visit the Student section of our blog.

For more information on the Ruth Mitchell-Pitts Award and how to apply, visit CES’s website.

This post was written by EURO Major Brett Harris