“I am sorry, but due to university ethics guidelines, I am unable to help you.” I heard myself repeat the same words again and again to internally displaced Iraqis who participated in my dissertation research on navigational access to education. They would say, we need money, we need food, we need secure housing, we need legal support. “Are you going to help us or not?”
Although I might not be able to help materially as a student researcher, I am committed to doing so by uplifting internally displaced person (IDP) stories, raising awareness regarding forced displacement in Iraq, and working within NGOs and university networks which have the resources to materially act.
Those of us researching deprived populations carry an important responsibility to serve these communities. We ask people to haul out their trauma, their poverty, and their struggles for the sake of our research project. We take their time. Their information. We take, we take, and we take. We benefit off human suffering in that we are given platforms in academic conferences, classrooms, and publications to discuss lived realities as interesting problems. How can we give them nothing in return? Academic institutions may not reward community engagement as highly as a newly published paper, but we, as academics, can and should operate with social justice at the forefront of our scholarship. Doing nothing is violent – and it is simply not an option for those of us who are operating from a postcolonial lens. Is it not violent to profit professionally off the suffering of others?
One interviewee, a Yazidi woman displaced in Northern Iraq, let’s call her Fatima, expressed to me her desire for her message of peace and story of displacement to reach the world. She wished people knew of the Daesh-perpetrated Yazidi genocide in Iraq, the roughness of nearly a decade in an IDP camp, and the need for community investment. She also wished people knew of her community’s eagerness to learn, desire to gain self-sufficiency, and resilience in the face of tragedy. This interview inspired me to begin sharing IDP stories on my personal Twitter (@mariamhassoun_) and Instagram accounts, sometimes with Arabic translation, so as to raise attention to IDP issues to a wider, non-academic public audience. This is my attempt at disrupting the exclusivity of academia, giving unheard voices space, and carrying out decolonization in my scholarship.
Nancy Scheper-Hughes, for example, advocates a ‘militant’ approach to scholarship which is politically engaged, self-critical, and interventionist. Academic activism requires us to work overtime as it demands we go above and beyond traditional academic expectations related to producing publishable research. Although there are barriers to academic activism (such as complications with paying participants for their time) embedded within universities ethical guidelines and academia generally, we must creatively subvert them. In doing so, we remind ourselves that it is not only through money that we build the world we want to live in, but by centering ourselves in our collective humanity, acknowledging our privilege, and acting with commitment to beneficence.
As ethical guidelines for research presently stand, they could, in fact, become ‘unethical’. When we solely prioritize getting through ethics review and begin to view ethics as a check-box list which is university certified upon completion, we no longer upholding a high ethical standard. Rather, we must holistically re-evaluate our ethics in the interest of beneficence for communities researched and acknowledge that there is no such thing as ‘completing’ ethical approval. Ethics is constant and continual, just as the issues the communities we research face persist even after we put our pens down.
So what can we do? At minimum, we think critically and acknowledge our position. In my case, I spent time writing personal reflections as I was carrying out my research. These were never to be published, but they helped me think. Then, we put our ethical positioning forth into the world, in ways small and large. This might be done in a few ways: land acknowledgements during presentations, social media awareness, community and classroom discussions, and writing for academic and non-academic publications. And finally, once we have the necessary grounding in the communities we research, we can engage in reciprocity in more tangible ways such as sharing (translated) findings with participants and collaborating with community members to establish grassroots initiatives addressing gaps. If we cannot reasonably give back to the communities we research, we must ask ourselves if we should really be doing this research. The process of decolonizing our research ethics and subsequently centering our research on ethics will not and should not happen overnight. But first, we think and we sit with the discomfort.
 According to the UN High Commission for Human Rights (YEAR), an internally displaced persons are: “Persons or groups of persons who have been forced or obliged to flee or to leave their homes or places of habitual residence, in particular as a result of, or in order to, avoid the effects of armed conflicts, situations of generalized violence, violations of human rights or natural or human-made disasters, and who have not crossed an internationally recognized State border.”