As of today, I am a doctor, but what about the real bearers of knowledge – the research participants?

By Hyab T. Yohannes

Today is my graduation day. It is a happy feeling to have completed the three-year PhD work, especially if I put aside the often-asked question: ‘what’s next?’ However, amidst the celebration of completing the taxing PhD work lie epistemological and philosophical questions about the claims of knowledge generated by the PhD process, which this blog hopes to highlight. The objectives of this short blog are two-fold: first, to acknowledge the people and institutions that have made my improbable journey possible and, second, to openly recognise that PhD work is a shared enterprise, at the centre of which are the research participants.

First of all, I must acknowledge that obtaining a PhD would not have been possible without the funding, support and guidance I received from various institutions and people. Therefore, I would like to first say a huge thank you to the UNESCO RILA for funding my PhD project and the generous student stipend provided me throughout the three-year PhD period. Without the funding, I would never have attempted, or even considered attempting, to realise my educational dreams. I am also grateful to my PhD supervisors, Professors Alison Phipps and Fergus McNeill, for their continued support, and to all the admins, colleagues and peers at the University of Glasgow’s School of Education.

My deep appreciation and love go to my parents, my wife and my extended family. Without their support and affirmation, I could never have continued to dream, nor survived the multiple ordeals. Today, I am especially remembering and grieving the loss of my mother and my paternal auntie, both of whom passed away two weeks ago. They have been the greatest sources of love and the anchors of my life, and I dedicate the PhD award to them. MAY THEIR SOULS REST IN PEACE!

Without a doubt, the PhD programme has allowed me to grow from being a vulnerable idealist who tirelessly opposes oppressive systems and practices to becoming a critical pragmatist committed to a realist ontology of change. However, I must recognise that the award of a PhD degree has not clouded my memories of the emotional stories, unmarked graves and emaciated bodies of Eritrean refugees that my PhD research examines. My PhD work includes the accounts of a young girl who witnessed her friend being buried alive, a young mother who was cut by traffickers with a heated knife through the middle of her breasts because she refused to engage in forced rape with her cousin, and a disabled woman who had been dragged here and there through the streets of Cairo for almost twenty years. In my fieldwork, I bore witness to young girls being deported after several weeks of starvation in a prison complex. I interviewed a grandmother who told me she felt like an ‘abandoned creature’ because her entire family had died in successive wars. Her only daughter had drowned in the Mediterranean Sea, trying to reach safety. I came across a story of a young man whose father had disappeared in Eritrea’s prison system when he was only two years old.

The poignant stories are countless; every single one of them, told by the over 40 Eritrean refugees with whom I engaged during my PhD research, was unbearable to hear. They still reverberate in my mind. Having to survive visceral pain, acute trauma, systemic marginalisation and a sense of emptiness, these people endured the unendurable and continued to build a life from scratch. They explained how they used their lived experiences and knowledge to strengthen their coping strategies so that they could face their wretched realities. They might have been alone, incarcerated and marginalised, but they also possessed the power to constitute a disruptive existence against the violence waged against them.

What carries the truth that liberates our inquisitive minds and forms the PhDs, such as mine, is the primaeval pain and the pale sadness of these wounded bodies, the disremembered stories and the unmarked graves. If a PhD is a formal recognition of one’s contribution to knowledge, no one is more knowledgeable of the realities of becoming and the conditions of being refugees than the refugees themselves. Yet, their pained bodies and poignant stories only feature as sites of knowledge production and units of analysis, respectively. PhD research like mine is not sacred writing, yet the accounts of these research participants, whose identities are anonymised, are analysed to meet the so-called standard research practice. Would there be any knowledge of forced migration if people with such lived experiences refused to collaborate with researchers? Should we value and recognise the bearers of knowledge or only the extractive producers of knowledge? These are the questions I wrestle with as I complete my PhD programme. The award remains incomplete, at least in my mind, as long as these questions remain unanswered and the precarious conditions of the refugees unchanged.

If the University of Glasgow were to fully recognise the research participants’ contributions to knowledge and their lived experiences of the wretched reality, these people would all have been awarded doctoral degrees; that is what it takes to decolonise our knowledge production. The UNESCO Chair at the University of Glasgow did in fact agree to provide certificates of recognition to my research participants for their contributions to knowledge. Such a gesture, for them and for me, was empowering. As one research participant said, ‘We [the research and researched] are celebrating together with humble souls and poignant stories.’ This gesture shows that the university is going beyond extractive practices of knowledge production and the tokenism of epistemic best practices, in an effort to bridge the missing link between the real bearers of knowledge and the processes of knowledge production, recognition and dissemination.

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Hyab Yohannes

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