A new lens on migrant workers

June 10, 2022

In a postdoctoral fellowship at Smith College, China Sajadian will turn her study of Syrian refugees into a book.

China Sajadian
China Sajadian conducted 18 months of fieldwork in the Bekaa Valley of Lebanon for her dissertation. (Photo credit: Jackson Allers)

Later this year, Ph.D. candidate China Sajadian (Anthropology) will begin a two-year position at Smith College as the Eveillard Postdoctoral Fellow in the Department of Anthropology. At Smith, she will transform her dissertation,  Debts of Displacement: Syrian Refugee Farmworkers at the Lebanese-Syrian Border, into a book. Based on 18 months of fieldwork in the Bekaa Valley of Lebanon, Sajadian’s research suggests that displacement is rooted in the political economy of debt and food systems. The daughter of an Iranian immigrant and the first in her family to pursue a Ph.D., Sajadian taught at Brooklyn College for three years and received the American Ethnological Society’s Elsie Clews Parsons Prize, the Alixa Naff Migration Studies Prize, and the Koonja Mitchell Memorial Dissertation Prize. She is also a Mellon/ACLS Dissertation Completion Fellow. We caught up with her recently to ask about her research, surprises she encountered along the path to her Ph.D., and her advice for students just starting the journey. 

The Graduate Center: What do you think made you stand out when you began looking for a postdoctoral fellowship?   

Sajadian: I would say, first, the depth and quality of my fieldwork. I was very fortunate to receive funding from CUNY and external grants that allowed me to take the time I needed, and my colleagues and mentors deserve special thanks for this. Second, I think my extensive teaching experience at Brooklyn College made a difference in my applications. Despite the challenges of juggling teaching and coursework, I found working with CUNY undergrads very rewarding. My teaching statement reflected an authentic experience in a diverse classroom, rather than something hypothetical or generic. 

GC: For a general audience, what are the key takeaways from your dissertation?  

Sajadian: We typically understand a refugee crisis as an acute emergency requiring quick resolution — a traumatic event of uprooting. But I argue that, for Syrian farmworkers with migratory ties to Lebanon, displacement is in fact a multigenerational predicament rooted in a history of uneven agrarian development on both sides of the Lebanese-Syrian border. In this way, my research draws attention to the long-term, structural, deeply gendered, and less visible manifestations of ‘crisis’ in Syrians’ everyday lives.

GC: What drew you to this topic?  

Sajadian: My interest in the predicaments of Syrian refugee farmworkers began when I worked for the United Nations in Lebanon as a researcher from 2012 to 2013, which was when the Syrian revolution shifted from an unarmed popular uprising to an increasingly militarized conflict. I observed in real time as a million-and-a-half Syrians began to seek long-term refuge in Lebanon, quickly amounting to one-quarter of the country’s entire population. My work with the U.N. took me all over the country, and I became curious about the tarpaulin tents that seemed to be everywhere. I wondered especially about the farmworkers riding through the countryside on the backs of trucks and working in potato fields, vineyards, and fruit orchards. Were these new camps? Who ran them? Were these workers registered as refugees? Why were they working in agricultural labor? And why were so many of them women? Over time, I found many answers to these questions.

GC: What surprised you the most about your Graduate Center experience? 

Sajadian: I have always found the atmosphere at the GC to be exceptionally collegial. One thing that surprised me when I returned from fieldwork was how much I learned every week from the seminars at the GC’s Center for Place, Culture and Politics and the Committee on Globalization and Social Change. Engaging with faculty and students in these seminars taught me so much about how to give and receive constructive feedback as well as the writing process. 

Learn more about the Center for Place, Culture and Politics

GC: Is there anything you wish you’d known in the early years of your Ph.D. program? 

Sajadian: During my first few years at CUNY, I was totally immersed in my coursework and read most books cover-to-cover for my qualifying exams. At times, I feared I was spending too much time reading, rather than going to conferences or producing publications. But my mentors assured me that there are no shortcuts to high-quality research, and that the early years of graduate study are a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to read, think deeply, and write well. I am glad I took their advice, because it laid strong foundations for my fieldwork and dissertation writing process. Conferences and publication opportunities have emerged quite naturally now that I have so much data from my fieldwork. Certainly, not every student has the luxury of taking such an intensive approach to coursework. But perhaps there is something lost in the pressure to hyper-specialize early on in our training.

Learn more about the Ph.D. Program in Anthropology

GC: What advice do you have for students who are hoping to follow a similar career path?

Sajadian: Cultivate spaces of mutual support wherever possible. One way is by starting a writing group with colleagues. My writing group meets over Zoom every week. It keeps us accountable and offers a low-stakes, supportive environment for sharing ideas. And seek out mentors at different stages of their careers. I’ve received mentorship from junior faculty and colleagues who have guided me through the job market with extraordinary camaraderie and care. One more specific piece of advice is to use a citation management software from day one. I use Zotero. It has become an archive of my ideas over the years and has served me well in every writing project.

GC: Anything you’d like to add?  

Sajadian: There is nowhere quite like the GC — the faculty, students, teaching, the urban environment, the big ideas, the political commitments. I was drawn to CUNY because of its reputation for social justice and inclusion. I am the first person in my family to receive a Ph.D.; my paternal grandparents in Iran could not read or write. So I feel honored to be part of CUNY’s long tradition of inclusive public education, which has given many children of immigrants like me an opportunity for educational mobility. I will miss the GC so much!

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