Slavic and Eurasian Studies

Anthropology Doctoral Student Nora Tyeklar Tells the Stories of Roma Refugees in Hungary, Canada

Thu, December 21, 2017
Anthropology Doctoral Student Nora Tyeklar Tells the Stories of Roma Refugees in Hungary, Canada
Nora Tyeklar

UT Department of Anthropology doctoral candidate Nora Tyeklar has spent the last year among Roma community members in northeast Hungary conducting long-term field research for her dissertation. Her research is focused on the Hungarian Roma and migration—“more specifically... what happens when Hungarian Roma who have sought asylum in Canada are forced to return to Hungary,” she says.

Supported by Foreign Language and Area Studies (FLAS) Fellowships for Romani and Hungarian languages from CREEES and the UT Center for European Studies, as well as a Wenner-Gren Dissertation Fieldwork Grant, Tyeklar has spent the last few years conducting fieldwork on the subject. (Read more about her work there in the Alcalde article, "Telling Refugee Stories".) During this time, she has worked with families, teachers and activists in her dual-role as a researcher and an English language teacher at a local high school whose student body is mostly made up of Roma youth. Working one-on-one with CREEES affiliate faculty member Dr. Ian Hancock, as well as with her tutor, Dr. Ruth Andersen, Tyeklar was able to learn a dialect of the Romani language, Vlax Romani, before leaving Austin to take up her fieldwork abroad.

Tyeklar summarizes her work as the “poetics of Roma displacement.” She is careful to differentiate that, rather than focusing on host communities, her research concerns what happens when refugees and asylum seekers are forced to return from the places they sought to leave. She explains that her goal was to “understand processes of displacement and how its different forms emerge in the lives of people who do not choose to migrate or return, how slowly or quickly they must deliberately attune themselves to their new worlds in spite of the still familiar noises and textures and motions of a place they once left.”

As a linguistic anthropologist, her approach includes rigorous attention to the ways in which people speak about their experiences of displacement. “In linguistics, one understanding of displacement is the use of language to communicate about things that are either not here or are not here now,” Tyeklar told us. “It is how I tell you about what I have seen elsewhere. So, how do people talk about why they are not there but here, why they are not included in the things they see elsewhere?” One space in which she has been able to investigate Romani discourse of displacement is the high school where she teaches English. Working with students, she told us, has allowed her to gain insights into the “everyday perspectives of Romani and non-Romani activists, teachers, and Roma refugees.”

In addition to her academic research, Tyeklar has worked as an activist working on behalf of Roma in Canada and in Hungary. Before traveling to Hungary, she collaborated with the Canadian Romani Alliance (CRA), an advocacy and public education organization that represents Canada’s Romani diaspora. Drawn to the redress effort, in which Roma seek resolution to the difficulties they have experienced as asylum seekers in Canada, Tyeklar’s responsibilities included translating correspondence between Toronto activists and families who had been returned to Hungary, as well as conducting interviews with asylum seekers. She said that she has continued this work on behalf of the CRA even as her research has taken her to Hungary, where she has connected with the local Roma council to help organize demonstrations and community forums.

Tyeklar’s activism has played a crucial role in her academic approach to Roma communities. “I consider my academic research as one mode of advocacy for the Roma communities and families with whom I have had the fortune of spending time and getting to know,” she told us, describing the relationship between research and activism as inextricably intertwined. “As a non-Romani scholar working with Roma communities, I cannot see having one without the other.” Explaining her attention to reflexivity in her work, Tyeklar told us, “I consider it imperative to explicitly acknowledge in my work not only the state and the history of Romani Studies I have briefly outlined here, but also my own position as a non-Romani scholar contributing to Romani Studies. It is crucial that elites, Roma and non-Roma alike, actively listen to and learn from the communities they claim to speak for and represent.”

When asked about the relationship between Romani Studies and Russian, East European and Eurasian area studies, Tyeklar was adamant that the two cannot be separated. “As far as I’m concerned, Romani Studies is part and parcel with the field of Russian, East European and Eurasian Studies,” she asserted. Drawing attention to the fact that Romani experiences and culture are still frequently excluded from European textbooks, she told us, “I consider it the responsibility of students, of any ethnicity, studying in REEE Studies to be concerned with who belongs and who doesn’t; why it is that some groups are left out of fully participating in or challenging dominant notions within REE societies, histories, and cultures; and why it is that in European societies there are still certain groups of people who are commonly understood to be less-than-human.”

As her thoughts on inclusivity—both within academia and the global community as a whole—indicate, the broader implications of Tyeklar’s research are hugely important. One of these implications concerns the hot-button issue of immigration. Tyeklar told us that “in a time when migration is a regular topic of debate in the media, within communities, and among policymakers—a debate that mainly focuses on how host communities are welcoming (or not) newcomers—I think in addition to understanding the role of host communities, it is just as important to understand what happens when people who seek asylum must return to the places they fled.” She is adamant that, while her research does not directly engage with policy, it is impossible to ignore the political implications of her findings. “It is clear that the Roma integration that policymakers often talk about cannot be realized without non-Roma Hungarians understanding that integration cannot only be the burden of Roma,” she stated. “That is, non-Roma Hungarians must develop a willingness to see and move beyond the anti-Roma racism that has proliferated since the fall of the Berlin Wall; the anti-Roma racism that has strengthened and turned violent in the past decade; and the anti-Roma racism that has continued to keep the minority Roma population in Hungary marginalized without an end to that marginalization in sight.”

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