Change of Plans: Participatory Migration Research during a Global Crisis


Change of Plans: Participatory Migration Research during a Global Crisis

I planned to start recruiting participants for my dissertation research, a critical ethnography (Carspecken, 1996) of Syrian refugees’ experiences pursing higher education during displacement in Turkey, at a university near my home in southern Turkey in mid-March 2020. As news of COVID-19 cases and subsequent school and university closures trickled in from other countries, I tried not to panic. On March 12, the Turkish Higher Education Council announced that all universities would be closed for an initial period of three weeks. This announcement provoked despair and swirling questions. Was there any realistic possibility of returning to campus this semester? How would I do my research now? Sure, I could do my research remotely, but at what cost? How could I build trust and gather rich, participatory data virtually? To my surprise, the benefits of this forced shift to remote data collection have possibly outweighed the challenges.

My study was carefully designed to reflect my epistemology as an adult language and literacy educator that inquiry should be conducted with and for those most closely affected by the phenomenon being studied (Fals-Borda & Rahman, 1991). I believe in research as advocacy and hope to contribute to the development of more equitable attitudes, practices, pedagogies, and policies toward refugees and immigrants. As a migrant myself and an insider-outsider conducting migration research in a perilous sociopolitical climate (Hauber-Özer, 2019), I had taken great care to select methods and procedures that would enable me to build trust with my participants and protect them (and myself) from potential repercussions while examining how they overcame the barriers to and in higher education.

I planned to begin with a few on-campus meetings to introduce myself and the project, establish a collaborative tone, and distribute a brief questionnaire to willing participants to inform the interview protocol and further activities. Over the following months, I intended to conduct semi-structured, one-on-one or small group interviews in the participants’ choice of language (Turkish, English, or Arabic), followed by participatory photovoice (Wang & Burris, 1994), digital portraiture (Smyth & McInerney, 2013), and digital storytelling (Lenette et al., 2019) workshops. My goal was to center participants’ perspectives and share their stories (while ensuring confidentiality) with the local community and beyond through social media.

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Although I managed to adjust my study and IRB approval for remote data collection, the pandemic has rendered the participatory design I so carefully incorporated nearly impossible and left me with a sense of loss. Campus closures and social distancing precautions have prevented me from building rapport and relationships with participants in person and from incorporating their recommendations into my data collection. I have had to rely more on my key informant for recruitment, and participation in the questionnaire and interviews have required internet access, a luxury for many refugees. I’m working on adapting the workshops to a virtual format, but this will present new logistical hurdles and ethical dilemmas regarding protection of data.

However, by late March I received dozens of completed questionnaires from students at various universities in eastern Turkey instead of the single university I had identified. By the end of May, I exceeded my target of ten interviews conducted via Skype, Zoom, and WhatsApp, including a few done late at night during Ramadan after participants broke the fast. The campus closures left us all with more flexible schedules, and the virtual format allowed us to meet at times more convenient for participants from their homes. Our unstable internet connections have presented difficulties and delays in transcription due to unclear recordings, but I have completed these first two phases of data collection faster than I expected.

This change of plans has also allowed for increased confidentiality, as my participants no longer needed to meet with me on campus, potentially opening themselves up to scrutiny from faculty, administration, or fellow students. The video chat format has probably alleviated some potential awkwardness, such as the cultural imperative to avoid private meetings with male participants. I’ve had the privilege of being virtually welcomed into participants’ homes, and a few female participants have even left off their usual headscarves, giving the interviews a wonderfully intimate feeling.

I am trying to focus on the positives: despite global upheaval, my research and graduation trajectory are on track. Participants have generously provided me with a wealth of in-depth interview data with which to complete my dissertation and engage in advocacy efforts. I am hopeful that my research will still serve my central purpose of shifting mindsets toward refugees here in Turkey and beyond and will lay the groundwork for a career as an advocate-scholar who works alongside migrant populations for increased educational access and equity. 



Carspecken, P. F. (1996). Critical ethnography in educational research: A theoretical and practical guide. New York, NY: Routledge.

Fals-Borda, O., & Rahman, M. A. (1991). Action and knowledge: breaking the monopoly with participatory action-research. New York, NY: Apex Press.

Hauber-Özer, M. (2019). Yabancı: An Autoethnography of Migration. Forum Qualitative Sozialforschung / Forum: Qualitative Social Research, 20(3).

Lenette, C., Brough, M., Schweitzer, R. D., Correa-Velez, I., Murray, K., & Vromans, L. (2019). ‘Better than a pill’: Digital storytelling as a narrative process for refugee women. Media Practice and Education, 20(1), 67–86.

Smyth, J., & McInerney, P. (2013). Whose side are you on? Advocacy ethnography: some

methodological aspects of narrative portraits of disadvantaged young people, in socially critical research. International Journal of Qualitative Studies in Education, 26(1), 1–20.

Wang, C., & Burris, M.A. (1994). Empowerment through photo novella: Portraits of

participation. Health Education Quarterly, 21(2), 171–186. 



Melissa Hauber-Özer is a language and literacy educator and PhD candidate in international education at George Mason University focusing on social, educational, and economic integration of refugees and migrants. Her PhD project explores the experiences of Syrian young adults in overcoming the barriers to and in higher education during forced displacement in Turkey. Originally from Philadelphia, USA, Melissa now lives in Hatay, Turkey.




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