Scholar-Elect Erin Williamson talks about her plans to study the value of hope among Syrian refugees and asylum seekers.
Refugee status is only temporary. It is not an identity that lasts, although it is difficult to escape the label. I am interested in this transitional phase when the past is too painful to think about, the present is uncertain and the future is cannot be contemplated - and how humans navigate that.Erin Williamson
Erin Williamson's first in-depth experience of academic research was certainly eventful. For her master’s degree she chose to research a Pentecostal Church in Appalachia whose services involved the handling of poisonous snakes, such as rattlesnakes. During her time researching the church a pastor died from a snake bite and she had a ringside seat at the fall-out, which included national press coverage and a Grand Jury case.
The practice of snake handling is based on a literal interpretation of a verse from the Bible about taking up serpents to show the strength of your belief. Erin says that only a small number of people in the church have handled snakes. “They put several around their necks and dance or preach with them,” she says. As they believe in the power of prayer, those who get bitten do not tend to seek medical treatment immediately and some have died.
Erin  had planned to interview a pastor from the church, but the day she had been due to meet him he was bitten by a snake and died. Although access to the church community was usually heavily restricted, there were photos of the pastor dying and the story was widely covered. National Geographic did a series about it and there was a Grand Jury case. Due to the National Geographic show and the church's argument that handling snakes was a religious freedom issue, the charges related to possession of Class I wildlife. It resulted in the snakes being confiscated, a pastor being charged and the local church community falling apart. Erin had access to the church throughout this time and watched it all happen.
She wrote her master’s thesis about it and attended conferences speaking about what she had witnessed.
For her PhD she is tackling an issue which has also received a lot of coverage, but about which she hopes to provide more depth and analysis.
This autumn, Erin will begin an ethnographic study of time and the value of hope among refugees and asylum seekers of Syrian origin. She says: “It is by focusing on the values of hope and the ideal good life that I expect some insight can be gained which situates refugees not as political nor as suffering strangers, but as morally evaluative humans distinctly and deeply informed by their unique cultural experiences.”
Erin was born in Knoxville, Tennessee, but when she was three her family moved to Germany where her father was working as an engineer. Erin attended an international school, but when she was four her mother was diagnosed with breast cancer. The family eventually moved back to the US where her mother died four years later. Erin’s family are part of a strong Church community who provided a lot of support and stability while she was growing up. She attended the local high school.
After being offered a full scholarship, Erin chose to go to Lee University, a private University which has historical affiliations with the Church of God, an evangelical Christian denomination, set in beautiful mountains in Cleveland, Tennessee.
She didn’t know anything about the Church of God and says it was a cultural shock to find people speaking in tongues and rolling on the floor during the regular chapel visits. There were prayers before every class and little diversity of viewpoint.
She started college as an English major, but took a class in cultural anthropology in her first year which was led by a charismatic professor who arrived on a scooter wearing elk fur boots and a trucker hat. He mentioned that he had ridden a reindeer in Mongolia. “I was converted,” said Erin. She switched majors and says that in anthropology there was a respect for other beliefs. She later learned that the professor had done his PhD in Social Anthropology at the University of Cambridge.
Lee University requires students to study abroad. Erin chose to spend a semester in New Delhi where she worked with a mobile creche providing childcare to the children of migrant workers. The experience led to her transferring to a state university for a semester, but she found the university too big and impersonal so she moved back to Lee. While studying, she was doing research in digital anthropology and working as a teaching assistant in the anthropology department as well as on the student newspaper.
After finishing her degree she did her master’s in Social Anthropology at University College London and it was through contacts at Lee University that she was able to do her research on the Pentecostal Church. Lee also introduced her to Western Wyoming Community College where she got a job teaching an online anthropology and archaeology course.
Over the next two years she worked remotely both as a teacher and for a market research company as well as travelling. She taught for three months in Cambodia where she had a friend who was working in international aid. Erin has travelled extensively since her undergraduate days, around Europe, India, Turkey and Egypt where she worked with refugees and to Costa Rica where she worked as a photographer.
Focusing on refugees
It was while she was in Cambodia that Erin came up with the idea for her PhD. She applied and was accepted to Cambridge, but did not have funding so she took time to learn Arabic and created a refugee course at Lee just after news of the travel ban on refugees was announced in early 2017. She invited lots of guest speakers. The course was pitched as a Christian response to refugees, meaning church members felt they could take it. It included one session on Islamophobia. The course was very well attended. “For many people it was their first chance to hear what a refugee is,” says Erin. “It was a safe space to talk it through with refugees and immigration lawyers. It had a really positive response.”
Erin also designed a t-shirt for a refugee resettlement agency she had volunteered for. She showed it to the owner of the restaurant where she was working and she offered to sell it for her. Erin ended up selling around 1,000 t-shirts and raising around $8K for the refugee agency.
Erin’s PhD in Social Anthropology will focus on Syrian refugees in Turkey. Six years ago, when she was in Egypt she met two men who were escaping from Palmyra. It was the early days of the Syrian war and they told Erin and her friend about what had been happening and pleaded with them to get their country to help Syrians. “I was very young and did not know what I could do. They were desperate. That has stuck with me,” she says.
She adds: “So much of the discussion about refugees is focused on identity or resources, on the country taking the refugees and on aid. They are painted as something to be feared or as victims, as someone to save. But refugee status is only temporary. It is not an identity that lasts, although it is difficult to escape the label. I am interested in this transitional phase when the past is too painful to think about, the present is uncertain and the future is cannot be contemplated – and how humans navigate that.”
- United States
- PhD Social Anthropology
- Darwin College
While an undergraduate at Lee University, I was introduced to anthropology as a powerful tool of insight and understanding. During my M.Sc. in Social Anthropology at the University College London, I conducted ethnographic fieldwork among Pentecostal Christians in Appalachia who practice a century-old tradition of handling venomous snakes in the context of worship. During my research, a death in the serpent-handling community captured public interest leading to the community’s engagement with journalists, often framing the community as different and unusual. Over the past four years, teaching anthropology at Western Wyoming Community College has only reinforced my belief that understanding human differences and similarities is invaluable in breaking down barriers of fear and prejudice. Having worked in refugee and migrant communities in India, Egypt and Tennessee, I have seen how fear of differences can ostracize the imaginary ‘other.’ During my Ph.D. in Social Anthropology at Cambridge, my research will focus on the ethnographic study of time and the value of hope among refugees and asylum seekers of Syrian origin. It is by focusing on the values of hope and the ideal good life that I expect some insight can be gained which situates refugees not as political nor as suffering strangers, but as morally evaluative humans distinctly and deeply informed by their unique cultural experiences.