Case study: Michelle Obeid

Photo of Michelle Obeid

Programme: Senior Research Fellowship

Name of PI: Michelle Obeid

Title of project: Migrants in Anchorage: an Ethnography of Palestinians in London

Start and end dates: 2018 – 2019

Award amount: £46,889.55

Institution: University of Manchester

About the project

In the context of Europe’s ‘migration crisis’ and Brexit, migration has become a volatile political matter in the UK, consolidating stereotypes about ethnic groups and exaggerating the figure of the migrant as a resistor to ‘integration.’ As the first anthropological study of Palestinians in the UK, Migrants in Anchorage explores the experiences of a displaced Palestinian Muslim family in creating a new home in London. In an ethnographic monograph, Obeid provides an account of different trajectories of settling by documenting what she terms 'processes of anchorage', the everyday practices that create a sense of holding fast in otherwise fluid times and places. By examining how these migrants established a distinctly Palestinian café, embedded themselves in their neighbourhoods, engaged in multicultural activities and negotiated their legal entitlements with state officials, the project explores how migrants anchor themselves in new social worlds and the part they play in shaping those worlds.

Very little is written on Arab communities – and even less so on Palestinians – in the United Kingdom, in spite of their contribution to British society and their dominant presence in various cities, especially the capital. This project sheds light on the experience of Palestinian migration to London and the different kinds of belonging fostered over time and in different areas of social life through everyday practices that render a multicultural city like London familiar.

The research offers a micro-focus on one extended Palestinian family and its members’ diverse experiences of migration from Gaza to London in the span of a couple of years. Through an in-depth ethnographic portrayal of everyday practices, economic relationships, and sociabilities that Palestinian migrants forge in and through the city over time, Obeid’s work moves away from the spectacular representations of Arab and Muslim migrants in the context of increasingly controversial and polarising discourses of migration in the UK and Europe, and provides a better understanding of the trajectory of settling over time for members of these communities.

Impacts and value

This research develops the concept of anchorage as a novel way of understanding migration and home-making in ways that account for fluidity, temporariness and serendipity. Moving away from seeing settling in a new place as an event, especially in the context of asylum seeking, Obeid’s research focuses on everyday practices that create a sense of holding fast in otherwise fluid times and places. This offers an understanding of the ways migration trajectories unfold in time and place, and brings to the fore the motivations, aspirations and agencies that drive new migrants.

The project interrogates ideas about migrant integration, particularly among Arabs and Muslims in the UK. The research suggests that new Palestinian migrants Obeid worked with were keen to ‘learn British culture’ and to engage in cultural exchanges that made Palestine – its people, history and culture – more visible in London.

Obeid’s research details the spaces and process which new migrants found challenging in their process of integration, for example, bureaucratic processes and proceedings involving schools, local councils and housing. This material is helpful for practitioners and officials considering effective ways in facilitating migrant settlement.

Benefits of the award

“The British Academy award was immensely helpful in covering my teaching and administrative role for the period of one year, thus giving me a year to focus solely on writing my second book manuscript. The award has raised my profile within my institution and beyond and will make a notable difference in my career development.”

Obeid has started a collaboration with a visual anthropologist who works with illustration. Given the sensitive nature of writing about one family and ensuing concerns with anonymity, Obeid is collaborating with Letizia Bonanno on producing alternative outputs that invoke her material visually through ethnographic illustrations. She is hoping to seek funding to produce a graphic ethnography that would attract wider audiences and make her research accessible beyond academic circles.

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