Vassar recently hired over a dozen new tenure-track professors in various departments. One of these new professors is China Sajadian in the Anthropology Department, whose research broadly focuses on displacement, economic anthropology and conflicts over land in the Middle East. I had the pleasure of meeting with Professor Sajadian and getting to learn more about her work and career.
This is Sajadian’s first semester at Vassar, following a one-year postdoctoral fellowship in Anthropology at Smith College. Sajadian is currently teaching ANTH 240: “Anthropology of the Middle East and North Africa” and ANTH 360: “Anthropology of Displacement, Migration, and Transnationalism.” She is excited to be working at a liberal arts college, where she is able to enjoy the close-knit atmosphere and the opportunity to mentor students closely.
Sajadian first began her academic career as an undergraduate at Smith, where she majored in Government. She did not originally plan on studying Anthropology, and instead discovered her passion for the subject when she studied abroad in Jordan. There, she participated in the School for International Training (SIT). SIT’s curriculum included an independent field research project and, despite not knowing much about ethnography, Sajadian decided to conduct an ethnographic project where she did research with multiple generations of Palestinian women living in a refugee camp. Through the study, she realized this was exactly the kind of work that she wanted to continue to do in her career. Though Sajadian went on to complete her degree in Government, she told me, “I realized that Anthropology was the discipline that really captured my sense of the world and my aspirations to be a scholar.”
Following her graduation from Smith, Sajadian went on to live in Lebanon from 2012 to 2013, where she worked with the United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA). The UNRWA is a large party responsible for the aid of Palestinian refugees, so she was able to spend a significant amount of time in Palestinian refugee camps. Through her experiences of interacting with refugees and working alongside many Lebanese and Palestinian colleagues, Sajadian became fluent in Arabic. Before beginning graduate school, she also spent a few years working for an NGO in New York. Sajadian describes having gained work experience between her undergraduate and graduate degrees as being extremely important. Through this, she was able to acquire skills that would prepare her for her career in academia, such as learning how to apply for grants and tapping into self-motivation. Sajadian stated, “I always encourage students to give themselves at least a year between undergrad and graduate school, if they can, to make sure that that’s what they really want.”
Following her work with the UN and an NGO, Sajadian began to further pursue her passion for Anthropology, applying for a Foreign Language and Area Studies Fellowship grant through the Department of Education. Through this grant, she was able to branch off of the two years of Arabic education that she received at Smith and pursue more advanced studies, going on to receive her master’s at Columbia University. There, she did intensive Arabic study and became more acquainted with anthropology as a discipline, thus preparing her to apply for PhD programs. She went on to receive her doctorate from the CUNY Graduate Center in New York City, where she was able to live on the Lebanese-Syrian border for two years as a part of her research. Sajadian’s dissertation, “Debts of Displacement: Syrian Refugee Farmworkers at the Lebanese-Syrian Border,” drew from her fieldwork experience in Lebanon and Syria.
“Debts of Displacement,” which Sajadian is working on turning into a book, focuses on her research on the Lebanese side of the Lebanese-Syrian border. There, she worked with Syrian farmworkers who used to migrate seasonally from Syria to Lebanon. She sought to understand how the labor conditions and livelihoods of these workers changed once they became stuck in Lebanon as refugees. The name “Debts of Displacement” comes from the term that Sajadian uses to describe the deep debt that the refugees began to accrue to labor brokers, patrons, employers and each other. She also focuses on the economic conditions that lead to refugee crises and how we can think about these conditions in intersectional and gendered ways. In order to conduct her research, Sajadian worked alongside the Syrian farmworkers in a variety of seasonal crops, doing labor such as weeding, planting and wood gathering. She worked with them as much as she could, saying, “It was the one way for me to actually have time with them and to be able to do interviews, because sometimes they were working up to 10 hours a day.” This allowed her to utilize the anthropological technique of participant observation, in which she was involved in the activities that her research subjects were doing, thus observing and trying to understand them in this way. She told me, “Not only was it important for me to go to work with them, but also that time spent together built really durable connections and trust in a way that I think would have not been the case had I just come in for a survey or an interview.” Sajadian’s book will go on to investigate this research in order to examine how these seasonal workers’ new status as refugees governs their mobility, as well as how people become attached or obligated to one another. She began to work on converting her dissertation into a book during her fellowship at Smith and is currently working on revisions. She is hoping to send it to a publisher in the coming year.
Sajadian’s passion and expertise will certainly bring a lot to Vassar during her career at the College. “I’m very happy to be here,” she said. “Vassar students…are so motivated and curious…and not to mention that I have great colleagues here in this department.” I hope that you will all join me in giving a warm welcome to Professor Sajadian!