“What in the world are we doing here?”
Lily Doron remembers thinking those words after a near 15-hour travel day in July 2016 after she and classmate Olivia Johnson arrived in Athens, Greece. The Duke undergraduates were about to start a six-week project to travel the Balkan route, interacting with refugees in transit along a 1,500-mile trip that stretches across a collection of European countries.
Olivia Johnson, left, and Lily Doron, right, at the gallery opening of their “Seeking Refuge” capstone exhibit, on display in the Keohane-Kenan Gallery.
The answer was straight forward, but the reality of how the pair got to that starting point was still a bit incredible to them. With support from the Kenan Institute for Ethics to make the journey happen, the two then-rising seniors were about to begin a life-changing academic experience.
“We wanted to better understand the dehumanization of these people,” Doron said. “How does a person turn into a number?”
To find out, Doron and Johnson interviewed about 20 people in six countries during their trip, stopping between Greece and Germany to meet refugees from Mali, Afghanistan, Iraq and more. As one of their defining experiences at Duke, the time spent abroad acted as a source of inspiration for a senior capstone project, an audio-visual exhibit displayed in the Keohane-Kenan Gallery in West Duke. The project includes several recorded interviews and written stories of refugees like Amir, an Afghan translator who worked for the U.S. Army, but was denied a Special Immigration Visa to move to America. He fled his home country after being kidnapped and freed by the Taliban.
Both Doron and Johnson were inspired by participating in Kenan programs that focused on educating about migration and displaced people, including DukeImmerse, Focus and Bass Connections. Doron incorporated ethics classes into a personalized major that included documentary studies, while Johnson earned an Ethics Certificate. Both said Kenan faculty and staff – notably director Suzanne Shanahan – shaped their interests and they saw the opportunity for field research as a chance to put learning to practice.
“Everything felt connected,” Johnson said. “Our project felt like a culmination of all our work.”
A refugee walks back to Moria, a closed refugee camp on Lesvos. The image was one of many captured as part of the “Seeking Refuge” exhibit.
“Seeking Refuge: Stories of Resilience Along the Balkan Route” debuted in April, bringing to campus the voices and experiences from Doron and Johnson’s 2016 trip. The people they met during their research varied from connections made through local NGOs and random encounters while visiting cities in Serbia, Hungary, Macedonia and more.
“The community that we’ve fit into at Kenan has helped us personally and academically,” Doron said. “Developing trust and mutual respect to do this kind of senior project is a testament to how much time we spent at Kenan.”
Johnson said she felt the same way.
“The most incredible opportunities I’ve had at Duke have been at Kenan, whether here or abroad,” she said. “We were learning so much, but if we didn’t have Kenan’s support, we would have never been able to make this kind of project happen.”