News & Ideas

Episode 104: Wounds across Borders

Omar Dewachi and Ieva Jusionyte at podcast recording
Omar Dewachi (left) and Ieva Jusionyte (right) are both ethnographic anthropologists who have studied bodily and societal wounds.

EPISODE 104: Wounds across Borders, with Omar Dewachi and Ieva Jusionyte

Click on the audio player above to listen to the episode or follow BornCurious on Amazon Music, Apple, Audible, Spotify, and YouTube.

On This Episode

What do bodily injuries tell us about borders, violence, and our society? In this episode, Omar Dewachi and Ieva Jusionyte talk about the role of ethnography in answering that question. Both are anthropologists who conduct site-specific work in areas of conflict.

This episode was recorded on April 20, 2023.

Released on October 26, 2023.

Guests

Omar Dewachi examines the effects of war on medicine and public health in the Middle East. He is a medical doctor, holds a master’s in public health, and earned a doctoral degree in anthropology. Dewachi is an associate professor of medical anthropology at Rutgers, the State University of New Jersey.

Ieva Jusionyte has focused her work on political issues at national borders, most recently that of the United States and Mexico. Her research and teaching interests lie at the intersection of legal and medical anthropology, and she has trained as a paramedic and EMT. She is the Watson Family University Associate Professor of International Security and Anthropology at Brown University.

Related Content

Omar Dewachi: Fellowship Biography

Omar Dewachi: Radcliffe Fellow’s Presentation

Ieva Jusionyte: Fellowship Biography

Radcliffe Magazine: Following the Guns South

Ieva Jusionyte: Radcliffe Fellow’s Presentation

Exit Wounds: How America’s Guns Fuel Violence across the Border

Credits

Ivelisse Estrada is your cohost and the editorial lead at Harvard Radcliffe Institute (HRI), where she edits Radcliffe Magazine.

Alan Catello Grazioso is the executive producer of BornCurious and the senior multimedia manager at HRI.

Jeff Hayash is a freelance sound engineer and recordist.

Marcus Knoke is a multimedia intern at HRI, a Harvard College student, and the general manager of Harvard Radio Broadcasting.

Heather Min is your cohost and the senior manager of digital strategy at HRI.

Anna Soong is the production assistant at HRI.

Transcript

[MUSIC]

Ivelisse Estrada:
Welcome back to BornCurious. I’m Ivelisse Estrada.

Heather Min:
I am Heather Min. If you’ve just discovered us, welcome.

Ivelisse Estrada:
BornCurious is brought to you by the relentlessly, insatiably, inquisitive folks at Harvard Radcliffe Institute.

Heather Min:
Our fellowship program, in which 50 scholars from various fields spend a year on our campus immersed in research, writing, and exploration.

Ivelisse Estrada:
And many of them collaborate on projects. Both of today’s guests gave public talks earlier this year. OK, let’s dive right in.

Heather Min:
Welcome, Omar Dewachi and Ieva Jusionyte. Would you like to introduce yourselves? Who are you?

Omar Dewachi:
I’m Omar Dewachi. I’m a professor of medical anthropology at Rutgers University. I’m a trained physician and healthcare practitioner. I grew up in Iraq, and I’ve been here at Radcliffe for this wonderful year.

Ieva Jusionyte:
Hi, my name is Ieva Jusionyte. I am Lithuanian. That’s where I was born and grew up. I came to the US—to Boston, actually—in 2006. I am an associate professor of international security and anthropology at Brown University. I am also an EMT, paramedic, and wildland firefighter. And I spent this past year here at the Radcliffe writing my third book, Exit Wounds.

Ivelisse Estrada:
Did you know each other before your arrival?

Omar Dewachi:
We met at the Harvard anthropology seminar.

Ieva Jusionyte:
Omar’s book just came out, and he was touring around the country, and we really wanted him to present his work. When I started my research on the US–Mexico border with injured migrants, Omar’s articles on how to think about wounds and war more expansively had been very influential.

Omar Dewachi:
The way this idea of the wound was so salient in different contexts. I think Ieva’s work has shown it to be so useful to think with in the US–Mexico border. And we’re both thinking in the same kind of direction.

Ivelisse Estrada:
That’s something that struck me when listening to both of your presentations, too. Which was that you’re thinking not only about the physical wounds, the effect of the wounds on the body, but also the effects, like metaphorically, on society.

Ieva Jusionyte:
It was about a year ago, so last May, when I saw the list of all Radcliffe fellows, and I saw that the other anthropologist in the cohort was Omar. I thought, this is a dream come true. I could not have wanted anyone else to be here.

Heather Min:
You’re both ethnographic anthropologists. Immediately when I think anthropology—sorry for being so basic about it—but I think people who excavate old ruins. What is ethnography?

Omar Dewachi:
Archeologists are the ones who excavate, who go and look at the material history that other societies, other civilizations have left behind. And cultural anthropologists, which Ieva and I both are, we are more interested in contemporary societies, interested in social life, how society organizes itself, and how history shapes the present, how meaning is organized and given to different processes of everyday life.

Heather Min:
And how is that different from history, sociology, economics, political science?

Ieva Jusionyte:
Well, ethnography as a method is really critical. So, what we do is we get immersed in people’s everyday lives. Some scholars have called it “deep hanging out.” Others have described it as an embedded and embodied research, which means what we know we don’t know only from interviews or from reading archival materials or from looking at numbers, but what is most important is actually spending time with people—and spending time with people not only in arranged settings. For example, when you do an interview for an hour, but actually being with them from morning to evening, through living with them, and getting their perspective.

Omar Dewachi:
If you go to any school of anthropology, that training, a lot of the times, usually you do an ethnography for one year. You get to understand the cycle of life within a society, within that one year, and begin to make sense of how society organizes itself around these different practices, like agriculture or religion, kinship, economy.

Ieva Jusionyte:
And this has changed a little bit because now anthropologists study societies that are societies we also live in. You can study the United States, various communities in Boston. You can study doctors or Wall Street bankers. These are not communities very, very far away from our everyday experiences and from people’s general knowledge. So, in that way anthropology has come closer to us.

Omar Dewachi:
Also they’ve done transnational work, so you go and follow something, not necessarily just to study a group of people, but you can follow a process. Follow a process that begins somewhere and end somewhere else. These multisited ethnographies are another kind of form of how ethnography evolved to deal with understanding of social processes.

Heather Min:
Here we are with an excellent transition to talking about your work. So please do share what you've been working on for the past year. And did you embed yourself for a full year? How has your ethnography shaken out?

Ieva Jusionyte:
The project that I was working on here actually developed from an earlier one. I would say I spent much more than a year now on the US–Mexico border. I began working with emergency responders and migrants who get injured when they cross through the desert, mostly in southern Arizona. Out of that project, I came up with the idea to do my current one, which is about the impact of American guns on Mexican society.

Both of these projects involved ethnographic fieldwork. The first one with emergency responders maybe was a little more traditional ethnography, because I did spend months and months with firefighters and paramedics on shifts. The current one about guns, it is a little more multisited. It is just what Omar was talking about when he said that it can be transnational, following something. So, following the gun as an object from gun stores in the US to gun users and crime scenes in Mexico in this project was a little more fragmented.

That is, I worked in some communities on the US side, in Texas and Arizona, and then I worked several places in Mexico. I talked to government officials, for example, only in Mexico City, and only in Arizona. I worked with people who engage in gun smuggling and gun violence in Texas and on the Mexican side, in Tamaulipas and Nuevo León, making sure that I don’t pass or share the information between these different groups of people.

I did much more archival research with the gun project compared to, I would say, purely ethnographic immersion in the life of emergency responders before. I started this work with emergency responders in 2014, ’15, moved to research in guns in 2018. It’s been quite a few years.

Ivelisse Estrada:
Which came first? Because I know that you were trained an EMT and paramedic. Did the work come first and so you trained for the work, or did you train to do the work, and then become interested in what was going on at the border?

Ieva Jusionyte:
I was an EMT and a paramedic before I ever became interested in migrant injuries on the border. So, it was something I was doing. I started it during my last year of PhD studies and even considered not going further into academia, not taking up a tenure track job, and just working as a paramedic. Basically, I saw this article about people getting injured because the border wall is getting taller and taller. And I thought, how interesting it would be to examine this very politicized, very polarizing issue from the perspective of paramedics and EMTs and firefighters, the ones who are first on scene.

And being one helped me with it. Not only helped me being accepted by the emergency responder community, but I could also participate in a meaningful way. Every other day I would volunteer as an EMT and paramedic and firefighter on both sides of the border. So that gave me maybe a little more insider perspective.

Ivelisse Estrada:
And Omar, you have an equally insider-y perspective on the region, because you’re from the region that you study.

Omar Dewachi:
I definitely have an insider perspective, not only just because I’m from the region, but my actual first work was on doctors. Iraqi doctors who ended up leaving Iraq, escaping the country during very harsh times during the UN-imposed sanctions on the country in the 1990s, and followed these doctors into Britain, where they were kind of all scrambling to figure out how to become members the National Health Service in the UK.

So, I was a doctor. I worked in Iraq in the 1990s. I studied medicine. My interest was really partly to tell the story of Iraq’s healthcare, which was an important regional hub for medicine and public health, and its collapse under the US-led wars in the 1990s and, later on, the sanctions.

I was really interested in how doctors, as the Iraqi state has invested in many of them to work and save lives and work there—why would they leave? What was the incentive to escape the country and go to a place like Britain? This idea of the collapse of healthcare continued in my work, in the way I became interested now, not in the doctors but in the patients who were receiving care or, actually in a way, struggling to receive care in Iraq. Many of them were also leaving Iraq, not necessarily to the UK, but to the regional healthcare systems where they were seeking care for all kinds of war-related injuries, cancer, all kinds of healthcare problems, the treatment of which were not necessarily available in Iraq. And many of these patients were losing trust in the healthcare system as hospitals were becoming even more dangerous places where patients were picking up these superbugs and all kinds of weird infections. And they were traveling with them.

The story that I’ve been working on definitely has to do with my insider point of view, but I also learned a lot about the history of the place, a place I grew up in. I wouldn’t have studied that history if I maybe stayed as a doctor. But also to the effect of war in general and these invisible stories, when we talk about war, we think mostly about maybe the dead and the injured. We count, we produce numbers, but we don’t know what happens to those injured people.

The work that I’ve been doing here at the Radcliffe is working on my second book project, which is following some of these traveling wounds and looking at physical wounds as they manifest in these healthcare systems. But also, at the kind of societal wounds that have emerged from civil war, violence, the failure of reconstruction of the place lost.

This is why there is a lot of stories that are overlapping with our work, because we are looking at some of these bodily injuries and asking, what do they tell us about borders? What do they tell us about violence? What do they tell us about weapons? What do they tell us about wounding in general? Who’s wounding whom, and how these wounds survive and articulate and express themselves over time.

Heather Min:
And you’re both working on site-specific work in dangerous places, very far removed from the manicured lawns of Harvard University and Radcliffe Yard. What have you been doing in this past year with the fellowship and your lovely office in Byerly Hall?

Ieva Jusionyte:
When I moved into Byerly Hall, all this year was just dedicated to writing the book. So, I finished. I did finish the manuscript. I find that having this distance between where I do research, where I think about it, and where I write is very important because on the US–Mexico border and in Mexico where most of my fieldwork happened, there are just so many pressing issues. And I feel I need this temporal and even more geographical separation to actually sit down and reflect on everything that I’ve heard and everything that I’ve seen, what it means. What is this bigger story? How do I share it with people who have never been to the region? Being here just provided me with everything that a writer would need, which is a desk in an office and coffee and 49 other fellows doing very interesting work.

The writing was, I would say, just as difficult as the fieldwork part because you spend all day thinking about it, relistening to the stories, and retelling them. So having little breaks, going to hear somebody playing music or doing a presentation about films—that was just a perfect setup.

Heather Min:
What about you?

Omar Dewachi:
The most amazing part is having this time to disentangle all of this history, all of these experiences, all of the recordings, all of the field notes, all of the writings that I’ve done. And then just to get a sense of what is this? What is this Frankenstein monster needs to be put all now together?

And for all this period, like Ieva was saying, the most incredible experience is to be around so many different storytellers. Storytellers who are telling stories in so many different ways: visually, through music, through illustrations, through science, through history, through fiction and nonfiction. That was something that was so valuable because I think most of us are struggling with how to tell our stories.

Ivelisse Estrada:
When you both were thinking about your closeness to your topics, I was wondering what the role of objectivity is, if any, in anthropology.

Ieva Jusionyte:
When you talk about objectivity in social sciences, it’s just not the same thing as in the natural sciences. We cannot replicate experiments regardless of who the researcher is, because so much of who you are influences not only what subject you decide to study but how you go about doing it, what people tell you. Unlike journalism, I would say, which expects viewers or listeners to hear all sides of the story, ethnographers are usually embedded with a particular group of people and tell the stories from their perspective.

For example, when I was working on US–Mexico border, the perspective that I was most interested in was that of paramedics and EMTs and firefighters. At the same time, I did not do such embedded research with the border patrol. I did interviews, some of them, but I did not spend my days with them. You kind of prioritize one perspective over another, but it doesn’t mean it is subjective in a way makes it not true.

Omar Dewachi:
Objectivity and subjectivity are kind of two sides of different things. Now, objectivity is never complete, because objectivity depends on the tools that we’re using, even in science. With subjectivity, or being subjective, is more about interpretations. We try to interpret meaning of the subjects, or their position, or what they ascribe as meaning to things.

I think both of these elements are there in ethnographic work in many ways, and because part of our work is to explain phenomena and sometimes it’s to interpret phenomena. We definitely are more on the interpretive side. We try to interpret phenomena that we see through meaning and look at conflicts and what these conflicts mean to people. But I also think that some of the explanations that we give to certain social phenomena are not far away from some kind of sense of objectivity.

I know a lot of anthropologists do not agree with me about this, but as someone who has a foot in science and medicine, and a foot in social sciences and the humanities, I feel I have to accept both of these things and try to work with them in my own work. Subjectivity is not necessarily a bad thing. It’s actually a whole field of inquiry based on notions of subjective interpretations and the idea of subjectivity, meaning-giving to how subjects themselves give meaning. So that’s what I think anthropology does.

Heather Min:
But it’s deeply philosophical, actually. Who do you hope reads your work? Your respective books?

Ieva Jusionyte:
As scholars, we write certain texts for people in academia. Increasingly, more over the past years, I redirected my writing towards the broader audience because I think it is almost unethical to just keep this knowledge within the academic community. We are these stories, the people who share them with us. Those stories deserve to be heard by as many people as possible. It’s important because the research that we do is directly about policies, right? In many ways.

On the US–Mexico border, the militarization of the borderlands, the building of the wall, now US gun laws, which is another big topic—all of that affects people. So, when I write, I do not want to only develop a new theory or refine a concept that maybe other anthropologists would find interesting. I actually want to intervene in this public debate with hopes that maybe these harmful policies would change.

I wanted the book to be driven through stories, so that people are interested in reading these stories. And when they finish the book, they also understand much more about what this legal asymmetry in terms of gun laws between US and Mexico does, or how is gun smuggling to Mexico related to the refugees who are running away from violence and appearing at our Southern border, or the opioid addiction epidemic in the United States. How are these things connected?

Omar Dewachi:
I follow Ieva’s path with also trying in this work to be a little bit more open to speaking to a broader audience and public. The work that we do is trying to show how this obsession, this militarized society has created damage in other places. A damage that is inhuman, ecological, economic, people losing their homes, people displaced. The ethical responsibility here is to be the witnesses of these different places, tell the stories of these different places. I feel this is an important responsibility that we have to our own society, to the societies we work with, to the places that we work on, and also to the future of this country.

Ivelisse Estrada:
Something that really struck me from your talk that I think really applies to both your work, is you brought up Paul Farmer's term—here’s this drug resistant infection which was named after the place it was found, so it’s called “Iraqibacter.” Now there's a stigma attached to Iraq because of this drug-resistant bacteria, and in a way that same term applies to your work, which is we hear about all this violence that is coming from Mexico into the United States. When in fact, it’s kind of the other way around.

Omar Dewachi:
The purpose of war or this kind of militarization is wounding. This kind of "geography of blame." It’s the main purpose of it—to wound your enemy. And in doing so, that wound of the enemy, of the other, needs to become invisible also at the same time. It’s displaced. People would be celebrating winning the war. We won the war, but then what becomes silent is the wounds of others and what these wounds kind of will be carrying.

You see that the pain of the other or these wounds of the other are displaced. And what comes in front of it or instead of it is a narrative that puts the blame, always displaces the blame on that other. In both our work, we’re trying to make visible these wounds that become displaced.

And for me, the “Iraqibacter” is definitely an infection that people have to diagnose. There are certain objectivities about it that one could actually learn from sequencing genes, from creating phylogenetic analysis. And at the same time, that bacteria has also very subjective meanings of how it becomes a metaphor to speak about this other place. This is kind of a great example of subjectivity and objectivity coming together in trying to explain why this bacteria is being blamed on Iraq, as it begins to appear as the US moves to Iraq.

To recall the amazing work of the late Paul Farmer, especially his earlier work on HIV/AIDS in Haiti, that was exactly the story. AIDS was blamed on Haitians coming to the United States. But when Paul retold that story, you begin to understand that this has a completely different kind of history. I think a lot of our role is make that invisible history more visible and available for others to really reread this kind of geography of blame.

Heather Min:
Yet you’re working on storytelling that is robust and well-researched and ultimately very thoughtful and reflective and multifaceted. In trying to talk about violence, US firearms causing violence, impact of it, aftermath 20 years after Americans went into Iraq. Yet the news cycle is quick, so how do you penetrate this no-attention, or this very fast, quick news cycle when you’re trying to interject that kind of awareness or consciousness or attention span with this ongoing narrative of power and war and death?

Ieva Jusionyte:
It is quite difficult. If you look at statistics in the US now, we have two mass shootings every 24 hours. So as a researcher, you have to dig under events or happenings that occur every day, and see what are the patterns, right? So how did we get here? History is very important. In my research on gun violence, I went all the way back to the laws both in Spanish and in British empires when they colonized North American continent. What kind of attitudes and what kind of norms were there around using, carrying, owning firearms, back from 16th, 17th, 18th century?

Where does the Second Amendment come into this? How did Mexico manage to create a quite rigorous firearms regulation in the early 1970s? At about the same time that US passed the Gun Control Act in 1968, which was much less strict than the Mexican one. We can see the consequences of what’s going on in the US and in Mexico, we can’t even begin untangling this without understanding this long history and also without understanding how it affects different communities.

So again, if we talk about the news, we hear mostly about these larger mass-casualty incidents, mass shootings, whereas even in the US most gun violence happens in urban communities. Or it can be suicides. More suicides than gun deaths in the US for now. And then in Mexico, it is a little different. The numbers are higher, but you need to try to understand. If we, as cultural anthropologists, look for meaning and we need to interpret it, it’s very easy to condemn guns and gun violence. But in order to understand why we are in this situation, you also need to try to find out why guns are so meaningful to so many people. And understand how we can change perhaps laws and ways that are more acceptable to these groups of people that oppose gun safety laws in the US.

Omar Dewachi:
I think one of also the big problems in this country is the lack of accountability. The amount of money that has been spent on the Iraq War and on the War on Terror is incredible, you know? It actually could be educating most young Americans for free. And this is a war that was—the government went to war on false pretenses, carried out mass killings, destroyed an entire society.

And with this amount of money that has been spent, the trillions of dollars we’re talking, there is something really very strange that no one asks why there is so much waste. Why all of this money has gone into weapons and the destruction of these places. A small fraction of this money could have improved the livelihood of people there in so many different ways. No one asked why there are billions of dollars unaccounted for.

And I feel in the US, the ideological argument is that more weapons will actually make people safer. That’s one of the major arguments in this country. People can go on TV and be in interviews and say: “More weapons. Let’s give the teachers weapons and that’s why shooting will be controlled in the schools.” I think there is definitely a need for soul searching to think of why there’s this obsession with weapons.

And I think Ieva’s work begins to open up these conversations. Rather than just demonizing these groups, let’s try to understand what is really at stake. What is at stake there? What kind of fears? What kind of issues does one need to understand before addressing this problem?

Ivelisse Estrada:
So final question—how do you shake off this heavy work?

Ieva Jusionyte:
Well, I do boxing. And it has been tremendously helpful to get out of my chair and leave my mind behind and just punch.

Omar Dewachi:
I do music. I try to engage in a very different kind of collective work through music. I enjoy playing for others, performing, having people dance. And seeing people dancing is, for me, is a form of healing from a lot of the journey, the painful journeys, the wounds that we—people like me or people from my country—have been kind of carrying with them because of these long histories of war.

Ivelisse Estrada:
So you let others shake it off for you?

Omar Dewachi:
Yeah. Exactly. I’ll be shaking it off too, dancing too.

Heather Min:
And maybe these will be your next areas of anthropology.

Omar Dewachi:
Indeed, they are.

Ivelisse Estrada:
I thought it was really funny that for both of you, English is not your first language.

Omar Dewachi:
No.

Heather Min:
Neither is it for—

Ivelisse Estrada:
Neither is it for either of us.

Heather Min:
That’s why we love you.

Ieva Jusionyte:
We love you too.

All:
[LAUGHTER]

Heather Min:
Thank you. This was great.

Ivelisse Estrada:
Yes, thank you so much.

Heather Min:
The BornCurious podcast is brought to you by Harvard Radcliffe Institute.

Ivelisse Estrada:
Thanks for joining us. You can find BornCurious wherever you listen to podcasts, and to learn more about Harvard Radcliffe Institute—

Heather Min:
Visit radcliffe.harvard.edu.

[MUSIC]

News & Ideas