SFU launches Institute for Diaspora Research & Engagement

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James Busumtwi-Sam looks upon his identity as a juggling act. Born in Ghana, the chair of SFU’s political-science department is routinely seen as part of the West African country’s diaspora. However, when he goes back to Ghana, he’s part of the Canadian diaspora, having lived in this country for three decades.

“For me the question, of course, is where do I belong?” Busumtwi-Sam said at the launch of SFU’s Institute for Diaspora Research & Engagement on April 25. “Chronologically, I’m more Canadian than Ghanaian. I spent more than half my life here.”

The institute’s new director then joked to the crowd of about 50 people at SFU’s Surrey campus that when he visits Ghana, he automatically changes his speaking style on the plane. He quipped that by becoming more expressive verbally and through gestures, he thinks he’ll blend in with other Ghanaians, but it never seems to work. “They still flag you out,” he said, drawing enormous laughs.

On a more serious note, he said that the institute’s goal is to combine community-based scholarship with plenty of public input. “Research in the community is about inviting community members to help us define research questions—to bring issues to us that they find important.”

He noted that although academics have been studying diaspora communities for a long time, only in the past decade has this captured the attention of major corporations, foreign-aid donors, and those creating public policies. Busumtwi-Sam said that according to the World Bank, money sent home from diaspora communities is the second-largest source of global capital flows, ranking behind only portfolio investments. He added that in 2012, diaspora remittances reached $440 billion, more than four times the $100 billion spent on official development assistance.

“What is also being realized is that diaspora contributions are not just financial,” Busumtwi-Sam emphasized. “There’s also growing attention to the phenomenon of social remittances, in terms of the ideas, values, and so on, which are exchanged across borders as people move from place to place. So that’s another emerging area of research and public-policy interest.”

At the institute’s launch, he cautioned against restricting the definition of diaspora to ethnic communities from the global South (most of Africa, Latin America, and Asia). He also highlighted the very large Canadian diaspora living abroad, noting that it hasn’t been studied.

One of the institute’s first projects—in partnership with the Italian Cultural Centre—is an online survey concerning the identity of third-generation Italian Canadians. Research associate Eva Sajoo told the Straight at the event that this research hopes to identify how people’s connection to their ancestral homeland is shaped by factors such as visits to Italy, use of the Italian language, and community and religious practices.

She pointed out that community centres often begin as immigrant-support organizations, but they can’t remain static. “As the community matures and you get a second and third generation, the role of these centres has to change,” Sajoo said.

The institute arose out of an SFU-led project in 2010 and 2011 called Engaging Diaspora in Development: Tapping Our Translocal Potential for Change, which explored how Vancouver-based diasporas were involved in international development. Busumtwi-Sam revealed that the United Nations and the International Organization for Migration “have basically noted that at this juncture in the early 21st century, migration and diaspora formation is perhaps one of the most important issues facing the global community today”. He said that this is on display in strife-ridden Ukraine, which has an enormous Russian-speaking population.

“We see the effects of diasporic nationalism, which in some cases can lead to irredentism [recovery of land related to one’s nation] and conflict,” he said. “In terms of international development, in terms of public health, and in terms of security, the diaspora phenomenon is very, very important.”

Also present at the event was SFU president Andrew Petter, who revealed that 18 percent of students at his postsecondary institution are international. That’s in addition to the students who come from diverse communities within Canada. “If you cross our campus, you would sense it is very much a diaspora,” Petter told the Straight in an interview the same evening. “So we’re particularly well equipped to reach out to the broader diaspora and…benefit from those connections.”

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