Freedom Fighter: Stricken by refugees’ plight, anthropologist gets involved

Story originally found in Cascade: Magazine of the UO College of Arts and Sciences by Jim Murez.

‘‘Claudina” was two years old when her father left Guatemala for work in the United States, and five when her mother left to join him.

For the next nine years, she endured emotional abuse at the hands of an aunt and uncle. She was raped by a relative and lived with the threat of sexual assault whenever she was alone outside.

She didn’t trust the local police department, which was corrupted by gangs and organized crime. She felt abandoned.

With nothing to lose and desperate for a better life, Claudina fled Guatemala—unbeknownst to her parents—in an effort to rejoin them in the states. She was 14.

Lynn StephenClaudina is one of the Guatemalan refugees that Lynn Stephen (left) has helped to freedom in America.

Stephen, an anthropology professor and codirector of the UO Center for Latino/a and Latin American Studies explores the impact of globalization, migration, and nationalism on indigenous communities in the Americas, with an emphasis on gender and race.

Over the past eight years, she has served as an expert witness for more than two-dozen refugees from Mexico and Guatemala seeking political asylum through US courts. Three from Guatemala for whom she’s provided extensive support have won their request, and nine additional cases are working their way through the judicial system.

Stephen came to the role through her research on challenges facing indigenous peoples in Central America. The more Stephen delved into the stories of the victimized there, the more she felt obligated to get involved.

Working with graduate students Darien Combs and Brenda Garcia, Stephen has conducted in-depth interviews with more than a dozen refugees seeking asylum here. Her team has documented the threats of violence, extortion, and torture that have led thousands of Guatemalans to head north—and the same abuses awaiting them should they be deported back to their homeland.

Stephen combines her research and the refugees’ stories into a powerful petition for political asylum. Refugees then submit those “declarations” to the courts, with Stephen providing expert testimony in writing, and if requested, orally.

“My expertise as an anthropologist allows me to put this person’s story in context, to say, ‘This is consistent with what my research shows,’” she said. “Meanwhile, we are engaging as faculty—and engaging our students—in real-life human rights work.”

Stephen sees parallels between the situations facing Guatemalan refugees and those of the Syrians trying to escape the violence in their homeland. Both groups have faced strong resistance to their plight and unwelcome receptions from certain quarters of society. This at a time when more people have been displaced from their native lands than during any other period in history.


Read the full story here.