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How Refugees Are Reshaping the Religious Landscape


With the Syrian refugee crisis ever-present in the news and issues of immigration taking center stage in the current presidential election, questions surrounding religious diversity and inclusivity have rarely been as important in global politics as they are today. It is against this historic backdrop that Shannon Boley ’17 was able to take her past research on religious pluralism from Upstate New York all the way to Rome, Italy, as one of this summer’s 18 Emerson Grant recipients.

about Shannon Boley ’17

Major: Religious Studies

Hometown: Westfield, Mass.

High School: Westfield High School

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Boley, a religious studies major, said that she wanted to see firsthand the impact that the religion of refugees and immigrants can have upon their integration into Western nations. With over 100,000 refugees/migrants having entered Italy in 2016 alone, Rome provided the perfect setting for such investigation, particularly as a site to research the interactions between Catholic/Christian refugee centers, religious leaders and academics, and their newly arrived Muslim counterparts. “The refugee crisis is ever-present in Rome,” she said, “and I wanted to look at it from a religious studies angle… (to see if these relationships) are mainly organized or hierarchal, or if these interactions are between ‘typical’ citizens.”

Of particular importance to Boley was discovering the extent to which skewed power dynamics exist within the city between recently arrived immigrants and the local population, and whether such dynamics fell along religious lines. This research, under the advisement of Visiting Associate Professor of Religious Studies S. Brent Rodriguez-Plate, involved Boley interviewing more than 20 different individuals and organizations in order to create in-depth case studies.

“I interviewed different religious leaders, refugees, refugee centers and faith-based charities to get a clearer picture of this complex web of relationships,” she explained, adding that she aimed to “highlight some of the positive religious pluralism that is occurring (in Rome), and to examine when rhetoric from the Vatican or the media does not match the current reality.”

That current reality, said Boley, turned out to be more complex than she could have possibly anticipated. While she documented many instances of Roman locals embracing religious pluralism, and while a great number of Christian individuals, charities and organizations presented a helpful and welcoming face to the new refugees, there were examples that stood counter to such a positive narrative. “In some ways, Rome is a welcoming place… Yet on another hand, I hear stories of violence, discrimination, and ignorance,” said Boley. “Although Romans can be Muslims too, there is a clear ‘otherness’ of the Muslim religion,” she added, “and some of these refugees feel like they can’t escape their refugee status.”

As she begins her senior year at Hamilton, Boley claimed that she has no plans of slowing down. Before attending graduate school to further study interfaith relationships, she hopes to secure a Fulbright or similar scholarship to pursue research on religious pluralism, identity and refugees in India.

But for Boley these subjects will never be reduced simply to dispassionate observation. “I think it’s important as a researcher to be compassionate with a topic such as this one,” she proffered. “There can be a delicate mix of scholarly research and activism, and hopefully this project helps bring to light some important issues with the refugee crisis and Islamophobia.”

Understanding and acceptance however, Boley claimed, can only be achieved by amplifying the voices of those who otherwise would go unheard. “This project was able to capture the narratives of refugees and those interacting with them... now I hope to use these stories to advocate for more religious pluralism and acceptance in the US and elsewhere.”

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