Image courtesy of Sarah Rosenberg-Jansen.
Today marks the start of Refugee Week, seven days dedicated to recognising refugees globally and encouraging better understanding between communities. We caught up with Sarah Rosenberg-Jansen who was the 2017 recipient of the Frederick Soddy Postgraduate Award, a grant that provides up to £6,000 to support PhD students carrying out research on 'the study of the social, economic, and cultural life of a region’ - anywhere in the world.
Sarah has recently returned from her PhD fieldwork in refugee camps across Rwanda and Kenya, where she has been researching the use of renewable energies, with solar power as a particular focus.
Can you give us a taste of what your research is about?
I want to better understand the relationships refugees have with renewable energy in refugee camps. I’ve been carrying out research in Rwanda and Kenya, across four camps in total. The population size of these camps ranges from 160,000 at the Kenyan Kakuma camp to 10-20,000 in each of the three camps in Rwanda. I wanted to understand energy provision and how inhabitants interact with their energy supplies. Little work has been done to understand how refugees use solar energy, and that’s my aim – to see how technologies reach camps, and to see how people’s lived experiences inform policy.
How long have you been away?
The Society’s support has enabled me to travel for nine months in total, moving between the UK, Rwanda and Kenya as well as making separate visits to Geneva and New York to meet global policymakers.
What was everyday life like for you while in the field?
I’d wake up, have breakfast and usually spend mornings meeting contacts via a community facilitator. I spent a lot of time with women and children, asking questions about how they cook and understanding their use of technology. I’d step into their shoes for the day. Afternoons were spent visiting parts of the camps where entrepreneurs had set up their own sources of energy to power home-made cinemas, or mobile phone charging stations.
What interested you most?
I was impressed by the solar cinemas. These were shacks and sheds that had energy connections via solar panels or diesel generators that had been bought collectively. Customers would pay a small fee to be able to watch television or movies. These spaces were packed every day, from morning to night, and were the most popular businesses in the camps. None of the households in the camps are connected to the national grid, so the cinemas also provided opportunities to charge mobile phones.
How did you become interested in working in refugee camps?
I’m not your average PhD student, I’m a bit too old for that! I used to work at Imperial College as an energy researcher, with renewables specifically. I then moved to the Department for International Development, but missed academia, and began to look at refugees and response. Water, logistics and food supply had all been investigated but I noticed that research around energy was lacking. There was nothing comprehensive in this area, I already had experience in Kenya and Rwanda and the rest, as they say, is history!
Refugees will be refugees for 17 years on average. How can we ensure that adequate plans are made for the long term?
Most of the countries that host refugees will always continue to host refugees, so there is a responsibility for national and international governments to recognise that. Even if some people return to their home countries it will likely be a temporary return.
Jordan is a great country in the sense that it recognises there is instability in the Middle East and is prepared for refugee intake with financing and locations – the government thinks ahead.
Rwanda also recognises that. Congolese refugees have been there since 1996 or 2012 and 2013. Refugees who have been there since 1996 are not likely to go back to DRC. They are integrated and have marriages and families with Rwandans. We need to consider how can we support these people and to further integrate refugees with the host community.
In what way does gender play a role in your research?
It was definitely easier to chat to women, but I wouldn’t say it was difficult to talk to men. There are lots of westerners in the camps so people are used to outsiders visiting. All business owners and households speak fluent English. Most people are actually fluent in six to seven languages so you can always find people to speak with. I didn’t witness any negative gender relations and never felt unsafe or threatened as a woman researcher.
And finally, would you recommend the Frederick Soddy Postgraduate Award to other PhD researchers?
Yes I would definitely recommend applying. It was a substantial chunk of money that was essential to my fieldwork, and I wouldn’t have been able to do so much without it. Having extra funding gave me the flexibility to spend time in the camps with people, and to be there for as long as I wanted. I could pursue a range of academic avenues due to this extra time.
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