Lumen Scholar Sydney Hallisey ’21 researching effects of Syrian civil war on refugees

Sydney Hallisey ’21 and Assistant Professor in Political Science and Policy Studies Damion Blake are exploring the narratives of Syrian refugees who migrated to Turkey.

Sydney Hallisey ‘21 was eager to explore a diverse variety of human societies and cultures throughout her time in high school. She knew that she had found her passion and was determined to further explore anthropology at a deeper level.

“I had taken an anthropology class in high school and I loved it,” explained Hallisey. “It totally changed my world.”

Now an Elon Honors Fellow and an anthropology major, Hallisey is one of 15 recipients of the 2019 Lumen Prize. The highly competitive award includes a $20,000 scholarship that allows each student to conduct two years of research alongside a faculty mentor. Each year, the prize is awarded to rising juniors who have proven to a committee of faculty that they have the passion, merit and experience to complete their projects.

“The process itself was rewarding,” said Hallisey. “It’s so valuable to be able to sit down and think through an entire proposal. I was just proud of myself for the work I submitted.”

Hallisey initially wanted to study the impact of Syrian refugees in Lebanon, but after tensions rose in the country and travel restrictions were set in place, she shifted the focus of her studies to the experiences of Syrian refugees in Turkey. Hallisey selected Assistant Professor in Political Science and Policy Studies Damion Blake as her faculty mentor, who helped guide her through the transition.

Assistant Professor in Political Science and Policy Studies Damion Blake

“Sydney’s resilience is insane,” Blake said. “After we had to make the switch, I was incredibly impressed with her adaptability and maturity. She met every single one of the deadlines we set, and she brings a lot to the table. She’s very professional.”

Hallisey selected Blake as her mentor after taking one of his political science classes her first year at Elon. Hallisey was eager to work with Blake because of his experience conducting qualitative research in Jamaica. He had also expressed interest in exploring the effects of conflict in a location specific to Hallisey’s area of study.

Hallisey’s interest in the human experience and international human rights led her to work specifically with Syrian refugees who had migrated to Turkey to escape the conflict in their country. The Lumen Prize gave Hallisey the opportunity to fly to Istanbul for three weeks in January 2020 to conduct research. While in Istanbul, Hallisey spent time talking to refugees at a community center and conducting interviews in Arabic with the help of an interpreter.

Hallisey mostly spoke with women and their children about their experiences in a new and unfamiliar place. Hallisey was able to gather hours of footage of the women reflecting on their past, their families and their hopes for the future.

“I’m so grateful for the award,” Hallisey said. “I loved having that experience of learning from people on the ground in those environments instead of just reading about them. Learning about it in the classroom is so different from being there. It’s huge to travel to these places and to see firsthand how other people are experiencing life.”

While she had originally planned to travel to Turkey during the spring semester, Hallisey changed her plans because of safety concerns due to the ongoing conflict in the region. Instead, she spent time last spring transcribing her interviews and reviewing the materials she gathered.

“I got really lucky that I traveled when I did,” Hallisey said. “Obviously, I would not have been able to travel during spring semester, and my research would have consisted of phone interviews and reading other people’s accounts. I’m very grateful that I was able to go when I did. It would have been a totally different project.”

After she graduates this spring, Hallisey wants to spend more time exploring how the human experience is impacted by policy and larger conflicts. She plans to continue to travel and listen to other people’s stories. Hallisey also plans to attend law school to focus on human rights and to learn to become a better human rights advocate.

“I know that as a white, female, middle-class American I am in a very fortunate position,” she said. “I want to use my position to help and support and learn from other people. I think part of that comes from a formal education, but it also comes from listening to people’s experiences.”

Hallisey is currently working on the Elon Honors Fellow portion of her research and has applied for a Fulbright grant to continue to explore her passion for anthropology after graduation. She is also exploring fellowships and master’s degree programs that will allow her to learn more about the human experience in other parts of the world.

“I think Sydney can accomplish anything she wants,” said Blake. “There’s something about doing this kind of qualitative research that requires you to immerse yourself in a foreign culture. This work is a testimony to the kind of possibilities that can happen when you get this close to something, and Sydney’s work is an excellent example of that. She’s done phenomenal research and outstanding work.”