Academics and Research / Magazine Feature / People

Graduate student researches conflict in refugee zones

Leah Berry’s research project took her a long way from home last fall — all the way to the United Republic of Tanzania, a country on Africa’s east coast.

Berry, an international studies graduate student, was looking into environmental conflicts associated with refugee camps. For a dozen years, Tanzania has hosted refugees who fled from violent conflicts in neighboring Burundi. Berry lived, interned and conducted her research at the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees compound.

Berry was one of 73 students who received a 2006 National Security Education Program Boren Graduate Fellowship, which supports students pursuing the study of languages, cultures and world regions that are critical to U.S. interests. Berry learned Swahili in Arusha, a city on the border of Kenya, then spent nearly four months in the small town of Kibondo in Northwest Tanzania.

There were no paved roads in town, but the compound had a generator to provide electricity and had water trucked in. Berry says security was tight at the compound.

Her project, “Environmental Security: Preventing Refugee Related Conflict in Tanzania,” focused on whether refugees from Burundi and locals in Kibondo were fighting for the same environmental resources — wood for cooking and heating, and water.

Berry says that although she’s still in the early stages of her analysis, her research showed the two groups definitely were competing for the same resources. Although refugees were not permitted to leave the camp, villagers told her they’d seen refugees cutting down trees for firewood. People downstream complained that those upstream blocked the water.

So far, it’s not a violent, extreme conflict, she says, because people are able to continue to live as they always have. Tanzanians are accommodating to the Burundian refugees, in part, because of the benefits they’ve brought.

“Before the refugees came, there were no hospitals, good roads and few schools,” Berry says, explaining that the U.N. improved the local infrastructure after erecting the camps.

As an intern, Berry helped write reports about the U.N.’s ongoing regional programs. The conflict in Burundi is officially over and the governments of Burundi and Tanzania both want the refugees to go home, but many Burundians are afraid to return.

Peter Van Arsdale, senior lecturer in the Graduate School of International Studies, advised Berry on her project and believes that her research could get in the hands of people who work for NGOs doing outreach and training involving indigenous displaced persons in places like East Africa.

“Leah has the chance to be one of the people at the forefront of the interface of three issues related to forcibly displaced persons: environmental issues, refugee issues and resource issues,” Van Arsdale says.

Berry hopes to receive her MA in international studies in December and is considering going into international environmental work. The Boren Fellowship comes with a commitment to serve in the homeland security, defense, state or intelligence departments.

“I got to experience U.N. foreign policy in action,” says Berry, who is looking forward to more foreign service.

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