Anthropologist Sara Withers on Finding Refuge

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Though exact numbers vary, there are approximately 65 million people in motion around the world. These 65 million people are migrants, refugees, internally displaced people, and asylum seekers. They are fleeing crushing poverty, disease, violence, war, political threats, and environmental change. They travel alone, in caravans of thousands of people, and with their earthly possessions in a bag on their back. They go on foot, by boat, plane, train, and truck. 

While many of the biggest flows of migrants today are taking place far away, New Hampshire is not immune from seeing and feeling the results of this mass human migration. Local communities know that the arrival of newcomers is nothing new for the state, as the Merrimack River valley—driven by the booming textile industry of the 19th Century—has historically drawn thousands of workers from all over the world. More recently, since the 1980s, New Hampshire has helped resettle over 7,500 refugees into communities along this same corridor—Laconia, Concord, Manchester, and Nashua. People living in New Hampshire realize, despite a world-wide move away from globalism and towards nationalism, there is no denying that the world is shrinking. People from different backgrounds, places, religions, and regions need to learn to live together and to recognize their common humanity.

The World Affairs Council of New Hampshire (WACNH) seeks to shed light on this reality through three powerful films that will be shown in Concord this spring and Portsmouth in the fall. These films, which center around questions of human culture, movement, and identity, do so from three different perspectives—three perspectives which encourage audience members to think about the impact of migration on a global, national, and local level. Human Flow, a stunning film by internationally renowned artist Ai Weiwei, paints a sweeping picture of the scope of human movement. The film looks at the journeys undertaken by refugees from 23 countries, and despite the gravity of the situation, sends a message of tolerance, compassion, and trust in fellow human beings, and a call for unity in the face of difference. Anote’s Ark focuses on the plight of climate change refugees by asking, “What if your country was swallowed by the sea?” For President Anote Tong and his fellow Kiribatans, their forced migration is about survival—cultural and national–in the midst of incredible environmental upheaval. How do you maintain your sense of self and your national identity, without a country to call home? Finally, Fire at Sea forces the viewer to confront the impact of human migration at an intimate, local level. Within the past decade, hundreds of thousands of African migrants have temporarily landed on the Italian island of Lampedusa on their journey to mainland Europe. The native villagers, however, barely notice this constant flow of people. This reality is a stark example of how easy it is to ignore the plight of others in your own backyard. The two populations exist side by side, are joined together in life and death, but the residents are unaware of what is truly going on.

Together, these films raise timely questions about how we define and think about cultural identity and belonging, and the human meanings given to place and space. They push the viewer to recognize and remember their own migration story, as well as the ways in which they maintain a sense of self, and an attachment to their community. At their core, the films ask the viewers to embrace a sense of shared humanity in order to address the issue of global migration in their local communities. For event details, visit


Dr. Sara Withers is a Senior Lecturer in Anthropology at UNH Durham. She organized and conducted nearly 40 oral history interviews that served as the basis for the documentary Uprooted: Heartache and Hope in New Hampshire, giving her first-hand knowledge of the experiences of refugee and immigrant newcomers to the state. Through Humanities to Go, Sara is available to screen and facilitate discussions of this short documentary and immigration today.