Bursary to reveal diverse identity

October 31, 2003

Helen Taylor's commitment to refugee causes gives her PhD in refugee studies at the University of East London the air of a personal mission.

"This is a crucial field, especially with the negative attitudes to refugees in society," she says. "I think racism has become less acceptable in British culture, but refugees are becoming a target for legitimised xenophobia. There is very little understanding about the refugee experience."

Taylor, who is 36 and lives in Walthamstow, East London, finds common cause with the students at the vibrant and growing Refugee Studies Centre at UEL.

A third of the students on the MA programme are refugees.

Taylor has an intimate knowledge of her chosen field of research: the commitment of Cypriot refugees in the UK to returning to their divided homeland. Her partner is a second-generation Turkish Cypriot and her mother's first husband, a teacher, was killed by Greek Cypriot extremists while the couple was living in Cyprus in the 1950s. Taylor was born after her mother and brother returned to England in 1956.

"We always had narratives about Cyprus in my family," she says. "I think we didn't discuss it in political terms. We just knew something had happened in Cyprus."

Taylor's MA thesis, in which she looked at how the identities of Cypriot refugees in London have changed, feeds into her PhD project. "I will continue to look at issues of London Cypriots but I will refine my research question. I'm interested in the whole commitment to the lost home and the project of return -whether refugee communities adhere to the ideal of returning to their homeland. Cypriots have been here for 30 or 40 years but they still seem to see return as the end goal if things do change in Cyprus."

On a recent visit to Cyprus, Taylor experienced first hand the enduring sense of community and common identity between Turkish and Greek Cypriots when the north-south border was opened. Despite a history of conflict, there was much celebration. People evicted from their homes in the 1970s revisited their old houses to find that the new proprietors had kept their possessions safe.

"We heard mostly positive stories," Taylor says. "People who had lost their parents (in the conflict) were saying: 'We have to move on.'"

Taylor says that one goal of her research is to help work towards "some kind of bi-communal solution". "The majority of both communities [reek and Turkish Cypriot]would like to come to some accommodation," she says.

Taylor took her first degree in English literature at Liverpool University and read women's studies as a postgraduate some six years ago at Westminster University. A distinction in her MA in refugee studies earned her a UEL studentship -a three-year bursary that will fund her PhD.

Taylor has done many jobs in her life -among them political journalism and "theatrical things" -but she sees her future in academic research, coupled with a hands-on commitment to refugee communities. "I would like to have contact with the real world," she says.

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