Hey, my name is Sadhna Gupta and I am a junior studying Public Policy, Economics, and Global Health. I was born in India, grew up in Boston, and have travelled a lot throughout my life—most recently, I just finished a semester abroad in Madrid, Spain. I love watching Duke basketball games, eating Taco Bell, and laughing. Also, I have a deathly fear of cats.
I have been lucky enough to get many opportunities to research social issues in North Carolina and around the world. I became interested in community development doing HIV/AIDS awareness work in a coastal city of Kenya through DukeEngage. Sophomore year, I participated in the Kenan Institute’s Moral Challenges of Poverty and Inequality lab and did an Independent Study on health concerns for American Indian tribes in North Carolina. This past summer, I returned to Kenya and interviewed girls to document barriers to primary school access for the Nike Foundation.
All of these fieldwork experiences have shown me that humanitarian aid and community intervention can sometimes create more harm than good. Although we certainly have an obligation to act and to better our community, I believe that living ethically requires us to honestly evaluate the effects of our work and make sure we are not taking advantage of those who are socially marginalized. Unfortunately, organizations typically act in their own personal interest even if it does not align with the interests of those they are trying to help.
In high school, I met Bhutani refugee families resettling in the suburbs of Boston and was shocked to learn that their aid groups and caseworkers had tried to convert many of them from Hinduism to Christianity. If they remained Hindu, they were given only the basic funding from the government. If they converted, the church groups would give them many extra items and services to help them adjust to the United States. This could be anything from a computer to free transportation to medical appointments. Although these may seem small, many families came from refugee camps in Nepal and were struggling to make it day by day. Many individuals had converted, but it was unclear whether this was done out of free choice or coercion.
I began to see that religiously affiliated groups could have a conflict of interest in their work. Although they certainly want to help the refugees, they may also want to spread their religious beliefs or advance their missionary goals. As a participant in Kenan’s Refugee, Rights, and Resettlement Winter Forum this past January, I became interested in exploring this issue further.
As a Kenan Fellow, I want to examine the way we provide aid to refugees resettling in our country. More specifically, I am interested to see how the religious affiliation of aid organizations affects the resettlement experience of their clients. Beginning this Friday, I will spend eight weeks interning on Capitol Hill in DC and will also use this time to further investigate the political and legal aspects of this controversial issue. Then, I will spend 3 weeks interviewing refugee families in the Boston area who have experienced this religious tension first hand and will record their stories. I will finish up my project in Durham where I hope to speak with refugee resettlement groups and religious leaders, before creating my final product.
Although I don’t expect to get any definite answers, I hope to start discussion on many different questions…
Are religious groups taking advantage of refugees’ vulnerable position and pressuring them to convert unwillingly?
Is it wrong for a church group to want to spread their religious beliefs when helping others?
Where do we draw the line for a group that has good intentions but may actually be taking advantage of somebody else’s situation?