Interview for ‘Notes from the Field’: Petra Molnar, by Alessia Avola

Notes from the Field

CARFMS is excited to launch a new initiative called Notes from the Field. Each Note is based on a conversation between an undergraduate student finishing their degree or a postgraduate student starting off their degree, and a more established researcher in refugee and forced migration studies. While all Notes will be different, the unifying thread connecting them is a focus on recent developments in research, law, policy, and approaches within Canada to issues of asylum, borders, and immigration. Each student will also find out if the researcher has advice to dispense to scholars at the end of undergraduate studies, and if there is one key change that we should be making about how refugees are treated in Canada. At the end of the initial run of Notes, will publish this advice together as a guide and inspiration.

If you would like to participate as either an interviewer or interviewee, please contact Dr. Stephanie J. Silverman at or @DrSJSilverman

Advice, support, and editing will be made available, so don’t be nervous!


Interview with Petra Molnar, February 21st 2018, by Alessia Avola

Our discussion focused on how to navigate field work ethically, the roles of different actors in shaping critical discourses, and the challenges facing refugees and their advocates today.

Alessia Avola is a fourth-year undergraduate student studying Ethics, Society and Law and International Relations at the University of Toronto, who looks forward to helping create a kinder world.

Petra Molnar is a lawyer and refugee advocate in Toronto and a researcher at the International Human Rights Program, University of Toronto Faculty of Law.


How do researchers, advocates, legal professionals and academics ensure that their practice is ethical when engaging with refugee populations and other vulnerable populations who have experienced trauma? As someone who has done academic field research, and would like to continue doing so, my mind often returns to this line of inquiry. So, I was excited for the opportunity to run these questions by multihyphenate scholar Petra Molnar, a Barrister and Solicitor, academic, and field researcher. In 2015, Petra conducted field work in Jordan and Turkey towards understanding the lived experiences of Syrian refugees.


On route to Gaziantep, Southern Turkey, near the border with Syria, 2015

On route to Gaziantep, Southern Turkey, near the border with Syria, 2015. Photograph: Petra Molnar


When I asked Petra how she approaches field work, she expounded on the importance of thorough background research before departing and embarking on the work. This background research includes: understanding the local context; establishing linkages in the community with established persons and groups; and reflecting on your own positionality to the dynamics at play in a particular space. She recommends thinking through vital questions such as: Does this space have a history of information being (violently) extracted from its communities and people without the agreed-upon return coming back to the community? How is your power at play in your role as researcher? Do you understand your role as someone who is meant to learn and observe, and not act as an authority over the lived experiences of the community? One could also ask, how am I being responsive to the community with which I am working, and how do I know this?

For Petra, actors committed to doing ethical work must ground their research practices in local knowledge, and commit to critically assessing and reassessing their positionality, philosophy, and methodology. Petra noted that although there are a lot of organizations and initiatives that are doing community-based advocacy work, there is a current lack of trauma-informed frameworks, including frameworks that value the knowledge of people’s lived experiences, across disciplines and areas of study.


Turkish Election Campaigns, 2015

Turkish Election Campaigns, 2015. Photograph: Petra Molnar


A trauma-informed framework of engagement includes (but is by no means limited to) a one that is designed with principal space for the target population who have experienced and continue to experience trauma. This population needs trust, space, and time to elucidate their required supports, with partners that are responsive to their needs and value their lived experiences and knowledges (without putting the onus for care onto them). She noted that elites in law, academia, and elsewhere must do more to make space for collaborative partnerships. This is critical, as Petra noted, because knowledge production organizes the conversations we have and influence discourse, especially when that knowledge trickles down to the media and is disseminated outward.


Istanbul, housing the majority of Syrian refugees, 2015

Istanbul, housing the majority of Syrian refugees, 2015. Photograph: Petra Molnar


This paradigm is exemplified by the way that legal agents, media, and government actors interact to decide on legitimacy, victimhood, deservingness, and how these politically contested concepts become embodied. Careful thought should be devoted to the language used to describe refugees, or images used to associate refugees and migrants. Consider the association of refugee movements with ‘floods’ or other natural disasters who are over-running a country, accompanying visions of contagion and threats to the health or purity of the host country. These images and corresponding fears stoke and justify sovereignty-enforcing securitization tools like detention and expulsion. In Discretion to Deport, Petra documents the stigmatization, and subsequent deportations back to Syria, of Syrian refugees in Jordan who are engaged in sex work or found to be HIV-positive.[1]

I asked Petra about the key change she would make to how Canada treats refugees. She responded with a spotlight on empathy: ‘I would want people to look at the humanity of migrants and their hopes and fears. People get reduced to quotas and numbers, but they are complex and embody humanity, in all its dimensions.’ Petra’s response asks us to consider the stringent, unfair standards that refugees and migrants are held to, where they, to qualify legally or normatively as a ‘legitimate’ refugee and be considered worthy of care, are cast in a narrow light and understood as a particular type of victim.


Amman, capital of Jordan, 2015

Amman, capital of Jordan, 2015. Photograph: Petra Molnar


We ended our discussion with a look inward, and backward. I asked Petra what advice she wishes she could have told herself at the end of her undergraduate degree. Her answer: to trust yourself, reflect on what it is you want in life, and what is right for you. This means asking yourself what balance you want to strike in your life, what matters to you, and re-evaluating the directions you thought your life would take. This advice coheres with my take-away from our conversation:  it encourages a willingness to reassess one’s plan, engage in critical -reflection of self and our systems of value.

Thank you Petra, for being so generous with your time and thoughts.


[1] Molnar, Petra. “Discretion to Deport: Intersections between Health and Detention of Syrian Refugees in Jordan.” Refugee, Fall 2017, 18+. Academic OneFile (accessed February 28, 2018).