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8 October 2015

Refugees, War and Sense of Place: Researcher Cited for Excellence


Dr. Bree Akesson

Research into how political violence and war affects children’s sense of place has won the 2015 Distinguished Dissertation Award for Fine Arts, Humanities and Social Sciences.

Dr. Bree Akesson received her PhD in social work from McGill University. Her work entitled Contradictions in Place: Everyday Geographies of Palestinian Children and Families Living Under Occupation is another step in an international research career focussing on how to help people heal from the ravages of displacement, adversity and violence.

Sadly, it is a problem not going away any time soon. According to the UN, there are currently 60 million people around the world forcibly displaced from their homes. That number was 37.5 million a decade ago. “As the global community struggles with this issue, the importance of Dr. Akesson’s work becomes even more relevant,” says Sally Rutherford, executive director of CAGS.

Akesson’s style is both compassionate and cutting edge. While the judges cited her innovative use of technologies to track and create maps of her subjects’ experiences, she also feels a strong obligation to give voice to the people involved in her research. “Using the data we collect is immensely important,” she says. “Research is always evolving. But what stays constant is being respectful and sensitive to people.”

Watch this TedX video of Bree Akesson explaining the importance of "place".

International Career

Her interest in global issues was ignited through a stint in Kenya with the Peace Corps. Akesson was in a pre-med program in New York City and working as an ambulance medic when she realized that she “really liked talking to patients and hearing their stories rather than just getting them to the hospital.”

That interest in life stories remains with her. She is currently an assistant professor of social work at Wilfrid Laurier University. She is also a treatment facilitator for the Child Psychiatric Epidemiology Group at New York State Psychiatric Institute / Research Foundation for Mental Hygiene. This work focuses on children and families affected by the events of 9/11 and children of parents involved with the criminal justice system.

She is gearing up for more international work as the principal investigator for a study exploring the experiences of pregnant Syrian refugee women in Jordan, Lebanon, and Turkey. She is also organizing a larger project exploring the experiences of Syrian children within refugee camps in Jordan, Lebanon and Turkey

“Her critical research on geographies of occupation and political violence is a far-reaching project that recognizes the necessary inclusion of disempowered voices in making sense of space,” says Maria Belen-Ordonez, a cultural anthropology professor at OCAD University and one of three judges on the 2015 panel.

The CAGS/ProQuest Distinguished Dissertation Awards have been recognizing outstanding Canadian doctoral dissertations for more than 20 years. It seeks out work that makes significant, original contributions to both the academic community and to Canadian society. There are two awards: one for engineering, medical sciences and natural sciences; and one for fine arts, humanities and social sciences. They include a $1,500 prize, a Citation Certificate, and an awards ceremony at the CAGS Annual Conference in Calgary. The 2015 award for science was recently awarded to Dr. Michelle Parker (PhD Microbiology/Biochemistry UVic).