With those words, Professor of Economics Erol Balkan introduces “Displaced and Dispossessed,” a collection of photographs he has taken of Syrian refugees at their camps in Turkey. He has spent the past few years sharing his images with the goal of raising not only awareness, but also funds to purchase school supplies for refugee children.

The idea is not an attempt to solve the problem. It is to improve the lives of a couple of these kids with the hope that they will get out of the situation one day.

Erol Balkan Professor of Economics Erol Balkan

Between 2017 and 2020, Balkan has made multiple visits to Turkey where he spends a few days at various camps meeting with families, most of whom include farm workers. The conditions are anything but welcoming. Temperatures often reach 110 degrees, and resources such as clean water can often be scarce.

“Since I keep going back to the same camps, people get to know me. Every time I visit, kids will come and hug me,” he says. “Children are children. They laugh, they smile, they are not aware of what is happening to them. The innocence in their eyes even under these conditions is breathtaking.”

Balkan has spent 37 years teaching economics at Hamilton. An expert on economic development, international finance, and the political economy of the Middle East, he has received multiple grants for his research and teaching awards. Outside of his academic interests, Balkan has always had a passion for the arts. As an undergraduate he studied photography and film in addition to economics.

book cover: Displaced and dispossessed by Erol BalkanNow, with retirement on the horizon, Balkan continues to focus on improving the lives of immigrants and refugees around the world and in the local area. “After many, many years, I got back to [photography] because the most powerful way of showing human drama is through pictures; [it’s] so much more powerful than all the pages I could write,” he says.

While most of his work takes place in Turkey, Balkan spent December of 2022 in Oaxaca, Mexico, at an albergue, one of many centers located throughout the country that provides temporary accommodations for asylum-seeking migrants on their way to the U.S. Some have walked hundreds of miles to get there — often with children — from Venezuela, Columbia, Honduras, El Salvador, Guatemala, or other points south. Each day as many as 1,000 migrants arrive in Oaxaca, yet the albergue has only 150 beds. Migrants who are admitted stay only a night or two before continuing north. 

Camera in tow, Balkan met with the migrants and explained why he was there — to raise money for water, which the albergue must have delivered each month by tanker truck. Like “Displaced and Dispossessed,” he assembled images from Mexico into an exhibit titled “Look Into My Eyes: Migrants on the Move.”

Erol Balkan-Refugees on the MoveIn 2022, Balkan co-edited Refugees on the Move: Crisis and Response in Turkey and Europe, a book that explores the complexities of current refugee issues such as the causes of the movement of refugee populations, the struggles faced during their journeys, and host governments’ attempts to manage and overcome the so-called “refugee crisis.”

Closer to home he serves on the board for Utica’s OnPoint for College, an organization that helps displaced students overcome the barriers to higher education. He and Professor of Sociology Steve Ellingson are working with Hamilton students on a survey project, “The Impact of the Pandemic on Local Refugee Communities: Health and Well-being, Employment, and Education.”

Balkan plans to return to Turkey in June. He is hoping to partner with refugee authors on a book to be titled Displaced and Dispossessed: Stories and Photographs from the Border.

“The idea is not an attempt to solve the problem. It is to improve the lives of a couple of these kids with the hope that they will get out of the situation one day,” he says. “At least [in Turkey] they have shelter, access to health care, and education. Their situation is not ideal, but you know, it is what it is — what they have for the moment.”

Banner image: Professor Erol Balkan with Syrian children at a refugee camp in Turkey.

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