Campus News

A Conversation with Leo Hochberg: Student Research in Lebanon

November 25, 2019

Communications Staff

Leo Hochberg young man in white shirt, gray striped tie sitting in room.
Leo Hochberg, senior politics and Middle Eastern studies double major.
Photo credit: Tanya Rosen-Jones ’97

This past spring, senior politics and Middle Eastern studies double major Leo Hochberg spent a semester studying away in Lebanon at the American University of Beirut. After the semester concluded, Hochberg remained in the capital to intern with the Heinrich Boell-Stiftung Foundation, where he conducted research on the Syrian refugee crisis and wrote a 23-page report “No Longer Just a Humanitarian Crisis: The Politicization of Syrian Refugees in Lebanon.” The report is based in part on fieldwork he carried out in Lebanon, along with secondary research. 

You published research on the Syrian refugee crisis. How did you become involved with this area of study?

Oberlin and the courses that I have taken here have definitely been an essential part of the path that led to my summer research. I'm a politics and Middle Eastern studies double major, so by the time I left to study abroad in Lebanon for the spring semester of 2019, I had already taken a lot of relevant courses. Classes taught by Assistant Professor of Politics Sarah El-Kazaz, Professor of Politics Eve Sandberg, and Associate Professor of History Zeinab Abul-Magd were definitely among the most influential in my decision to study abroad in Lebanon, although many other professors, friends, and administrators were essential in helping me make the decisions that I've made in the past year. After I studied abroad at the American University of Beirut, I stayed in Beirut for the summer to intern with the Heinrich Boell-Stiftung foundation, which is where I did my research and wrote the paper.

You’ve worked closely with a few professors to pursue course work in Middle Eastern studies. What’s that partnership been like?

Professor Abul-Magd has been my advisor here at Oberlin for several years, and she's definitely been my primary point person among Oberlin's faculty, as well as a great friend. She provided a lot of logistical support and guidance in crafting my Middle East and North Africa Studies major, which is an individual major. She was also essential to the process of going abroad and finding opportunities in Beirut. I began working with Professor Steve Crowley after I returned from Beirut, and he's been essential in helping me plan my next steps and a great source of advice and guidance as I prepare for post-grad life. Right now, Professor Crowley and I are doing a private reading together in which I'm writing new articles and shopping them to newspapers for publication.

The research you did on Syrian refugees was fairly extensive, particularly for an undergraduate student to complete. How did that come about?

The research question that I chose, "How did Syrian refugees in Lebanon become so politicized?" turned out to be a pretty complex topic, and a shorter piece would have risked simplifying a problem that requires a deep dive to answer effectively. The foundation was also able to get me interviews with an ex-minister of parliament, several well-known lawyers, Syrian refugees, and a lot of civil society professionals, so it took quite a lot of writing to channel all of those perspectives. Lastly, the research component was the primary aspect of my internship, so in a two-month period I had plenty of time to dive into professional research interviews and secondary literature analysis.

How did your position with the foundation aid your research?

The Heinrich-Boell Foundation provided me with a living stipend and expenses for travel to and from research interviews, but beyond the funding they also provided a lot of guidance and connections that I used in my work. For example, they connected me to their network of NGOs and refugee-support professionals throughout the country so that I could include expert perspectives in my paper. They also helped connect me with Syrian refugees who they support as a foundation so that I could include their anecdotal experiences. The head of the Boell-Stiftung office in Beirut, Joachim Paul, was my supervisor and primary editor, and the whole thing would have been impossible without his guidance and support.

What’s on the horizon for you?

I have lots of plans to continue researching and writing about human security topics in the Middle East. For example, I recently started writing a weekly column in the Oberlin Review about the Middle East and international security, and I'm also writing a longer research paper for my private reading with Professor Crowley about prospects for justice for victims of ISIS in Iraq and Syria, which I hope to submit for publication in an undergraduate journal of international politics or Middle Eastern studies next semester. Lastly, I plan to spend winter term in Istanbul doing a new research project for a Turkish think tank. So, there are a lot of opportunities on the table.

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