University of Notre Dame

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On Display: Crafting Refugees, Gendered Stories, and Moral Navigation in Neoliberal Istanbul

posted on 2024-03-25, 02:19 authored by Ayşe Bursali

By the end of 2021, the global refugee population reached 27.1 million, according to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees. Türkiye has become the world's top refugee-hosting country due to the Syrian Civil War that started in 2011. As of June 2022, Türkiye had 3.7 million registered Syrian refugees who are frequently used as bargaining chips by national and international actors. Refugees in Türkiye and elsewhere are subjected to a neoliberal humanitarian regime, where economic restructuring has diminished state-provided welfare, leaving them lacking essential resources. Consequently, they become dependent on corporatized and professionalized non-governmental organizations (NGOs), leading to marginalization and vulnerability.

Based on ethnographic research conducted between November 2020 and December 2021 in urban Istanbul, Türkiye, and online, this dissertation illustrates the impact of neoliberal policies in situations of protracted displacement. Focusing on a skills and livelihood project for refugee women that taught them crafting skills and facilitated the selling of their handcrafts in-person and on digital platforms such as Instagram and Etsy, I explore the political economy of neoliberalism in the context of NGOs and aid organizations, as well as the moral economy of neoliberalism in the scripts of the enterprising and individual subject in the marketing of handcrafts and through a TikTok protest started by Syrian refugees in Türkiye. Through an analysis of the production, online marketing, and sales of handcrafts, as well as the Project’s impacts on the community, the dissertation shows that refugees, aid workers, volunteers, and organizations navigate the neoliberal landscape by adopting strategies that either take advantage of or contest neoliberalism, sometimes in morally contradictory ways. It highlights practices of solidarity and resistance that escape the neoliberal landscape.

This dissertation enhances our understanding of the daily realities, practices, and challenges faced by urban refugees and grassroots organizations as they navigate precarity. It complicates clear-cut distinctions between development and humanitarian aid, consumption and production, and charity and trade in online promotional materials for the handcrafts projects. It also challenges the notion that the visibility of refugee women in online promotional materials reflects their visibility in places, polities, and decision-making processes. Finally, this dissertation explores the global imperative to present oneself on social media, shaped by the neoliberal self-making industry, on multiple scales - personal, for the Project, for refugee communities, and for the state.


Date Modified


Defense Date


CIP Code

  • 45.0201

Research Director(s)

Maurizio Albahari


  • Doctor of Philosophy

Degree Level

  • Doctoral Dissertation

Alternate Identifier


OCLC Number


Program Name

  • Anthropology

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