An hour with
Prof. Noora Lori, Assistant Professor of International Relations, Pardee School of Global Studies, Boston University
To celebrate global education, we visited someone who understands the meaning of the word “international” on both a personal and a professional level. Get to know Noora Lori, Assistant Professor of International Relations at Boston University’s prestigious Pardee School of Global Studies.
A truly international life
Noora Lori was born and raised in Manama, Bahrain, a small Arab monarchy in the Persian Gulf. In her younger years, she was enrolled in a British school, but because she regularly refused to adhere to its strict school uniform code, her mother eventually enrolled in a US Department of Defense Dependent’s School (DoDDS) on a US military base, where uniforms weren’t required. There, she made lifelong friends with a diverse array of international students and developed a strong identification with American culture that has lasted a lifetime.
She says it felt odd to be surrounded by peers with parents in the US military, while her own father’s family had Bahraini military connections. She watched her peers move between bases while she stayed put, but quickly developed a deep curiosity about the wider world and a love of travel. As with many DoDDS students, she also learned how to adapt…skills that would serve her well.
Upon graduating high school, Noora jumped across the pond to attend Northwestern University. She recalls how lucky she felt to be going to an elite school while many of her peers weren’t financially able to do so. She completed her bachelor’s degree, and then enrolled at Johns Hopkins University for a master’s/PhD combo, pursuing research in migration, citizenship, and global institutions.
Today, she is assistant professor at Boston University’s prestigious Pardee School of Global Studies. Now on a year-long sabbatical, she’s working on various publications, coaching graduate students, and pursuing an ongoing project on Migration and Human Trafficking, focused on refugees in Jordan.
Why International Relations?
Given her background, maybe it’s no wonder that Noora found her way into International Relations. Clearly passionate about her subject, she’s put in long hours to learn all she can. She exudes ecstatic energy when discussing the world stage and tells us that “You can’t ask questions about migration without asking larger questions about world systems, how the world is organized, sovereignty, and so on. These are the things I’m interested in.”
How, for example, did migration become such a hot-button issue in the present day? This, she explains, has a simple explanation. People have been on the move for thousands of years. In fact, migration was always the norm throughout human history. But in the 19th century, power structures, ideals, and institutions began to emerge that restricted and regulated the flow of people. These have become standard.
“Race and migration isn’t a US-specific phenomenon,” she reminds us. “Migration issues happen everywhere, including in democratic societies.”
Noora’s migration project
Jordan is the world’s largest host of refugees, Noora tells us: it has accepted some 2.7 million people. For 80 percent of them, being a refugee does not mean living in a camp. And, as dire as refugee camps can be, there’s still some guarantee of basic access to infrastructure and information within their confines — a guarantee that doesn’t necessarily exist in urban areas.
Life as an urban refugee can be a difficult struggle, especially for women. Where do you go if your baby needs medical attention? Who can help if you haven’t eaten all day, need food, and can’t speak the local language?
Cities aren’t designed for refugees who don’t know local codes and norms. This, Noora said, sparked the idea for her students’ project. Their aim: to help refugees living in Jordan gain access to information about what’s available and where.
Naturally, they turned to digital. Noora’s students are designing a mobile app that will use symbols to signpost the most critical aid points around the country: healthcare facilities, food distribution points, and other places where help can be found in real time.
Noora says she’s been inspired by the passion her students bring to the project. “They started out saying ‘How on earth are we going to build an app? We don’t know anything about coding or tech!’ They’ve since learned how to tap into their own networks, building allies throughout BU and from larger organizations who are willing to help… and even code.” They’re now fortunate to be partnering with Microsoft, which is lending generous manpower and funding to ensure that coding and back-end development is done properly.
“Getting funding and backing was a struggle,” she admits. “There was a period where I didn’t think we could get this off the ground.”
Nonetheless, she persevered, helping her students learn a valuable lesson. To start a movement, you don’t necessarily need backing from the people traditionally seen as powerful. You just need to be resourceful and know how to build alliances and use what you’ve got.
One lesson she hopes her students will walk away with
“I think a lot about power, since I work in this field,” Noora tells us. “And I think one thing it’s so important to instill in young people in this field is that, yes, ‘Who rules?’ is a very important question. But it’s by no means the only question.
“We all need to understand that our power doesn’t just lie in being a constituent, or even by making policy recommendations to people in power. If you adopt that line of thinking, it leads you to believe that the only thing you can do when world events go wrong is to watch in horror or comment on social media. But individuals can do so much more than that. These college students have the power to go directly to local NGOs, municipalities, and institutions and collaborate directly with people who need help. That’s such an important lesson.”
Who inspires her?
“My mother,” she beams. “She is the feistiest woman I know, and because my father passed away when I was young, she raised me alone. She opened the first-ever beauty salon in Bahrain in the 1970s and now has opened a center for contemporary art.
“As Arab women, in many cases, we are the ones who stop ourselves from succeeding because we tend to have a kind of social self-consciousness and feel pressured by society to be a certain way, or to not change too much from what’s traditional. But my mom always reminds me that you alone are the one who can better yourself and do what you want to do. There’s a Nietzsche quote I love, “The world itself is the will to power — and nothing besides!”
Secret tech weapon in the classroom?
“Definitely the students!” she laughs. When you are struggling with any piece of tech, who better to help you? “They’re usually such good troubleshooters, and I learn new things every week from them. They helped me find data visualization tools for the book I’m working on. They also introduced me to Slack, for group project work.
“The tech world can seem impenetrable. It’s hard to know what’s gimmicky and what’s a good investment. I’ve found that by asking students to play a role in the decision making, it opens up a whole new line of communication with them, and gives them confidence in their abilities, too.”
…And in her free time?
“I love going to yoga, and try to make it a daily practice. I also thrive while traveling and find that my life tempo is chaotic, which suits me really well! My latest trip was to Malta, which I absolutely loved. I want to move there at some point, because their beaches are mostly made of flat rock, which is perfect for balancing my laptop on without getting sand in the keys!”
Spoken like a true global citizen.