USC Law Student Awarded Fellowship
Tuesday, Aug 14, 2012
Melody Shekari ‘14 conducted scholarly field work in Burundi
-By Gilien Silsby
Genocide, mass killings and human rights atrocities are nearly synonymous with Rwanda, an East African country where more than 800,000 people were brutally murdered in 1994.
Often forgotten, however, is Rwanda’s neighbor to the south, Burundi, which has suffered two waves of genocide, including the 1972 mass murders of Hutus by the Tutsi-dominated army and the 1993 killings of Tutsis by the Hutu.
Melody Shekari ‘14, has long wondered why Burundi’s history of genocide has gone relatively unnoticed in the international community. This summer she conducted scholarly field work in Burundi to try and find answers through a competitive fellowship awarded from the USC Dornsife 2020 Genocide Resistance Research Cluster.
The interdisciplinary research cluster made up of USC faculty and graduate students tackles the question: What enables people to oppose or resist racist ideologies, state discrimination practices or active participation in mass atrocities?
“Genocide in Burundi has really been overshadowed by Rwanda,” Shekari said. “Despite two instances of genocide in Burundi, the research has been limited. However, it’s clear that efforts to resist genocide were not successful in the period before 1993. There are still concerns about the stability of the country, although it seems to have reached a somewhat tenuous peace at the moment.
Shekari, who is the first USC Gould School of Law student to hold the USC Dornsife fellowship, is investigating the role legal institutions have in aiding and influencing efforts to resist genocide in Burundi. She is also comparing genocide in Burundi with the mass killings in Rwanda.
“I’m looking at historical analysis of laws and legal institutions over time,” she said. “I also want to see how legal institutions have aided or prevented opposition group efforts to resist genocide.”
In particular, Shekari is studying how national legal systems have integrated and applied international law and whether or not this has helped efforts to resist genocide. She is also exploring how legal institutions played a role, if any, in individual actions.
USC Law Prof. Hannah Garry, director of the International Human Rights Clinic and a faculty member of the 2020 Genocide Resistance Research Cluster, supervised Shekari’s field research in Burundi.
“Through her case study of past events in Burundi, Melody is investigating some very important questions about the relationship of the law and legal institutions to genocide as well as bringing attention to genocides often overlooked,” Garry said. “She is breaking ground for future USC Law students interested in going to the field in order to understand, firsthand, various legal systems and what features of those systems are more effective than others at stopping genocidal acts.”
Shekari’s interest in international affairs and human rights began at her Chattanooga, Tennessee, high school, where she participated in the Model United Nations club. She worked on economic and finance, environmental, and disarmament issues.
“I became particularly aware of genocide and the challenges refugees face when fleeing from discrimination,” she said. “I read many books and articles on the Holocaust, Rwanda, and Somalia outside of my studies."
After receiving her undergraduate degree, Shekari worked in Iran for six months with the United Nations World Food Programme, which provides food to Afghani and Iraqi refugees in the country. She helped raise money and increase awareness of the refugee situation with the public.
“That experience taught me a lot about what refugees are facing and how complicated it is to get resources to them, as well as how limited they are due to their legal status as refugees,” Shekari said. “It also prepared me for my research this summer because I had to deal with a precarious political environment. I learned to be diplomatic in my approach and careful to appear nonthreatening to the government.”
As a Masters of Public Administration student at the University of Washington, Shekari studied issues in international development.
“I have taken a course on water and development that examined research techniques in rural African areas,” she said. “Special considerations for this type of research include language barriers, cultural understanding, and the use of different techniques to accommodate the subjects. All of skills were useful for my field research on genocide in Burundi.”
Shekari said her experience in Burundi has been life changing. She is eager to return to law school to expand her research to interviewing Burundians who now live in the United States. She plans to write her legal note on her findings. As part of the fellowship, Shekari will make a presentation to the USC community this year to report on the results of her research.
Shekari plans to continue her work with refugees, many of whom are fleeing from conditions of discrimination or violence that often lead to genocide, through the Iraqi Refugee Assistance Project and after graduating, applying what she has learned in international human rights law.
“Working with refugees will always be a part of my legal career because their voices are often lost or unrecognized,” she said.