Q & A with Egypt Migrations

1. What inspired the formation of Egypt Migrations?

Egypt Migrations (formerly known as The Coptic Canadian History Project) began as an archival and community outreach organization in 2016. As a doctoral student at York University, Michael Akladios was researching the history of Egypt and Coptic immigrants to North America and encountered a scarcity of records in public archives. Yet many individuals and organizations in Canada had amassed troves of documents and photographs, which were not well maintained and, in some cases, partially destroyed. Following a summer research trip to Egypt, he returned with hundreds of photographs of textual and visual material relating to the Coptic Archdiocese of North America. While in Cairo, he discovered that many families either did not trust public archives to faithfully preserve their treasured collections or were too anxious of government targeting to make that material widely accessible.  

Upon returning to Toronto, Michael discussed these issues with Dr. Gilberto Fernandes and Dr. Christopher Grafos, who founded the Portuguese Canadian History Project (PCHP) and Greek Canadian History Project (GCHP), respectively. The solution to the problem of how to advance the preservation and dissemination of immigrant records lay in the example set by these projects. Their success inspired the Coptic Canadian History Project (CCHP), a digital repository serving to bridge the gap between public archives, immigrant communities, and scholars. The Department of History at York University enthusiastically backed the CCHP, and Dr. Athanasios Gekas, Hellenic Heritage Foundation Chair of Modern Greek History, kindly agreed to act as faculty supervisor. Michael Moir, head archivist at the Clara Thomas Archives & Special Collections (CTASC) recognized our potential for building bridges, fostering research, and advancing social and cultural equity. With the support of CTASC, we facilitated the transfer of biographies, community journals and magazines, and textual and photographic records for preservation and digitization. The physical material is available and accessible to all visitors at the archives.

Miray Philips joined in 2017 as the Blog editor. And in 2020, we made the transition from the Coptic Canadian History Project to Egypt Migrations. With the name change came a renewed mission and a brand-new look. We settled on ‘Egypt Migrations’ for two important reasons. First, “Egypt” does not ascribe a national affiliation, while still recognizing the power of the nation and its borders on people’s lives. Second, “migrations” allows us to tell stories of immigration and emigration globally. We will continue to center the Coptic experience but must seek out the interconnected histories of all migrants to and from Egypt.

It is a sad reality that Middle East Studies ignores the Copts in research on Egypt. Minority migrant populations from the Middle East and North Africa are often maligned in emerging scholarship. This project is an attempt at countering this exclusion. We will preserve, empower and collaborate in sharing the stories of anyone who once called Egypt home and all those first, second and third generation living transnationally. A truly transnational and interdisciplinary initiative, Egypt Migrations will build on the success of the CCHP to share in the impact of international migrations on people’s everyday lives.

2. What is the CCHP’s mission? How does it pursue that mission? What kinds of projects and outreach does the organization conduct?

Our mission is to bridge public archives, immigrant communities and academic scholars. We identify, archive, digitize, preserve, and democratize access to source materials that reflect the knowledge, collective memory, and experiences of all migrants into, through, and out of Egypt. We pursue this mission in three ways.

First, archival preservation is the one and only attempt to preserve the history and memory of ordinary Coptic immigrants to North America. Community archival structures should be respected, and this cannot happen without community involvement and support. We are all better served when archiving occurs from within. As both community ‘insiders’ and academics, we have the privilege to share people’s stories and to inform prospective donors of the value of archival preservation.

Second, the Digital Cafe, our blog, is where we amplify two types of writing. Through the Scholars Corner, we publish pieces by interdisciplinary scholars on the many researched issues that face migrants from Egypt, including their identity, to their movements, their migration, and their politics. We also publish Immigrant Stories, which is a multimedia avenue to share rich, intimate stories of migration out of Egypt. By maintaining and sustaining this blog, we have built a network of scholars and individuals who are invested in thinking, reading and writing about the experiences of Egypt’s migrant populations.

Third, we create a repository of resources to guide the uninitiated reader on several different topics. For academics and individuals interested in scholarly work, we’ve compiled a list of scholars who have worked extensively on the history and experiences of Copts inside and outside of Egypt. We also have several lists of archives hosting materials relevant to the modern history of Egypt. In the wake of George Floyd’s murder, we worked with other Egyptians to critically interrogate anti-Blackness within our community and create an actionable list to move towards equality. Weeks later, after Sarah Hegazi’s death, we partnered with Coptic Queer Stories to produce a resource list on queerness, to counter the erasure of LGBTQ Egyptians. These resources are created in the spirit of collective learning.

Through all these initiatives, we ensure that the legacy of Egypt’s migrants carries well into the future. We have developed fruitful and fulfilling relationships with many scholars of Egypt and its migrants. We have also partnered with like-minded initiatives across Canada and the United States, including the Coptic Museum of Canada, Elmahaba Center in Nashville, Coptic Queer Stories, and Hazine. With the support of friends, colleagues and collectives, our two-person team has been able to host conferences, engage contemporary debates, preserve migrant history, democratize knowledge, and build community around public humanities. In just five years, we have grown beyond our wildest dreams.

3. How does Egypt Migrations work to bring different communities together through storytelling and knowledge production?

We want to challenge notions that Egyptians are a monolithic group by elevating the diverse stories of its migrants. Attending to the life histories of immigrants who made choices commensurate with their new environments and changing social, political and religious needs highlights the importance of thinking comparatively.

Making knowledge accessible and encouraging research is central to a public-facing community project. What does it mean to archive from within? By prioritizing the diverse experiences, we seek to move beyond constructions of a single group narrative and instead support a variety of perspectives. In this way, the often-marginalized stories of individuals that do not conform to the
dominant narrative are able to flourish. With our online globalized presence, public history projects like Egypt Migrations get to work with established archives to create more representative holdings, ensuring that archival collection is more progressive and acquisition driven. Donated collections reflect the social milieu in which they were produced and allow scholars to then do the work of ‘reconstruction.’ Public scholarship exposes narratives that make it difficult for those seeking to dilute a community’s history or twist it to their own ends.