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GSN Student Spotlight Tolu Lanrewaju, PhD student, Global Urban Studies

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No “Ivory Tower” at Rutgers Graduate School-Newark

There’s no tiptoeing into the Global Urban Studies program at Graduate School-Newark, where doctoral student Tolu Lanrewaju’s research took her to the poor townships of South Africa in the program’s inaugural year.

Getting out in the field so quickly was a “great opportunity,” said Lanrewaju, part of the first cohort of the joint Ph.D. in Urban Systems sponsored by Rutgers and the New Jersey Institute of Technology. In Cape Town this past summer, she interviewed migrants who’d fled violence and privation in Rwanda, Burundi and the Congo only to find themselves in peril in the townships.

“They are being subjected to violence continuously,” said Lanrewaju. The migrants don’t have the right paperwork or speak local languages to get work or shield themselves from being targeted, she said.  “The violence is everyday life and it builds out of structural violence.”

Lanrewaju intended to study media depictions of a spate of xenophobic attacks against migrants in 2000, 2008 and 2015.  But the scope broadened to encompass the persistent violence after she conducted more than three dozen interviews - facilitated by the Refugee Legal and Advocacy Center, a non-profit group – in the Lower Crossroads and Philippi neighborhoods. 

The townships were created for non-whites pushed from city centers during Apartheid and are the first stop for many who’ve come to South Africa from other African countries since 1999.  There are more than 300,000 refugees and asylum seekers in that country, according to the United Nations, and hundreds of thousands more economic migrants.

Lanrewaju traveled to South Africa as a research fellow collaborating with the Global Development Lab of the United States Agency for International Development (USAID), and she hopes to return if funding becomes available. She is also part of a comparative research project involving scholars from Rutgers-Newark and the University of Fribourg in Switzerland who are investigating refugee integration and resettlement in America, Canada and Switzerland.

Experts say scholarship on the issue is sorely needed as the world struggles to settle millions of displaced people during the largest human migration in history. Lanrewaju said she hopes her work will help bring more attention to forced displacement in Africa.

Lanrewaju received her BA in Anthropology from Princeton University and a Masters of Public Health in Urban Administration at Rutgers-Newark before beginning her doctoral studies. 

Her parents emigrated from Nigeria and Lanrewaju grew up in Newark’s Central Ward. Her father is an alumnus of Rutgers-Newark, and she said her hometown is the “perfect base from which to study urban issues.”

“We’re not working on stuff that’s going to sit on a shelf,” said Lanrewaju, who intends to publish. “What we have at Rutgers-Newark – in the students, faculty, chancellor – is a collection of passionate folks interested in doing research that means something.”