Watson Institute for International and Public Affairs
Nikhita Mendis, Brown University

Student Spotlight: Nikhita Mendis '17

Name: Nikhita Mendis '17

Concentration: Middle East Studies and International Relations

Hometown: Colombo, Sri Lanka

What kind of research prepared you to write your thesis?
Last year I studied abroad. I was in Lebanon throughout the summer and then on the Jordanian-Syrian border until December. During my time in Lebanon, I was a research fellow at the American University of Beirut working on the racialization of Sri Lankan migrant labor in Lebanon. I decided to explore this topic after learning that in Lebanon the word “Sri Lankiyeh,” which means a person of Sri Lankan descent, has become synonymous with the word “maid”. So it’s a legitimate question in Lebanon to ask “Is your Sri Lankiyeh Filipina?”

I acquired significant access to various recruitment agencies under the claim that I was primarily studying business practices (excluding the systemic racism within corporate labor practices). I studied the supply chain of migrant labor between Sri Lanka and Lebanon and the monetary transactions between the various actors involved (agents, sub-agents, embassies and ministries). Throughout my research I was able to create a labor-recruitment model that emphasized both employer needs and worker preferences. The model aimed to optimize the recruitment process by increasing the chances of “successful” employer-worker matching while also “empowering” the migrant worker by accounting for their work preferences. Creating this model allowed me to understand the implicit racial biases that underscore the construction of “preference,” as employers seek workers with specific “professional” (racially influenced) qualities. From that experience I am writing a thesis on the Racialization of migrant Labor and how it impacts business practices.

What did your time at the Jordanian-Syrian border entail of?
Following my time in Lebanon, I moved to Jordan to work with the International Organization of Migration. I was involved in the establishment of an online migration platform comprised of legal migration routes, visa information, scholarships and work opportunities that aimed to incentivize refugees to migrate legally. My team and I decided that a key part of achieving IOM’s mission to combat illegal trafficking was to raise awareness about how to use specific legal migration routes and the educational, work-related benefits of doing so. The platform was able to bridge the disparate worlds of foreign educational institutes and a specific part of the Syrian refugee population in Jordan that worked with IOM.