Alifah is a research associate with Empatika and has now been doing immersion research
for 8 years. First working with Empatika team members back in 2014, Alifah found her love for research, and especially immersion research. Her first study in 2014 involved researcher training and fieldwork in West Papua. “That first training was intense - Dee [Empatika’s former technical advisor] had pretty strict standards. There were a lot of specific guidelines and I thought, ‘maybe I can’t do this.’ But then in the field I enjoyed it.” Alifah says that after these first experiences the team learned to build in more flexibility to the immersion approach. Still, she admits that immersion is not for everyone. “Immersion is difficult, but would I do it again and again? Turns out yes, definitely. So there are challenges, but I don’t see them as difficulties.”
Two studies in particular have left lasting impressions on Alifah, a study on child poverty back in 2016 (before Empatika was founded as its own organization) along with the study on ‘Pathways to Adolescent Pregnancy’ which is currently wrapping up. For the child poverty study, Alifah did an immersion in Banda Aceh and lived with a family who worked as garbage collectors and lived on the edge of a landfill in a small makeshift hut. At one point, the family brought Alifah to the landfill. “Here I was, this small person suddenly in the midst of this mountain of trash. My family had bought rujak (a snack of fruit with spicy peanut sauce) and at one moment they just looked at me and started laughing. That was one time I didn't know what to say, I just tried to embrace the moment. We laughed together and ate the rujak. I also contacted this same family for the Covid study last year. Although they are poor, they have so much pride. And they consider me like part of their family."
For the Adolescent Pregnancy study, with the sensitivity of the topic Alifah was more aware that researchers must also take extra care of their own emotions. Still, there were some overwhelming moments for her when talking with some of the teenage girls. Alifah says that every afternoon, after she and Thalia [the other Empatika researcher] finished their interviews they went to the beach or bought ice cream to find some headspace, recover, and reset. “We had to try and remind ourselves that although the stories are very personal, we are just crossing paths with them for a short time.” This study was about the experiences of teenage girls becoming pregnant, and many had been forced or pressured by boys or men to sleep with them. Alifah explained that one of the hard things about hearing these stories was that many of the girls didn’t necessarily know that they shouldn’t be treated like this, or had never told anyone about these experiences. “Here is this young girl right in front of me, and she doesn't know she was being treated badly. And I’m the first to hear her story. It can feel like a bit of a burden.”
Although doing intensive research as a young woman, Alifah says that overall she faces the same challenges as any other researcher. “I've never received any discrimination because of my hijab, because I'm a woman, or I'm young.” She explained that this may be partly because the families she has lived with, along with others in these communities, are often quite protective and look out for her. “Often I’m the one that has to tell them, ‘don’t worry about me [walking around the village], I’ll be fine.’ There was one time I was in Papua and the priest was even worried about me. He said, ‘I don't know what it’s like for Muslims to pray, but do you have a place to pray at your host family's home? If there’s no space, you can pray at the church, just come by my house and ask for the key.”
According to Alifah, entering the community is the most challenging part of doing immersion research. “Once you have a family to stay with, 50% of your work is done, and the remaining 50% is just living alongside them, exploring throughout each of the next days.” Alifah says that how a team enters a community is also key to sustainability for 5 days in the field. “As researchers, we also have to realize that people may ask us a lot of questions too. They might be suspicious. But that’s natural, it’s okay, don't avoid it. Part of being a researcher for immersions is explaining what we’re doing there, why we’re interested to be there.”
One tip from Alifah as a researcher, especially for immersions, is just to work on being a good listener. "70% of our work in the field is listening. That's what I’ve learned within these eight years. If we only hear with our ears, but not with our hearts, then we aren’t listening sensitively, and the empathy will be missing.” Another tip is to be curious: “I think people who want to know a lot about something will try and look at it from multiple sides. They will always try to explore a full 360 degrees.”