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Cultures of Exile and the Experience of «Refugeeness»

Stephen Dobson

Refugee research and debate have focused on international agreements, border controls and the legal status of asylum seekers. The lived, daily life of refugees in different phases of their flight has thus been unduly neglected. How have refugees experienced policies of reception and resettlement, and how have they individually and collectively built up their own cultures of exile?
To answer these questions the author of this study has undertaken long-term fieldwork as a community worker in a Norwegian municipality. Refugees from Chile, Iran, Somalia, Bosnia and Vietnam were on occasions subjected to exclusionary and discriminatory practices. Nevertheless, restistance was seen in the form of a Somali women’s sewing circle, the organisation of a multi-cultural youth club, running refugee associations and printing their own language newspapers.
Moreover, in activities such as these, refugees addressed and came to terms with a limited number of shared existential concerns: morality, violence, sexuality, family reunion, belonging and not belonging to a second generation. Drawing upon these experiences a general theory of refugeeness is proposed. It states that the cultures refugees create in exile are the necessary prerequisite for self-recognition and survival.

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Preface 7

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7Preface Reading newspapers, following cases in court, searching in learned journals, refugees are again and again encircled by the question of boundaries: border controls, international agreements, the processing of asylum applications, laws granting leave to stay or deportation. In one sense, this betrays a modern fascina- tion with the sequestration of experience, as the boundaries of inclusion and exclusion, or belonging and non-belonging, are constructed. Refugees then become one further justification for the nation state and shared European agreements, such as the Schengen Agreement controlling the free movement of people between European countries. Their applications decided in law, along with media presenta- tions and the concepts devised by researchers provide confirma- tion of the post-modern view that refugees are defined and deter- mined by different discourses and are not freely formed entities or possess some pre-existing, unchanging essence or self. Accord- ingly, refugees and their destinies are largely dependent upon decisions made by people not in their presence – in the hidden corridors of power. But, this leaves unanswered how refugees live their experiences of determination and construct forms of resistance – as expressions of oppositional power. The premise of this book is that it is necessary to develop a set of theoretical tools capable of revealing – in phenomeno- logical fashion – the lived life of refugees. The term refugeeness is developed for this purpose. It sounds awkward and cumber- some. But, it has been chosen deliberately to provide an indica- tion of the experiential and existential quality of the experience of refugees,...

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