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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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Introduction 11

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11 Introduction The case of K. and some opening questions For a number of years I knew a Vietnamese refugee, who was like myself, residing in Norway. Let us call him K. He was about 19 years of age and lived in a medium-sized Norwegian town of just over 22 000. His parents lived in Vietnam, and he had been sent abroad with his older sister, whom he now lived with in Norway. K. seemed always to be reading and studying for his ‘A’ levels. His inclination towards an academic life matched my own chosen life-course. We shared an ascetic, Protestant work ethic as a necessary means for reaching our goal. There were other points of similarity to base our friendship upon: we both enjoyed play- ing table tennis, watching movies. K. wanted to become a doctor – an academically demanding education – and in my family I al- ready had an uncle who was a doctor and a grandfather who had been a surgeon. Our greatest similarity and the most obvious, was our both being foreigners in Norway. According to Norwegian law, I was an economic migrant, even though my original reason for mov- ing to Norway was my marriage to a Norwegian. I wasn’t a poli- tical refugee, unlike K. But, it is debatable how politically active the 13–14 year old had been prior to arrival in Norway. At that time, in the late 1980s, virtually all Vietnamese refugees arriving in Norway had had little difficulty in gaining political...

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