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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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Part II – Cultural, existential and corporeal experiences of refugeeness

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Part II Cultural, existential and corporeal experiences of refugeeness 56 57 Chapter 2 Cultural ways of Being in exile Nombres, sitios, calles y calles, rostros, plazas, calles, estaciones, un parque, cuatros solos, manchas en la pared, alguien se peina, cuartos, lugares, calles, nombres, cuartos. Piedra de Sol, Octavio Paz. (names, places, streets and streets, faces, plazas, streets, stations, a park, single rooms, stains on the wall, someone combing her hair, rooms, places, streets, names, rooms) If the refugee is constituted by a number of discourses, on law, nation, mass, gender, class and race, then one discourse has been omitted from this list: culture. In exile, discourses of culture, not merely on the request and under the determination of the host population who desire to taste their exotic food, but also in refu- gee associations and when at home with family and friends, watch- ing movies imported from their homeland or just chatting consti- tute refugees. Through these discourses refugees experience their refugeeness as the founding and living of cultures of exile. Bhabha has suggested, ‘Culture as a strategy of survival is both transnational and translational.’ (Bhabha, 1994: 172) He was talk- ing of migrants traveling to the imperial metropolis from what were once colonies. But understanding culture as a form of sur- vival is equally applicable to refugees looking for ways of coping. (Fladstad, 1993) By transnational he meant that it was to do with displacement. Refugees are displaced to a new socio-spatial context, taking with them the culture of...

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