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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 III – Cultures of exile


129 Part III Cultures of Exile 130 131 Chapter 5 Doing fieldwork in Verum ¿No pasa nada, sólo un parpadeo? – y el festín, el destierro, el primer crimen... Piedra de Sol, Octavio Paz ( nothing happening, only a blink? – and the banquet, the exile, the first crime...) In pursuit of experiences of refugeeness my chosen methodology has been participant observation over an extended period of time, from 1993–1999 in a middle-sized Norwegian municipality, which I shall call Verum. My intention has not been to use my immigrant status and pretend that I am a refugee, instead I have sought to be a ‘clerk of the records’ (Berger, 1989: 111) gathering refugee ac- counts and crafting them into a limited number of narratives. Look- ing for the connections between events and stories about them has therefore been one of my objectives. (Dobson and Haaland, 1993: 4) At the outset the reader might have expected to find refugees telling their own stories in the first person, as autobiographies and monologues. This kind of strategy could have been adopted, especially if the goal had been to make it easier for the reader to judge if and to what extent experiences of sublimation, from the flesh of the body have given rise to a flesh in a different kind of body, composed of signifiers arranged in the form of metaphors and metonyms. But a problem immediately arises because while some refugees seek to contextualise what they say in terms of the...

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