In this post, Caroline Lenette draws on her experience of co-producing research with refugee women with diverse backgrounds and lives. Lenette argues that resilience is not an extraordinary phenomenon embodied only by those refugees in the public eye, but something that is played out in the everyday, often mundane, and sometimes violent, lives that refugee women successfully navigate. However, as resilience and success are often conceptualised by dominant mainstream actors to include specific indicators, such as ‘the 3E’s’ – English, education and employment -, women demonstrating resilience in the everyday experiences of their lives are often excluded from mainstream refugee discourse and the co-production of research, an issue Refugee Hosts is highlighting and addressing in our research approach. Explicit strategies, as demonstrated in the Refugee Hosts project (here and here), are needed to reach interlocutors and co-researchers who experience more barriers to inclusion, to highlight and value the ‘invisible labour’ of women refugees and to centralise their perspectives.
If you find this piece of interest please visit our Reflections from the Field series, or the recommended reading list at the end of this post.
This blog was posted on 27th June 2019.
The value of everyday resilience.
By Caroline Lenette, University of New South Wales
Over the past 10 years, I have collaborated with many articulate and confident women and men from refugee backgrounds, who are community leaders with hectic work and social schedules and can comfortably address diverse audiences including UNHCR decision-makers. I thoroughly enjoy working with these co-researchers because of their enthusiasm and prompt responses to project demands. I can see how their high public profiles ensure they fit neatly into the socio-political narrative of what is deemed a ‘success story’. They speak English, work and pay taxes, and study at university—they make host countries look good.
My collaborations have also included women who struggle to express their thoughts in English and cannot work or study, and spend most days at home. They organise their days to the rhythm of their children’s school routine, but may have trouble reading the forms sent to parents, or assisting children with homework. Organising medical appointments with a suitable interpreter can take weeks and still result in less-than-ideal outcomes. If mothers find affordable (or free) care for their young children, they can attend subsidised English language classes. Still, they may not progress quickly because of unfamiliarity with formal education settings and being lumped together with people of different ages, genders, and ethnic backgrounds. Women often rely on their children to explain—or interpret—how things work in day-to-day life, or to attend appointments with government workers. They continue to look for (and miss out on) jobs requiring limited skills, even if that is not what they aspire to. Some might experience violence at the hands of male heads of households who earn an income and have access to essential information.
Yet, these women keep going. They find ways to cope with difficulties each and every day, and don’t lose hope that things will get better.
They ring each other for information and look after one another’s kids so their friends can get to appointments. They learn how to drive to be independent and make life easier for their children. They make sure their kids are fed, go to school, and know how to respond to racist and degrading comments. Women share stories about their homelands and ancestors, their cultural pride and sense of identity. They find the shops that sell ingredients they love cooking. They attend community consultations and share their views on difficulties and solutions to their problems.
These women’s stories might never make it into glossy government reports that celebrate the three ‘Es’: English, education, employment. They might not be viewed as ‘successful’ from an integrationist perspective. Their everyday resilience might not be deemed newsworthy. They do not fit the typical narrative, and their invisible labour—as is the case for women more broadly—will probably go unrecognised.
As researchers, we can easily fall into the trap of engaging solely with confident and articulate co-researchers who are more likely to volunteer first to participate in projects. We are keen to get projects off the ground and often have limited time and funding to design a broader recruitment and relationship-building strategy. But we must also use our privileged positions to reach co-researchers who are less likely to participate. It is not enough to say that we are collaborative in our research, if we do not have explicit strategies to engage people who may need more support to understand research aims, informed consent, and data collection processes. This way, we can co-produce research outcomes that are more diverse and meaningful, and reflect the experiences of many who are deemed ‘ordinary’ or ‘hard-to-reach’.
In the example of collaborative research with women from refugee backgrounds in resettlement settings, it is crucial to highlight their daily perseverance, their determination not to let ongoing hardships get the better of them, and their firm commitment to make the most of their new life. Women’s perspectives are still lacking in refugee research, and attention to social engagement alone will continue to overshadow their lived experiences that are often confined to the private sphere.
Co-researchers can define for themselves what being resourceful and skilful means, in ways that sometimes have nothing to do with indicators that governments value, or what host communities judge as ‘exceptional’ people from refugee backgrounds.
The notion of resilience as an extra-ordinary, outstanding personal quality that only a few people demonstrate has become obsolete. Everyday strategies to manage life’s ups and downs across a range of contexts should be celebrated and are precisely what makes research findings rich and nuanced.
If we do not pay careful attention to the mundane, the everyday resilience of our co-researchers, we run the risk of missing people’s strengths and continue to design and implement policies and services that overlook the needs and capabilities of so many people at the margins.
If you found this piece of interest please visit our Reflections from the Field series or visit our recommended reading list below:
Fiddian-Qasmiyeh, E. (2019) The Poetics of Undisclosed Care
Fiddian-Qasmiyeh, E. (2018) Gender, Religion and Humanitarian Responses to Refugees
Loris-Rodionoff, C. (2017) “Hope, Resilience, Uncertainty: A Day with Displaced Syrians in Southern Turkey”
Qasmiyeh, Y. M. and Fiddian-Qasmiyeh, E. (2018) The Third Voice and Third Eye in our Photo-Poetic Reflections
Qasmiyeh, Y. M. (2018) The Hands Are Hers
Stonebridge, L. (2018) Undoing the Meaning of the World: Creation and Decreation in Contemporary Refugee Studies
Timberlake, F. (2019) Home-making and home-taking: living spaces for women refugees in Grande Synthe
Zbeidy, D. (2017) “Widowhood, Displacement and Friendships in Jordan”
Featured image: A family walks through the alleyways of Baddawi Camp, N. Lebanon. (c) E. Fiddian-Qasmiyeh, 2018.