The term ‘host’ is widely used but often unquestioned in relation to it’s meaning in displacement and migration discourse and practice. ‘Hosts’ are often assumed to be the long established communities in to which refugees arrive, and yet, as we have been exploring in Refugee Hosts, this is not always the case. In this blog, Prof Caroline Lenette draws on walking interviews with a group of women with refugee-backgrounds to interrogate the idea of ‘host communities.’ What emerges is an understanding and definition of ‘host’ which draws on established gender roles and includes elements of reciprocity that are often not included in traditional literature on displacement and hosting. Importantly, acts of ‘hosting’ and hospitality are found, sometimes exclusively, within the communities of refugee women themselves, (what Elena Fiddian-Qasmiyeh refers to as ‘refugee-refugee humanitarianism‘, and the acts of ’hybrid hosts’) rather than the more established communities where they live.
Women as hybrid hosts: Challenging the myth of host communities
by Caroline Lenette, Associate Professor, School of Social Sciences, and Deputy Director of the Big Anxiety Research Centre at the University of New South Wales.
The notion of hosting conveys a sense of hospitality and being welcomed and supported. The term ‘host communities’ is widely used across displacement and migration research, policy, and practice to refer to citizens or established communities in countries and neighbourhoods who host new arrivals including refugee-background individuals and families. So-called host communities might be credited for playing a key role in supporting newcomers to adapt to new circumstances in resettlement countries such as Australia, but this does not necessarily reflect reality. In fact, we know very little about the hosts showing hospitality and performing the day-to-day labour of assisting newcomers.
Who are the hosts?
In a project on the meaning of home, using walking interviews with a small group of refugee-background women as co-researchers in western Sydney, Australia, it was clear that we used an outdated definition of host communities. The plan was to interview members of so-called host communities, i.e., white, Anglo-Australians or established and Australian-born migrants living in the same area, to understand how they interacted with co-researchers and refugee-background families and how their attitudes shaped resettlement outcomes. Conversations with community leaders who assisted with recruiting co-researchers soon revealed that this idea of ‘host communities’ as we defined it was completely unfamiliar.
During walking interviews, women co-researchers explained that relationships with so-called host communities were completely absent. Their entire support networks were other families from the same background, and they had very limited contact with anyone outside this group. One co-researcher said that she did not know a single white person. The women felt very strongly about the fact that they were the hosts and quickly dispelled the myth of so-called host communities as white, Anglo-Australians or established and Australian-born migrants.
Over the years, families with shared ethnicity, religion, or language had hosted these women and their families when they moved to Australia. In turn, co-researchers hosted newly arrived families from similar backgrounds, even when the women were relatively new arrivals themselves. This was a common experience across their networks. The women showed support through informal rituals of unconditional and genuine hospitality in their homes and communities. These gestures could range from buying groceries for families or acting as interpreters for newly arrived women at health appointments.
These women were in fact ‘hybrid hosts.’ Irrespective of how long they had lived in Sydney, they were actively involved in welcoming, hosting, and supporting families who arrived after them. As such, there was little distinction between being displaced or relatively new to the country (or a ‘guest’) and becoming a host, making the language of host-guest artificial in this context. Hosting was integral to refugee-background women’s understanding of their roles and responsibilities towards their communities. They felt that it was their duty to be hospitable, in the same way they had relied on informal support and extended family to adapt to a new context. Co-researchers extended this commitment to volunteering in community-based settlement organisations to assist with tasks such as providing English language support to new arrivals, which eventually led to more formal, paid positions.
The women’s perspectives on these relationships point to an understanding of hosting that is closer to reality and reflects the gender-specific responsibilities of welcoming, housing, supporting, and guiding families from similar backgrounds until such time the latter could extend the same gestures of hospitality towards newer arrivals. That strong element of reciprocity is largely missing from the literature because of the assumption that so-called host communities perform these tasks. Co-researchers also recognised that settlement practitioners and case workers helped to a certain extent, especially when they were from the same ethnic, religious, or linguistic backgrounds.
Challenging outdated notions
The language of so-called host communities in research, policy, and practice ignores the gender-specific nature of hosting, offering a partial understanding only of the dynamics and relationships that lead to positive settlement outcomes for refugee-background families. The enduring myth of host communities ignores women’s resilience and skills to navigate complex and bureaucratic systems and negotiate social relationships in new settings. It minimises refugee-background women’s commitment to reciprocity and their determination and capacity to engage in community-level interactions at the same time as they juggle with pressures that affect them directly.
The notion of refugee-background women as hybrid hosts fits with the literature on their roles in ensuring cultural continuity in migration contexts, i.e., through acts performed in the private sphere and through childrearing. In this project, co-researchers replicated gestures of hospitality that were part of religious or culturally grounded norms of hosting. However, they did not romanticise their role as hybrid hosts, noting tensions linked to community expectations to host unconditionally and to feeling emotionally burdened by competing responsibilities. The women had diverging ideas about how guests should express gratitude in response to being hosted, with limited opportunities to negotiate relationships and priorities. Nevertheless, their commitment to being hosts outweighed those tensions.
Uncritical uses of the term ‘hosting’ can reinforce rather than disrupt dominant political discourses about ‘burden’ sharing and un/deserving refugees. When notions such as hosting and hospitality are contested across contexts of exile, displacement, and resettlement, it becomes crucial to identify who performs the labour of hosting and extends gestures of hospitality. Challenging the myth of so-called host communities can reveal gender-specific experiences that are otherwise ignored or minimised in research, policy, and practice.
The importance of the language and terminology we use in refugee studies cannot be overstated. Many terms have their origins in racism and colonialism and yet we rarely reflect on the implications of continuing to use these, especially in research that claims to be decolonial. I had never questioned the meaning of terms such as hosting and host communities before this project. Co-researchers’ stories led me to reflect on my uncritical use of such language that reinforces, rather than disrupts colonial research approaches. ‘Host communities’ is no doubt one of many terms that requires rethinking in refugee studies using a decolonial lens.
I pay my respects to the Traditional Custodians of the Lands where this research and reflexive writing took place and acknowledge that sovereignty was never ceded. This article draws from the publication Who is the host? Interrogating ‘hosting’ from resettled refugee-background women’s perspectives (Journal of Intercultural Studies, published online in May 2022), co-authored with Josie Gardner (PhD Candidate, UNSW Sydney) and Rooan Al Kalmashi, a refugee-background co-researcher from the walking interview project. This is a modified version of an article published in Routed Magazine in October 2021.
Caroline Lenette lives and works on colonised and unceded Bedigal land. She is Associate Professor, School of Social Sciences, and Deputy Director of the Big Anxiety Research Centre at the University of New South Wales. Caroline is the author of Arts-Based Methods in Refugee Research: Creating Sanctuary (Springer, 2019) and Participatory Action Research: Ethics and Decolonization (Oxford University Press, 2022).
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Featured image: Walking along the streets of a co-researcher’s neighbourhood, 2019 (c) C. Lenette