“Ethnography often happens when you think you’re going to research one thing, but then find that’s not true and discover something else,” says Sally Bonet, assistant professor of educational studies. For her dissertation for her PhD in education at Rutgers University, Bonet thought she would research the schooling of Iraqi refugees in Philadelphia. But she quickly learned that it was impossible to divorce the students’ stories from the struggles that their entire families faced due to the disintegration of the very social supports that, in theory, are supposed to aid their resettlement in the United States.
Bonet applied her training as an educational anthropologist to chronicle her four years of deep involvement with these families that had been “doubly displaced” – from their home country and from the services they need – in her book Meaningless Citizenship: Iraqi Refugees and the Welfare State (University of Minnesota Press, 2022).
Wrestling with the notion of home
The subject – and subjects – of the book were not only aligned with Bonet’s academic interests, but they were also close to her heart. “I’m an Arabic-speaking immigrant myself,” she says. “I’m Sudanese and Egyptian. I came to this country around age 17, around the same age as the students I met. I lived in a lot of places before I came to the United States, so I also have wrestled with the notion of home.”
The circumstances surrounding the displacement of these families from their homes in Iraq, and their resettlement in the United States, are incredibly complex. “For more than three decades, the families I came to know had been subjected to brutal wars, inhumane sanctions, and, finally, full-scale occupation at the hands of the United States, forcing them to flee and leave all that they had known behind to attempt to live new lives in the very country that caused their displacement,” Bonet writes in the book’s introduction.
Vietnamese refugees in the 1970s, similarly, relocated to the “belly of the beast.” However, they arrived in much different times. “There was incredibly generous support for them because the sense was, during the Cold War, that these people were voting with their feet for democracy,” Bonet says. “In contrast, because of the rise of Islamophobia and nativism post-9/11, these Muslim Iraqi refugees arrived into a very hostile space.”
In some regards, the Iraqi refugee families might be viewed as winning the proverbial lottery by being relocated to the United States. There are almost 90 million people around the world who are forcibly displaced; only about 30% of them are officially designated as refugees. “Only 1% of them are resettled in places like Australia, Canada, Europe, and the United States,” Bonet says. “A lot of people would consider resettlement to a place like America to be the end goal. But what I’m saying in the book is that resettlement is not the end, but the beginning of a new struggle.”
Challenges at every turn
Bonet scrutinizes the dramatic shrinking of public assistance programs due to what she identifies as the shift in American politics to a neoliberalism approach, which favors free-market capitalism, deregulation, and reduction in government spending.
“Welfare is no longer meant to support those who are poor until they’ve found their footing,” Bonet says. “Now, its main goal is to remove people off its rolls as quickly as possible, so you get a little bit of support that diminishes quickly over time.”
The refugee families she followed from 2010 to 2014 had financial support of about $1,000 per person, which lasted for only 90 days, the majority of which was used for rent. In the years since, some states and municipalities have further reduced the eligibility period to only about 30 days. The adults received eight months of health-care coverage, while their children were covered until age 21.
“Refugees immediately had to find a job,” Bonet says. “It didn’t matter if it was gainful employment, if they could make ends meet, or if the jobs offered health care, which most low-wage labor jobs do not.”
The families were too poor to qualify for Obamacare, and Medicaid was not available to them in Pennsylvania. They had nowhere to turn for medical attention for mental or physical health, such as when one mother, Fatima, had a miscarriage and suffered debilitating migraines. “Some of the people in my study made the choice to save up their money and go to Iraq for medical care,” Bonet says. “Imagine going to a war zone to access health care; it’s unbelievable.”
Given Bonet’s expertise in education, she shines a particularly bright light on the families’ educational challenges due to widespread budget cuts in public schools. “When you have immense budget cuts, it will disproportionately affect the most vulnerable students. Refugees tend to be among those, because they arrive with a lot of trauma, interruptions to their schooling, and linguistic barriers.”
The shortcomings aren’t just in K-12 schools but in continuing education opportunities for young adult refugees, like Heba, who was 19 but was placed into the ninth grade in her local Philadelphia high school. “Once they hit 21, they run up against state age limits and age out of the system,” Bonet says. “They have nowhere to go. They don’t have a high school diploma, so they can’t continue in community college. Public adult education and English as a Second Language (ESL) classes are virtually nonexistent in places like Philadelphia now. These refugees get funneled into the low-wage job market and their educational dreams are shattered.”
Because of the language and administrative barriers, the families felt isolated and frustrated. However, if they voiced any complaints, they were told that they should be quiet and grateful they were no longer in a war zone. “I didn’t find any rights here,” a mother named Nadia says in the book. “I only found the same suffering, the same hardship. That is what is devastating to every refugee who comes here. They just send me a green card and that is supposed to shut me up? I don’t want the card. Keep it and tell me, show me where my rights are.”
“Our moral duty”
Bonet concludes Meaningless Citizenship with recommendations for reframing the resettlement program based on the families’ experiences. “We need long-term, comprehensive, and adequate financial support as well as navigational support,” she says. “We need accessible language learning opportunities and accessible health care.”
She points to the Canadian model as a possible point of inspiration. The country offers a yearlong linguistic program that pays refugees to attend English-language classes in their neighborhoods. Canada also has a universal publicly funded health care system, which eliminates the employment-tied health care conundrum in the United States.
In terms of education, “I always argue that what’s good for refugees is good for everyone,” she says. That means safe schools, guidance counselors, updated facilities, and teacher training. She also advocates for specific refugee needs, such as bilingual classrooms, ESL supports, and more pathways for adult education.
“We need to think about our moral duty toward refugees, especially those displaced at the hands of our own government,” she says. “If we are going to accept them here, we need to do much better by them.”