Resettlement in a Shaming State

by Sara Salman

This year marks the 20th anniversary of the Iraq War. Declared in 2003 as part of the War on Terror, the Iraq War is a catastrophe, a preventative war that unleashed destruction, death, and torture. Media accounts revisiting the war have pointed to its brutality, the impact it had on American soldiers and the Iraqi people trying to rebuild their country. But few accounts address the disaster of displacement that affected over 9 million Iraqis.

As part of a study on social rights in the United States, I sought to understand the experience of resettlement of Iraqi refugees and the impact inadequate refugee assistance had on the families. I interviewed families who arrived on the Special Immigrant Visa Program in the 2010s. I focused on resettlement in Michigan, where a large network of co-ethnic communities exists and where active nongovernment service providers strive to assist Iraqi families resettle. I spoke with 30 resettled refugees as well as 20 staff members at a local service provider. Here, I share some findings to shed light on the lack of appropriate resettlement programs which in turn amplify the experience of displacement among Iraqi resettled refugees.

The stories of Iraqi refugees all start with violence, kidnapping, torture, murder of loved ones, and surviving terrorist attacks and explosions. Arriving in the United States, they carry invisible scars – undiagnosed mental health issues like post-traumatic stress disorder, anxiety and depression. Many also struggle with diabetes and hypertension, physical ailments which are common in communities living in chronic stress and insecurity. Such problems are often brushed aside. According to the Refugee Act of 1980, the primary goal of resettlement is to integrate incoming refugees into life in the US by achieving economic self-sufficiency. 

So, what do resettlement programs do to assist refugees to achieve self-sufficiency? Although the programs are federally funded and resemble poor relief programs like Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF), they vary by state. Some states are more generous than others, but research on refugee resettlement points to thinning resettlement support. In Michigan, resettled refugees receive a maximum of six months and ten days because of an application process that includes a 40-day waiting period. After this period and in the absence of viable employment, many refugee families may receive (TANF). At the service provider where I conducted my research, programs supporting refugee resettlement included English learning, acculturation workshops and classes where the families learn about American cultural norms, as well as professionalization workshops that include lessons and tips on navigating interviews and polishing one’s CV. However, budget cuts meant that the programs could not meet the enormity of the need. Iraqi adults came with varying degrees of English literacy, which were unmet in classes. Polishing CVs means little for adults with foreign degrees and professional experience which are rendered irrelevant in the US. To complicate matters further, refugee families arrived in the aftermath of the 2008 Recession and during the Detroit bankruptcy into a land of structural joblessness. But since the goal is employment, not enough time is spent on retraining or professionalizing Iraqi men and women, and many are funneled into low-wage work that continues to tether them to assistance like food stamps and Medicaid, which remain irregular, suspended with no explanation, and stigmatizing for their recipients. 

The lack of adequate support created a cascade of negative effects on the families who often felt like they were in transit, unable to be home. One woman cried as she described being unable to afford corrective surgery for her daughter, confessing that she felt like she was a bad mother who was letting her daughter down. One man swore off going to the DHHS offices because his caseworker threw paperwork in his face, only to have his wife go because they could not forego assistance. Another said he wishes he could return to Iraq. The compulsion of being in need was a common experience in the resettled community.

Yet refugee resettlement in the United States is recognized as part of a larger humanitarian commitment to welcome people into the United States who are otherwise subject to the violence of statelessness. As such, embedded in the mission to resettle refugees is the recognition of the role of the state in protecting people from violence. In this instance, it is important to recognize that the violence of war is one form of violence that refugees experience. Going hungry or facing the shame of being in need is another. Although the slow violence of poverty and precarity could not be compared to the violence of displacement, it is nonetheless violence that erodes the wellbeing of individuals, their families, and their communities. The level of need that is generated by forced displacement is great, but it should be met with robust social programs (programs that should also cater to Americans in need) that enable refugee families to resettle at a reasonable pace, feel at home, and contribute to American society in the long run.

Sara Salman is Senior Lecturer at Victoria University of Wellington, New Zealand, and Visiting Researcher at Trinity College, Hartford CT. She is the author of The Shaming State: How the US Treats Citizens in Need. Sara has also written on structural violence, terrorism and war, gender and crime, and critical social and criminological theory.

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