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September 25, 2017: Reflections on Resettling Refugee Women in Buffalo, by Sarah Richards-Desai

Reflections on Resettling Refugee Women in Buffalo

Global Issues: Gendered Challenges of Forced Migration

September 25, 2017

As the global refugee crisis continues, policymakers, researchers, and the media are increasingly focused on the experiences of displaced people. There is an increase in the number of displaced people fleeing war zones and environmental catastrophe as well as in the number of individuals seeking permanent resettlement outside their country of origin, according to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR).(1) While the United Nations officially protects refugees through the 1951 Convention on Refugees, and the United States through the Office of Refugee Resettlement and comprehensive refugee resettlement policy established with the Refugee Act of 1980, these frameworks have failed to acknowledge the role of gender throughout the stages of displacement, flight, and resettlement.(2) The UN began a “gender sensitivity” program in 1990, in which women have more voice in matters impacting them in camps and resettlement, and another program was put in place to protect the most vulnerable women “at risk” due to sexual assault, pregnancy from rape, and other criteria.(3) In this study, women reported traumatic experiences including “systematic rape; sexual torture; forced witness of the rape of family members including their children; forced engagement in survival sex; birth of one or more children of rape; and rejection, violence, and isolation from their own communities.”(4)

Women’s experiences as refugees reflect multiple, compounding events that are uniquely gendered in nature. Transnational policy and literatures have largely treated the process of forced migration, or any involuntary movement of people due to violence or disaster, as a gender-blind experience in which the aggregated life events and concerns of women, children, and men are not critically examined. In fact, transnational policies have traditionally favored assignment of refugee status for oppressions and dangers predominantly experienced by men, such as war and state violence. Until recently, the impact of war on the everyday experiences of women was not considered. Women were often characterized as dependents (along with their children) of their husband or male partner, reflected in immigration policy and migration discourse during the 1960s and 1970s.(5) This framing of women, in both the country of origin and the destination country, limits the roles, employment, and potential for women to make decisions and establish themselves.

Young women pose together at World Refugee Day 2017, Buffalo, NY

While refugees of all genders may experience trauma, loss, and violence in their countries of origin and through transit, refugees who are women are particularly vulnerable to having adverse experiences before and during war, during flight, while in refugee camps, and face new challenges in resettlement.

Even more troubling given this gender-blind policy context, forced migration has become an increasingly gendered phenomenon.(6) Pittaway and Bartolemei focus on the intersectional experiences of refugee women, who not only experience sexual assault and violence as a systematic element of war, are targeted for robbery and trafficking while fleeing, and may be newly widowed and caring for children, but are also likely stigmatized based on religion, race, and ethnicity in addition to gender.(7) Hynes and Cardozo (2000) describe the role of rape as a tool of warfare and the risks posed to women who engage in sexual work in order to survive during transit and in refugee camps.(8) The specifically gendered traumas experienced by refugee women may be compounded over time and impact how these women experience resettlement.

Click map to zoom

The gendered experience of forced migration has only recently been acknowledged by transnational organizations such as the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), which has begun to implement gender-conscious programming and raise awareness around the differential experiences of refugee women and girls in transit, refugee camps, and resettlement. Women fleeing gender-based violence and oppression can seek refugee status (for such reasons as the threat of female genital mutilation or being targeted for their pro-feminist political views).(9) The new focus on women’s needs, however, has yet to effectively include women’s input or translate into substantial changes that could improve the lives of refugee women.(10) As 80 percent of refugees are now women and their dependent children, the gendered nature of migration and specifically forced displacement requires that scholarship, policy, and practice center women’s gendered experiences in these contexts. While resettlement poses significant challenges and opportunities for anyone experiencing forced migration, women may face additional barriers to connection, wellbeing, and success in their new context. In their qualitative study of refugee women and girls deemed “at risk” by the UNHCR program in Australia, Bartolomei, Eckert, and Pittaway found that women’s experiences of rape, sexual assault, and trafficking and their subsequent trauma persisted in the resettlement context, impacting their feelings of safety, wellbeing, language-learning, and other critical elements of adjustment to a new setting.(11) Goodkind and Deacon (2004) describe three areas of tasks that refugee women experienced due to their “multiple-marginalization”: (a) work in the home, such as caregiving and household tasks; (b) work outside of the home for income, employment; and (c) acculturative tasks such as language learning, cultural awareness, and adjusting to a new environment.(12)

There is little research that focuses specifically on the resettlement processes and needs of refugee women in the U.S. However, a number of studies conducted in Australia and elsewhere suggest that refugee women experience greater levels of social isolation, unemployment, limited English language ability, and unmet physical and mental health needs than do their male counterparts.(13) In a study of refugee women in resettlement who were sole heads of their household, Lennette, Brough, and Cox identify refugee women’s resilience processes as being an element of their everyday activities and experiences, rather than coding resilience as a “trait” that the individual may possess. For example, their work reflects on the lived experiences of refugee women whose daily survival, activities, and capacities represent a dynamic, ever-changing picture of resilience in the quotidian tasks and roles they must enact.(14)  As women are left without social supports, family members, and spouses due to war, conflict, and separation during flight, the resettlement policy and practice context should include mechanisms and opportunities that support refugee women’s social connectedness, multiple identities and roles, and promote their agency and resilience.

World Refugee Day committee member and PhD candidate at UB School of Social Work, Asli Yalim (center right), with community members.

Local Perspective: Refugee Women in Buffalo

Buffalo, NY is a resettlement city that has enjoyed population growth and economic improvement due to the work of four local resettlement agencies.(15) Refugee women in Buffalo can access specific resources for their health, mental health, and social needs through organizations including the Priscilla Project, which promotes prenatal care and mentorship for women giving birth to their first child in the U.S.; the Arab American Community Center for Economic and Social Services; Resources and Help Against Marital Abuse (RAHAMA), an Islamic program for survivors of intimate partner violence, Stitch Buffalo, a textile-arts workshop where refugee women come together to create crafts and talk with one another, and Supporting and Empowering Women Neighbors (SEWN), a weekly group that meets at Journey’s End Refugee Services for a structured curriculum of English language learning, self-care, and self-sufficiency training.

The formal structures in place for resettlement represent only a part of the picture for adjustment and support in the refugee communities, however. Formal and informal organizations, often organized around ethnicity or religious identity, play a critical role in the resettlement process. The gendered experiences of refugee women also take place within a matrix of ethnic community affiliation, resettlement agency contexts, and their home life.

Sarah Richards-Desai (far right) with youth volunteers from the Iraqi community

One example of a grassroots, community-driven program is the annual World Refugee Day in Western New York Event, now in its 9 year, which is organized by a committee of community volunteers. The event began through the efforts of community leaders from a range of backgrounds, including Iraqi, Rwandan, Bhutanese-Nepali, Burmese, and others, and was created as a celebration of locally-settled refugee and newcomer communities. Activities include an all-day soccer tournament, cultural performances, and a shared potluck meal. This was my third year on the planning committee for the July 1, 2017 event, and I coordinated the Family, Youth, and Women’s Activities for the day. I noticed that while some women have participated on the planning committee, their voices were peripheral. This year, with the encouragement and support of the communities, we started a new tradition of a women-only volleyball tournament.  Because of some cultural considerations, in the past when co-ed activities were offered, women and girls were not able to continue playing or participating if men or boys joined them. The planning committee also created a Family Activities space for women with small children to sit and interact.

Lafayette High School play the Karenni team (foreground) during women’s volleyball tournament.

Teams and coaches signed up for the volleyball tournament in overwhelming numbers, and many team supporters and family members enjoyed attending. The Family Activities tent became a center for children to play, but also for their parents to sit down and enjoy one another’s company. There was a restorative justice talking circle that held community-building activities, and women from different refugee backgrounds volunteered in advance to lead activities, songs, and games from their home countries. Resources from local organizations such as Stitch Buffalo and RAHAMA were placed in the tent as well. Feedback from community members was very positive, and the organizers hope to expand our emphasis on women at next year’s event.

Champions: The Karen United women’s volleyball team with their trophies.

Refugee women in Buffalo and community responses

Buffalo is one of many cities benefiting from refugee resettlement. According to Jesse McKinley of the New York Times, numerous cities in New York State are benefiting from the hard work of refugees.(16) While this neoliberal framing of refugees as “workers” and sources of labor must be examined through a critical lens, the economic impact of resettlement has been adopted as a counterargument against xenophobic national dialogue. Given that Buffalo benefits from refugee communities, we must consider how refugee women are faring in our local context.

As described in an ethnographic study of refugee women’s employment and gender identity, resettlement policies that require employment inadvertently coincide with gendered experiences and expectation of paid work outside the home. Women’s identities as workers, employees, and breadwinners conflate, collide, and are complexly intertwined with other roles.(17) In addition to the work of local resettlement agencies, some of the economic and social needs of refugee women are being addressed by a range of groups. For example, the West Side Bazaar, part of the West Side Economic Development Initiative (WEDI) business incubator, and the fiber arts workshop Stitch Buffalo founded by textile artist Dawne Hoeg, each take a holistic approach to economic and social entrepreneurship among refugee women. 

West Side Bazaar store front, 25 Grant St, Buffalo, NY 14213.

In the West Side Bazaar, most entrepreneurs are women who sell clothing, jewelry, and meals, and engage with one another in a cooperative atmosphere.(18) At the Stitch Buffalo workshop, as described in a news article by Briana Fuss, refugee women from numerous backgrounds meet weekly to make crafts, some of which they choose to sell. As Bhutanese-Nepali community member Rabi Rai explained, "You won't know the people if you sit at home but, when you come here you know the people from all the different countries.”(19) This description of social interaction and self-determination among refugee women highlights how many refugee women may be fearful or uncomfortable about interacting with their neighbors and venturing outside of their homes.(20) Yet their lives are enriched when they are welcomed and engaged by surrounding communities.

These programs represent promising beginnings that I hope will continue to benefit refugee women and all our communities. By centering the voices and capacities of refugee women in resettlement policy and daily decisions on a local level, we can better understand and interact with our new neighbors.

All World Refugee Day images credit www.snsvsnphotography.com

Sarah Richards-Desai, MSW, is a PhD student in the UB School of Social Work.  Her research focuses on the social and economic resettlement experiences of refugee women, how refugee women develop social capital, and applications of transnational feminist theory in forced migration studies. Her writings also include cultural humility, human rights in social work education, and health outcomes of refugees and immigrants.

Sarah has connected with refugee women since the age of 14, when she tutored Somali Bantu women, and continues friendships with Karen Burmese women in her hometown of Ithaca, NY, as well as many communities in Buffalo. Sarah is an affiliate of the UB School of Social Work’s Immigrant and Refugee Research Institute

Other links: cultural humility module for the School of Social Work

(1)  United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, “UNHCR Figures at a Glance,” June 9, 2017, accessed July 25, 2017, http://www.unhcr.org/en-us/figures-at-a-glance.html.
(2) United Nations General Assembly, "Convention relating to the status of refugees,” United Nations Treaty Series 189. July 28, 1951: 137, accessed July 25, 2017, http://www.refworld.org/docid/3be01b964.html; Richard Black, "Fifty years of refugee studies: From theory to policy," International Migration Review 35, no. 1 (2001): 69.
(3)  “UNHCR Policy on Refugee Women.” United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees. 1990, Accessed June 20, 2017. http://www.unhcr.org/en-us/protection/women/3ba6186810/unhcr-policy-on-refugee-women-1990.html.
(4)  Linda Bartolomei, Rebecca Eckert, and Eileen Pittaway. "“What happens there... follows us here”: Resettled but Still at Risk: Refugee Women and Girls in Australia." Refuge: Canada's Journal on Refugees 30, no. 2 (2014): 48.
(5)  Monica Boyd and Elizabeth Grieco, "Women and migration: incorporating gender into international migration theory," Migration information source 1 (2003): 2; Zermarie Deacon and Cris Sullivan, "Responding to the complex and gendered needs of refugee women," Affilia 24, no. 3 (2009): 273; Eileen Pittaway and Linda Bartolomei, "Refugees, race, and gender: The multiple discrimination against refugee women," Refuge: Canada's Journal on Refugees 19, no. 6 (2001): 27.
(6)  Randy Capps and Kathleen Newland, The integration outcomes of US refugees: Successes and challenges (Washington, D.C.: Migration Policy Institute, 2015), 19.
(7) S. C. Pearce, E. J. Clifford and R. Tandon, Immigration and women: Understanding the American experience (New York: NYU Press, 2011).
(8) Michelle Hynes and Barbara Lopes Cardozo, "Observations from the CDC: Sexual violence against refugee women," Journal of women's health & gender-based medicine 9, no. 8 (2000): 820; Deacon and Sullivan, 272.
(9) Deacon and Sullivan, 280; “UNHCR Policy on Refugee Women.”
(10) Doreen Indra, "Some feminist contributions to refugee studies." Gender Issues and Refugees: Development Implications (presentation, Canadian Anthropological Society Annual Meetings, York University, Toronto, May 9-11, 1993): 13.
(11) Bartolomei, Eckert, and Pittaway, 54.
(12) Jessica R. Goodkind and Zermarie Deacon, "Methodological issues in conducting research with refugee women: Principles for recognizing and re‐centering the multiply marginalized," Journal of Community Psychology 32, no. 6 (2004): 729.
(13) Deacon and Sullivan, 282.
(14) Caroline Lenette, Mark Brough, and Leonie Cox, "Everyday resilience: Narratives of single refugee women with children." Qualitative Social Work 12, no. 5 (2013): 650.
(15) Organizations include: International Institute of Buffalo; Jewish Family Service of Buffalo & Erie County; Journey’s End Refugee Services, Inc., Refugee Assistance Program/Catholic Charities.  Source: Office of Refugee Resettlement website.
(16) Jesse McKinley, “A Surprising Salve for New York’s Beleaguered Cities: Refugees,” The New York Times, February 20 2017, https://www.nytimes.com/2017/02/20/nyregion/a-surprising-salve-for-new-yorks-beleaguered-cities-refugees.html.
(17) Jill Koyama, “Constructing gender: Refugee women working in the United States” Journal of Refugee Studies 28, no. 2 (2014): 274.
(18) Nicole Schuman, “Refugee women build community in Buffalo business incubator,” Salt, a Fresh Perspective (blog), March 15, 2017, http://www.saltofthegreatlakes.com/refugee-women-build-community-in-buffalo-business-incubator/.
(19) Briana Fuss, "Women Refugees Share Buffalove One Stitch at a Time,” TWC Spectrum News, May 24, 2017, http://www.twcnews.com/nys/buffalo/news/2017/05/24/refugee-women-spread-love-in-buffalo-one-stitch-at-a-time-at-stitch-buffalo.html.
(20) Deacon and Sullivan, 281.