The Silent Narratives
African Refugee Women and Their Integration Stories
by Jonix Owino
*Certain identifying details have been removed to protect the anonymity of the research subjects.
My village was attacked on the day war started in my country. My husband was killed. I had to take the kids very quickly and start running away. For many days we’re running and hiding. People were fighting and fighting and you know I had many kids so it was very difficult for escape. I thank God because I don’t know how we made it to the refugee camp in [African country]. We used to travel at night and hide in the forest during the day. The war was targeting the people from my tribe, [tribe name]. When we arrived at the refugee camp, it was very crowded. There was no clean water to drink and so many people were dying from diarrhea and many children had malaria. The environment was too small for the people. The food was being measured in small amount to make sure everybody gets little something to eat. One of my kids died in the camp. I lived in the refugee camp for eight years before coming here.
This is but one of the many heartrending background experiences of African Refugee Women (ARW) prior to their transition to the United States. In the recently concluded research study I conducted on “Integration of African Refugee Women into the Fargo- Moorhead Community,” the women shared their past experiences as well as stories of their integration into the Fargo-Moorhead community. I engaged in in-depth interviews with ten African refugee women ages forty and above from Congo, Somalia, South Sudan, Sudan, Liberia, and Rwanda who are currently residing in Fargo or Moorhead. The women possessed unique characteristics in terms of their length of stay in the United States, marital status, religious af liations, number of children, and cultural practices. Drawing from the research study, I bring to light the background experiences of the ARW; how the women perceive, understand, and relate to the Fargo-Moorhead community; and also some of the integration challenges shared by the ARW during the interview process, such as social isolation, the local (non-refugee) population generalizing the experiences and cultural origins of ARW, and social exclusion.
The term “refugee” carries with it several connotations, and it is understood and described differently by various individuals. The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) in 1967 described a refugee as a person who is outside his or her home country, or if he or she has no home country, then outside of the country in which he or she last habitually resided, and who is unable or unwilling to return to his or her country of nationality because of persecution or well-founded fear of persecution based on the person’s race, religion, nationality, membership in a particular social group, or political opinion. Most ARW flee from their home countries due to civil unrest, war, forced migration, and/or fear of being persecuted, and, in search of a safe haven, they migrate to neighboring/bordering countries within Africa, where they reside in refugee camps. Life in the camps is not easy, as one of the women explained in the above narrative. The refugees flee from their homelands with very little or no clothes or other types of resources. They become severely limited in their options for survival, particularly in the camps where they have little or no access to work, agricultural or grazing land, or other means of self-suficiency. With no choice, they become totally dependent on humanitarian and international aid from organizations such as the Red Cross, which provides housing in the form of tents, and the World Food Program. Unable to go back to their home countries, many refugees remain in exile for several years and even decades until the UNHCR intervenes for relocation to western countries.
Jonix Owino, a student at North Dakota State University, wrote a thesis on the experiences of African Refugee Women. Photo by Andrew Cullen.
The difficult life experienced by ARW poses psychological challenges to their well-being, including experiences of grief and loss of loved ones, torture, unpreparedness during departure, disruption of education, and post-traumatic stress issues. The women I interviewed explained that it was after they arrived and settled into the new community that the memories of what they had experienced began to unfold. Mourning for their loved ones had been short-lived, because they had to be on the go and were also distracted by the challenging and problematic situations they were already encountering. A deep sense of sadness gripped their hearts as they remembered family members and friends who continue to endure the harsh life in the camps to date. One of the women mentioned:
Some of my brothers are still at the camp, and I sometimes get worried about them because I don’t know what will happen to them. It gives me sleepless night. Sometimes it is also hard for me to eat when I don’t know whether my other families and friends had something to eat in the camp.
All of the women in my study named close family members, relatives, or friends who are still in the refugee camps or still living among conflict in their home countries. The refugees who came to Fargo escaped the conflict but are haunted by their past and their families’ ongoing challenges.