Place-making, provisional return, and well-being: Iraqi refugee women in Australia.

Author:Vasey, Katie


Returning to Iraq, even for a visit, was something Iraqi refugees residing in Australia could only dream about while Saddam Hussein remained in power because the ongoing social, economic, and political conditions made return impossible. Despite danger and chaos, the fall of Saddam Hussein's regime (May-December 2003) gave exiled Iraqis the unique opportunity to visit their homelands. In this article, I draw on ethnographic research conducted with 26 Iraqi Shi'i women from refugee backgrounds who resettled in a small country town in Australia. I explored their experiences of provisional return to Iraq, and questioned how their return influences their "home" making in Australia. In this context, I interrogated the complex, contradictory and ambivalent relationships that Iraqi women developed with both their host and home countries and how this impacted upon their well-being.


Les refugies irakiens installes en Australie ne pouvaient que rever d'un retour en Irak, meme pour une visite, tant que le regime de Saddam Hussein restait en place puisque la situation sociale, economique et politique rendait ce retour impossible. Malgre les dangers et le chaos inherents au changement, la chute du regime de Saddam Hussein (mai-decembre 2003) a donne aux exiles irakiens l'opportunite unique de visiter leur pays d'origine. Cet article repose sur une etude ethnographique effectuee par l'auteur aupres de 26 irakiennes Shi'i refugiees qui se sont installees dans une petite ville de l'arriere-pays australien. On y explore leur experience d'un retour temporaire en Irak, et comment ce retour a influence leur creation d'un "chezsoi" en Australie. Dans ce contexte, l'auteur a examine les relations complexes, contradictoires et ambivalentes qu'entretenaient ces femmes irakiennes avec leur pays d'adoption et leur pays d'origine, et comment elles ont affecte leur bien-etre.


What are we doing here? Balancing between two boats. We drag our souls over days and seasons, while our traditions, our roots, keep getting diluted. Watered down by filtered, distilled circumstances. We [might] never go back. We are grateful and live meaningful lives here, but why this longing; why does this sense of non-belonging niggle us? Why do we catch this 'transplantation torment' like a virus every now and again? This eternal question plays hopscotch with our minds. What price do we pay for clean roads, health care, safety, and shiny cars. What pound of flesh do we bargain for, for a foreign passport. Where do we really live? As suggested in the above excerpt from an interview conducted with Fatima, (1) while she yearns for her country of origin, she does not necessarily want to return there. Life is safe and meaningful in Australia, yet the persistent longing for somewhere or something else comes across clearly in her words. In recent decades, migration across and within borders has both intensified and diversified, with vast numbers of people afflicted by displacement, dislocated from national, regional, and ethnic locations. "This has raised significant questions concerning mobility, deterritorialized identities, and diasporic forms of belonging across nation-state boundaries. (2) In fact, uprootedness from the soil of home and place has resulted in a general condition of "homelessness," referred to as the diasporic condition. (3) The search for a "home" forms the basis for this paper: does home move where the migrant moves; is it forever tied to place, soil, and kinship; or does home lie somewhere in between?

Although many refugees and migrants who cannot return to their country of origin aspire to resettle permanently in a new country, this is a rare opportunity. Three-quarters of the world's refugees reside in countries neighbouring their country of origin, often living illegally in temporary camps. (4) In 2010, 108,000 out of 10.55 million of the world's Convention refugees were offered resettlement in one of 22 countries participating in UNHCR's resettlement program. (5) Australia offers places to approximately 13,000 refugees annually as part of its program of migration. (6) For the majority, resettlement is part of the process of placement in a third country. Resettlement may be traumatic, in part because the host country, the timing, and the conditions of resettlement are not always freely chosen. The arbitrary decision making, the sometimes haphazard direction of people to new settings and the disregard of prior relationships and networks have created a diasporic scattering of families and communities across the globe. (7) Yet relatively little attention has been given to the convergent and ongoing process of forced emplacement (8) and the establishment of connections to place among people from refugee backgrounds in these contexts. (9) The focus on displacement has left a gap in our understanding of emplacement and of the connections to place in settlement settings that allow refugees and other humanitarian migrants to recreate a sense of home and relative safety. (10) A relatively small cohort of Iraqi refugees and humanitarian settlers have resettled in Australia, where they are expected to build (from virtually nothing) a new life, and to create "home," literally and metaphorically, in a new place. (11) For Iraqi immigrants, as the above extract illustrates, moving to and building a "home" in Australia can mean that contradictory emotions permeate their experiences of resettlement. Each place represents different elements of what constitutes home, impacting upon and underscoring women's understanding of belonging and longing.

Through the prism of imagined and provisional return to Iraq after the fall of Saddam Hussein and his regime (May-December 2003), in this article I explore how Iraqi women from refugee backgrounds articulate dimensions of home and its associated longing and belonging in exile, highlight the dynamic nature of these emotional negotiations, and illustrate the interconnectedness of place. By exploring how people are simultaneously both "here and there," I offer an explanation for the varying and complex expressions that provisional return may take, as the women with whom I worked showed that it is misleading to draw clear boundaries between the past and the present, here and there, or to juxtapose these terms with Australia on the one side and Iraq on the other when one is considering the location of home. In order to explore how women's experiences of provisional return to Iraq influence their "home" making in Australia, a brief discussion of the conceptualization of the meaning of "home" embraced by refugees and migrants is necessary.

Refugees, Home, and Place

The search for "home" and how people set about making themselves "at home" necessitates discussing the dispersed nature of "home." "Home" is a significant analytic category to understand changing constructions

of place, for it is central in understanding shifting notions of belonging to place. (12) Over the past two decades there has been a shift away from essentialist or naturalized assumptions about the people and place relationship. (13) Whereas "home" may once have been considered fixed, unchanging, and stable in terms of geography, governance, and institutions, such a linear focus fails to acknowledge the changing personal, historical, social, and political contexts through which "home" is continually redefined. (14) It also fails to address how people's relationships to particular places are continually changing, being made and remade over time and space. (15) This does not mean that concepts of home are less important or that people are less attached to place, but that its dimensions are more multifaceted; (16) particularly accompanying forced migration, ongoing war and violence in the country of origin. While the meaning of "home" is not culturally universal and not always tied to a single place, the disruptions of war may require new and more pragmatic considerations. A broader and more mobile concept of home is necessary, something to be taken along as individuals move through space and time. (17) In this sense home can be transformed, newly invented, and developed in relation to the circumstances in which people find themselves or choose to place themselves. (18) Belonging to a place, a home, or a people becomes an experience of being within and in between sets of social relations. (19) The relationship between people who become refugees and place is positioned somewhere in between, and includes a strong sense of connection to places left behind and their associated traumas while at the same time acknowledging the possibilities of (re) building connections to place within the context of resettlement, (20) as involuntary displacement marks a very real loss of human capital that is not easily re-established. (21) The complex spatial strategies that refugees develop for negotiating places in which they are physically present, while concurrently negotiating ongoing social, economic, and emotional relationships with places from which they are physically absent, has been described as reterritorialization. (22) These strategies have been explored in several ways in the resettlement context, most notably concerning place-attachment (23) including the role of religion in overcoming alienation in places of resettlement, (24) the ways in which the gendering of place relates to feelings at home, (25) and how places can be therapeutic landscapes. (26) What forces would lead immigrants from Iraq to uproot themselves and abandon the soil of home to migrate to Australia?

Iraqis on the More: Coming to Australia

The oppressive policies of the regime of Saddam Hussein, the Iran-Iraq war (1980-1988), the Gulf crisis starting with the invasion of Kuwait in 1990, the subsequent Gulf War in 1991 and the Intifada, economic hardship during the sanction years (1991-2003), the more recent Gulf War (April-May 2003), and subsequent ongoing...

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