'We' the Refugees: Reflections on Refugee Labels and Identities.

Author:Vigil, Yanery Navarro


In this article the authors present an auto-ethnographical analysis, describing their personal experiences with forced migration. Using narrative passages, the authors problematize the way in which refugee identities are entwined with socially constructed labels. Vie authors explore the points at which self-identification negotiates with labelling in order to create new spaces wherein individual and collective refugee experiences mutually shape and transform each other. These new spaces emerge from an inclusive participatory socio-cultural and political process where the idea of "us" and "them" merges into a "we." This article represents the culmination of the authors' sustained interactions (in conversation, in storytelling, in shared analyses, in writing) and serves as an example of putting a new space into action.


Les auteurs presentent dans cet article une analyse autoethnographique fondee sur la description de leurs vecus respectifs de la migration forcee. Par des extraits narratifs, ils problematisent la maniere dont les identites de refugies sont liees a des categories socialement construites. Ils explorent les points de negociation entre l'auto-identification et la categorisation pour creer de nouveaux espaces dans lesquels les experiences individuelles et collectives de refugies se faconnent mutuellement et se transforment les unes les autres. Ces nouveaux espaces se degagent a partir d'un processus participatif et inclusif qui releve a la fois du politique et du socioculturel, dans lequel les concepts de > et > se fondent en une seule entite, >. Cet article, qui est l'aboutissement d'interactions approfondies entre les auteurs (sous la forme de conversations, d'histoires racontees, d'analyses partagees, de textes rediges), constitue un exemple de mise en action d'un nouvel espace.

Our Stories

YANERY. I am a refugee. It is almost a decade since that event took place, the event that marked the beginning of the catastrophe that is intimately related with why I became a refugee--a catastrophe that violently forced me to leave my home. I came to Halifax (Nova Scotia, Canada) as an asylum-seeker and, after five years, gained refugee status in 2013. To situate my story, please accept the following poem, "The House That Was a Home."

To F & H

The house was empty. We were living for a week in the cottage. A turbulent dream woke me up, indicating he was there.

They are moving the furniture, taking the paintings, destroying the art that for years lay resting on the walls, books on boxes, more and more boxes running and running everywhere. Simply dispossessing you from your toys, your dolls, your games, your rooms.

The garden in silence is the only witness. I decided to stop my dream and intended to sleep.

At six a.m. my instinct shook me again and sent me home. I drove for more than two hours. When I tried to open the garage door, it was disconnected. I forced the door and crossed the entrance.

Are you here? I asked ... Silence ... the only witness replies, No! nobody is here.

You can continue ...

... with panic in my gloomy body, I asked again. Are you here?

I observe that no one is even resting in the custodians room.

Can you hear me ...?

I can continue, ... the house is totally empty.

He put us out.

Now is time; this imposed the reality; we are looking for shelter.

It was not a robbery; it was a predetermined act of eviction, a demolition.

The decision was forced. We left home.

From my experience, refugee is a status that, within the current panorama of world migration and immigration, is unique. Once this category or status is bestowed upon a person, it is never lost. Being a refugee is being part of a minority group within another minority group--that of immigrants. Being a refugee also means being in a factual struggle for freedom and dignity. This struggle is part of my past and current experiences and is carved in my personal and professional reality. It is this struggle that has informed my conviction that the figure of the refugee is the archetype of the twenty-first century--if not of humanity itself. This conviction stems from the historical and contemporary patterns of mass migration. My conviction hence points to the difficulties to find a place, in a moment in time in which people of all classes move around the world searching for "a better life." Refugees are forced into this search for refuge, for a home they have lost, for there is no life without refuge. Thus, this conviction asserts that the search "for a better life" starts as a search for refuge, for a safe place, a home to belong.

CATHERINE. In the spring of 19991 received a call to come to the Red Cross office in downtown Halifax to help prepare for the arrival of 5,000 Kosovar refugees in what was dubbed Operation Parasol. (1) Our team had extensive experience in domestic disaster response, but this kind of international response was unprecedented. Throughout the month of May, over 2,500 Kosovars arrived in Nova Scotia, and it was this experience that marked the beginning of my work in forced migration. I have so many heartfelt memories of the resilience of the Kosovar people and the humanity demonstrated by those directly affected and those in supporting roles. In a crisis, humanity can shine.

Fast forward to 2016: 20 June World Refugee Day. I took my ten-year-old son to a presentation at the Halifax Central Library called "Fleeing Home: Poetry on Persecution." A woman began to read her poetry, describing an extraordinary process of exile and identity formation. The poet was Yanery. A few months later, Yanery and I met during a participatory photography research project focused on the experiences of immigrant and refugee women. (2) Yanery was a research participant and I was a volunteer researcher. We spent months together learning how to use photography to reflect on and teach about migration and settlement journeys. One particular experience resonated with both of us. After an emotional public presentation, showcasing the women's photographs and stories, an audience member asked us if we (society) should continue to use the term refugee, or if we (society) should consider a new word altogether. I have observed resistance to the term refugee, by refugees, because there are assumptions of vulnerability and lack of recognition of the multiple identities and labels embraced by and embodied on refugees. However, one research participant shared how the term was interconnected with the opportunities that arose from being a refugee, such as a full scholarship to university, and therefore it was a term that we (society) should not disregard for something new. Yanery agreed, and shared how for her, the term refugee stands for home, a concept that links the past, present, and future with the notion of safety and belonging. Yanery elaborated on the importance of keeping the word refugee, while emphasizing how essential it is that we (society) challenge, critique, and deconstruct what it means. It was this experience that led Yanery and me to further reflect on and work together to develop a deeper understanding of how refugee identities and labels are entwined.

Our Approach

YANERY and CATHERINE. Full disclosure, we (3) whole-heartedly agree with the un argument that "migration is a fact of life in a globalized world, and the world is a better place because of it." (4) Migration is part of the fabric of Canadian history and is intimately entwined in the evolution of national labels. People have been moving to, from and within Canada for hundreds of years, and the positive socioeconomic and cultural impacts of migration are well documented. (5) This article focuses on those forced to migrate in an attempt to problematize the refugee label as a particular feature within migration and identity construction. In this article we question the word refugee as a category to qualify this diverse group of people by using narratives to examine how labels are constructed and how identity processes happen/or, with, and in refugees. We focus on the social aspect of the refugee label, while recognizing it is both distinct from and connected to the legal status. Our objective is to deepen conversations among and between refugees, settlement practitioners, and the general public to further consider the complexities of identity, labelling processes, and the interconnections between them.

In this article we use our narrative stories to investigate our individual and collective processes of self-identification and labelling. We delve into the points where self-identification negotiates with labelling in order to conceptualize the notion of new spaces, where individual and collective refugee experiences mutually shape and transform each other. These new spaces emerge from an inclusive participatory socio-cultural and political process where the idea of "us" and "them" merges into "we." Our collaboration pushed our thinking about these concepts, and the following analysis is the culmination of this participation, which involved weekly conversations over the course of twelve months. We invite readers to respond to our reflections, stories, and questions and to further this important conversation.

Social Complexities of the Refugee Label (6)

CATHERINE and YANERY. Refugee is a socially constructed label with complex legal, ethical, and political connotations. Refugee, as a particular category, evolved in response to the mass displacement of people following the Second World War and stemmed from a state-centred mindset focused on population control. (7) Scalettaris argues that responses to mass displacement, such as the post-Second World War efforts, illustrate how "labels account more for the historical, institutional context in which they are produced" and how "the interests of hegemonic states are the most powerful factor in shaping the policy framework for the management of human mobility, and, accordingly...

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