Immigration and Refugees: Dance Community as Healing among East Central Africans in Phoenix, Arizona

By Vissicaro, Pegge; Godfrey, Danielle Cousins | Ethnic Studies Review, January 1, 2002 | Go to article overview
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Immigration and Refugees: Dance Community as Healing among East Central Africans in Phoenix, Arizona


Vissicaro, Pegge, Godfrey, Danielle Cousins, Ethnic Studies Review


This paper explores the healing strategies of twenty-five survivors of torture who came to Phoenix, Arizona, as refugees from the countries of Rwanda and Burundi. Their migrations begin during the conflicts of the late 1980s after genocidal pressures cause their initial flight from home to Internally Displaced Persons camps or directly to refugee camps outside the borders of these countries. Immigration to the United States adds a new layer of confrontation for these people due to the paradoxical climate existing in this country toward immigrants of all types. Throughout the displacement and in spite of losing all anchors of meaning, including indigenous contexts for ritual expression, they tell of times in the camps where traditional dance and music was shared and taught to children. Freedance, Inc., a nonprofit organization created in August, 2002, addresses the refugees' need to recontextualize and renegotiate meaning through dance culture as they did in the camps by providing a venue for this process to occur. Dance culture, a dynamic knowledge system, facilitates group solidarity and the building of social foundation for a healing community (Note: Many agencies and programs are instrumental in the basic survival and presence of these refugees in the United States. The concerns discussed in this paper are not meant to invalidate the importance of their outreach.)

Immigration and Refugee Issues

Since September 11, 2001, immigration in the United States has acquired new edges. As much as their influx has slowed, refugees and other immigrants are branded as suspects more than ever. At the core of bullding Ais' country has been a recognition that the culture of the United States comes from a rich and varied heritage of different races, religions, and ethnicities, but the latest mood of the country suggests it is reverting back to the nativism or know-nothing days of the 1920s when those who looked different (especially darker) or spoke differently were immediately suspect. The Immense difficulty of immigrating is thus exacerbated for refugees in general and survivors of torture in particular. In this study we explore methods to alleviate pressures of retraumatization factors associated with current immigration processes. Our focus is to identify challenges specific to refugee resettlement and reflect upon emerging solutions to determine whether they are effective and why. We ask questions related to today's assumptions to examine how and when they were made.

For the purpose of our discussion we provide the following operational definitions for the terms, "immigration" and "refugee/ Immigration focuses on the movement of people into a host country; refugees are a special group of foreign residents who have fled their own countries because of fear of war, political oppression, or religious persecution (National Research Council 1 997). Generally refugees apply for admission to an INS office outside the U.S. and are admitted as non-immigrants although that status may be changed later. Refugee admissions are regulated by procedures first established through the United States Refugee Act of 1980. Significantly this act separates refugee admission from immigration by offering certain medical and social services and the establishment of programs for refugees.

The investigation of social dimensions of immigration reveals that residual images of conformity to American ways of life parallel post-colonial constructs of the Other. The changing face of America's social fabric is undeniable, As psychotherapist Mary Pipher in The Middle of Everywhere noted about the rising population of immigrants in her area, Nebraska "is becoming a brown state in a brown nation" (294). Similarly Arizona is an insular state in an insular country in an insular society where resistance to refugees blending in has become intrinsic to the local sense of self-preservation. Failure to realize the critical nature of immigration issues hinders our ability to grasp a total perspective of America's transformation.

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