Academic journal article Refuge

Belonging: The Social Dynamics of Fitting in as Experienced by Hmong Refugees in Germany and Texas

Academic journal article Refuge

Belonging: The Social Dynamics of Fitting in as Experienced by Hmong Refugees in Germany and Texas

Article excerpt

Belonging: The Social Dynamics of Fitting In as Experienced by Hmong Refugees in Germany and Texas

Faith G. Nibbs

Durham, NC: Carolina Academic Press, 2014

Whenever refugees and immigrants arrive in new places, there are pertinent questions about how they will adjust to living in their new society. These processes have been studied in terms of "integration, assimilation, and acculturation"--terms that have been critiqued as unidirectional and not as central to arrivals' experiences, such as the term belonging. In Belonging: The Social Dynamics of Fitting In as Experienced by Hmong Refugees in Germany and Texas, based on her anthropology doctoral dissertation, Faith G. Nibbs explores Hmong refugees' "belonging" vis-a-vis mainstream society in their new countries, Hmong in their new locales, and Hmong throughout the diaspora.

Through ethnographic methods (with her English and German skills and help of Hmong translators), Nibbs has given us insight into the varied and complex nature of "belonging" through her exploration of social, political, cultural, economic, and historical contexts of Hmong refugee resettlement in Gammertingen, Schwaben, Germany (GG) and Dallas-Fort Worth, Texas, USA (DFW). Both locations had relatively small numbers of Hmong refugees during her study period--approximately 5 families in GG and 250 families in DFW.

To explore "belonging" vis-a-vis the new society, Nibbs illustrated interconnected processes by which resettlement program structures applied pressure on refugees, so they were "being made" into people who could fit into the new society; and whereby refugees' own agency engaged them in "making it" as people who made a place for themselves in the new location.

Nibbs explored the different structural events at national, state, and local levels to understand the societal forces of refugees "being made" into new citizens. Germany had an integrated program that connected people with local citizens, and provided one year of financial support so that people could learn the language before having to find employment. In contrast, Texas found locals who initially helped the refugees find apartments and jobs, with the goal that they be economically self-sufficient as quickly as possible (if not within two weeks). Years later, Nibbs described how refugees in both communities were economically self-sufficient, with all families having a wage-earner and the vast majority of families owning their own homes.

On the other side of these mainstream processes were refugees' actions of "making it." Nibbs asserted that people's "ingenuity and agency" shaped their lives, as they reacted to local situations and local resources, and as they utilized mainstream resources and resources within their own local ethnic group to be successful. This was the other half of "being made"--this was refugees' actions towards "making it."

Beyond economic status as a measure of "belonging," Nibbs looked into people's participation in the larger society. She discovered that people became citizens for security, so they could not be expelled, could travel without restriction, and could vote (although they did not run for office or participate in political processes). They did not become citizens in order to become Germans, or become Texans. Both GG and DFW Hmong expressed how their being Hmong was separate from their resident country; they had been Hmong in Laos, and now they were Hmong in Germany and Hmong in Texas.

To explore "belonging" in their local Hmong communities, Nibbs recounted the communities' interactions with each other and with new Hmong arrivals and then compared their similar and yet disparate experiences. …

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