Silent Refuge? A Critical Democratic Exploration of Voice and Authorship among Resettled Iraqis in the United States

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Virginia Tech


The 2003 United States (U.S.)-led invasion and occupation of Iraq caused hundreds of thousands of deaths and led to the displacement of millions of individuals in that country. Between March 20, 2003 and late 2017, more than 172,000 Iraqis left their country as refugees and resettled in the United States. This dissertation focuses on a small cohort of that population who resettled in various locations in the U.S. after 2003. This research contributes an empirical and theoretical exploration of the possibilities for political agency for resettled Iraqis in the United States. Grounded in literature suggesting those displaced commonly experience constrained agency framed as "silence/ing" and/or "voicelessness," I identify three requirements to democratic participation: sufficient time to exercise voice, adequate information and attenuating lingering suspicion of (authoritarian) government. Moreover, despite constraints, opportunities for engagement existed including discussion and dialogue; civil society volunteering; and activism. Drawing on 15 semi-structured qualitative interviews, this work first critically explores the American invasion of Iraq and the social and political breakdown that it triggered in that country. I argue that the conflict was an aggressive war and that, consequently, the United States should be held responsible for all of the harm it has caused to the people of Iraq. I describe the violence committed by the American military and I trace the connections between the erosion of interviewees' personal safety and their decisions to leave Iraq and resettle in the U.S. I contend that their various personal decisions to seek refuge were important agentic acts. I then delve into participants' post-resettlement opportunities for belonging in American society and analyze several ways that negative media and government discourses and policies concerning refugees, Arabs, and Muslims contributed to experiences of constraint, unease and precarity. I explore the importance of finding opportunities to engage in personal and cultural exchange with friends, neighbors and colleagues. Thereafter, I examine participants' experiences and understandings of democratic membership. Elaborating several critiques of American political institutions shared by the interviewees, I consider three requirements they identified to democratic participation: sufficient time, sufficient information to make informed decisions and the lingering effects of having lived under an authoritarian government in Iraq. Subsequently, I explore the multiple sites and modes of engagement and participation shared by participants, including dialogue, debate and discussion about the decisions that affect their lives as well as volunteering with community and nonprofit organizations focused on various types of activities, and activism in response to the Trump 2017 Travel Ban. I argue that broad social mobilization and public invocation of norms of welcoming and diversity by native-born Americans can be powerful tools to enlarge spaces for democratic agency for refugees otherwise targeted by discriminatory government actions. I then return to the question of "silence" in refuge that prompted this study and the importance of deliberate, daily interactions and exchange among newcomers and native-born Americans to expand spaces for resettled refugees to engage in American society. Thereafter, I examine the salience of local organizations and activities as sites of engagement and venues for expressions of agency for those I interviewed. I then outline possible directions for future research investigating the role(s) of refugee-led organizations in resettlement and community building. I close by describing the implications this work has for policy and activism.



Refugees, Displacement, Resettlement, Iraq, Democratic Membership, Iraq War