This study concerns the uprooting experiences of forced migration, particularly how refugees consider citizenship in the process of losing and regaining this status. I carried out fieldwork in an area in California where refugees from around the world are “resettled” or brought to live in relative safety, in order to answer the following research questions: How do refugees and their social workers experience citizenship? How are non-formal education programs in refugee resettlement used to construct ideas of citizenship? Using a phenomenological framework, I interviewed former refugees, U.S.-born social workers and refugee students who are in the process of becoming naturalized U.S. citizens; I also collected document data in the form of organizational meeting minutes from a consortium of social service organizations working primarily in refugee resettlement.
The findings for this study are presented along three points in the refugee resettlement process. My analysis begins at the moment when people become refugees; I bring together narratives of flight from the country of origin, of precarious existence in an intermediary country and finally, of resettlement and regaining citizenship in the U.S. This finding emphasizes the inevitability of a person having to become a citizen of a nation-state in order to be considered legitimate. The second point of analysis brings the reader to the encounter between refugees and their U.S.-born social workers; in this section, I highlight how these different populations draw upon similar experiences to work together and build resilience and resistance. Lastly, by putting together themes from my document analysis and interviews, I present the struggles, successes and hopes of people involved in refugee resettlement programs in this area. Understanding the processes of forced migration and reintegration, particularly from the perspective of the refugee community, sheds light on the nature of citizenship and diversity, and on the function of non-profits and non-formal education programs in creating different understandings of citizenship.