The Risk, Care, and Imagination of Moral Agency: Two Women’s Narratives of Life After Refugee Resettlement
Janelle L. Moore
September 3, 2020
Portions of this essay were previously published on the blog Moral Agency Under Constraint.
Nadra and Ghazel first came to North America as refugees. Today, they participate in their communities as mothers, teachers, learners, and leaders. Although much of the literature on refugee resettlement focuses on refugee-serving agencies, refugee women can have a profound impact on fellow refugees in their new home communities. Interviews from 2017 and 2019 with Nadra and Ghazel about their post-resettlement experiences reveal insight into both the nature and effects of moral agency under constraint. The constraints refugee women encounter in the United States operate like a downward-turning spiral; with each twist of the “spiral,” a new obstacle appears that makes overcoming subsequent obstacles all the more daunting. However, Nadra’s and Ghazel’s narratives indicate that acts of moral agency—characterized by hopeful risk, holistic care, and future-oriented imagination—can reverse the direction of the spiral by lowering barriers to integration and expanding opportunities for refugee women, their families, and their communities to thrive.
Constraint: “It’s Like You’re on Your Own”
In 2009, Ghazel’s family began to receive frightening notices warning that “half-Americans” were no longer safe in Iraq.[i] Ghazel’s husband worked at a US military base at the time, a job that made the family vulnerable to threats of violence in Iraq but also paved the way for expedited resettlement to the United States a year later through the Special Immigrant Visa (SIV) program.[ii] A mother of three, Ghazel speaks to the overlapping, cumulative effect of the constraints that shaped her life following the resettlement process: “I used to hear of lots of parties or workshops or something, but there’s no childcare for them. So how can I go, how can I share my opinion, my ideas? How can you listen to me and I listen to you?”[iii] Recalling news stories about scandals in American daycare centers that were broadcast in Baghdad with alarming frequency, Ghazel felt scared to leave her children in anyone else’s care during her first years in the United States—an experience that echoes that of many refugee mothers. In a study with women from the Democratic Republic of the Congo, for example, researchers learned that, “unlike the ease with which they left their children with neighbors in their countries of origin, leaving a child with a nonfamily member was troublesome, unpredictable, and anxiety producing”[iv] following resettlement. This reality, coupled with the language barrier and the myriad stressors of daily life in an unfamiliar context, left Ghazel feeling overwhelmed and disoriented during her first three years in Clarkston, Georgia.[v]
In contrast to Ghazel’s rapid resettlement through the SIV program, Nadra’s journey to the United States spanned decades.[vi] When Nadra was six years-old, an outbreak of violence killed her mother. She and her siblings fled Somalia for Kenya, where they lived with relatives until resettlement enabled them to reunite with their father in Canada six years later. After attending a Canadian university for several years, Nadra immigrated to the United States to marry a friend of her family’s. Although proficient in English and familiar with Western culture, Nadra’s experiences in Georgia were strikingly similar to Ghazel’s. She became isolated after her move, lacking both the social bridges (relationships with people outside of her ethnic community) and the social bonds (relationships within her community) that some scholars suggest act as necessary conduits of integration.[vii] Nadra muses, “The living here is different…it’s like you’re on your own. It’s really difficult here, but we’re living. Life goes on. You can see that.”[viii] With only one sibling living nearby—a dramatic change for a woman who grew up with a large extended family network in close proximity—Nadra explains, “I felt very lonely the first couple of years here, yeah, because it wasn’t the same. I couldn’t just go wherever I wanted to go to see family members, they were not home, they were working…It was so different, so I had to adjust to that. It took me long, long years.”[ix]
The stories Ghazel and Nadra share point to the reality that constraints influence women’s experiences prior to and following refugee resettlement. As researchers Badiah Haffejee and Jean East conclude, “Embedded in the Refugee Act of 1980 is a philosophy that increasingly views full and meaningful integration for all resettled refugees from the perspective of economic independence or competence.”[x] Although refugee resettlement agencies provide crucial support during the initial resettlement period, the fact that most federal and state financial aid drops off within eight months of a refugee’s arrival forces staff to prioritize services related to employment and financial stability. This prioritization can, at times, occur at the expense of focusing on other factors that impact a refugee woman’s ability to thrive in the United States. These factors include the reality that both histories of sexual violence[xi] and more limited access to education and vocational opportunities in their home countries can shape women’s adjustment processes for years following resettlement.[xii] Too, because women are more immediately identifiable than men as Muslims and “foreigners” when they wear a hijab or other form of head-covering, they can also be more vulnerable to xeno- and Islamophobic targeting in their new communities. Finally, while refugees in general are likely to experience isolation during their first months in the United States, this is especially true for women. Because taboos about women working and driving persist in many cultures, they find themselves at home with their children far more frequently than do their male family members following resettlement. Each of these factors can diminish women’s resources for equipping themselves and their families to cope with the challenges of their new context.[xiii]
The labyrinth of obstacles present in women’s resettlement experiences highlights the way constraints occur in compounding and converging patterns. As one constraint bumps into another, they both deepen and expand. Susan Sered and Rushika Fernandopulle’s concept of the “death spiral”—developed to highlight the precarious state of healthcare in the United States—illuminates this dynamic. The death spiral represents interlocking issues that each have the capacity to trigger a downward turn, trapping individuals in untenable situations and blocking key resources that might have otherwise been accessed for support. Distinguished by numerous entry points and very few exits, in the original death spiral an individual might lose her job, which in turn results in the loss of her health insurance and a heightened vulnerability to health crises. Alternately, the individual might experience a health crisis that then results in the loss of employment and, subsequently, of health insurance. Whatever the entry point, the downward turning of the death spiral ultimately results in loss of health.[xiv]
In the resettlement version of this spiral, an external constraint—like the absence of opportunities to learn English or an experience of discrimination—can contribute to and worsen an internal constraint, like PTSD, depression, or anxiety. Any of these internal constraints can, in turn, render an external constraint—like finding trustworthy childcare—nearly insurmountable. With each twist of the “resettlement spiral,” the individual tumbles ever closer to the spiral’s pit, which, in this case, is marked by isolation from the world outside her home.
Moral Agency: “We Don’t Want to Stay at Home”
Attending carefully to the resettlement narratives of women like Ghazel and Nadra, however, reveals that this spiral can turn in multiple directions. When Ghazel and Nadra actively participate in their local education system as moral agents, they reverse the spiral’s momentum in ways that benefit their families and communities. While a refugee’s first three months in the United States are highly scripted—filled with urgent priorities like health screenings and school registration—the months after this three-month “reception and placement” period are frequently open-ended, filled with loneliness and uncertainty. This is especially true for refugee women who neither work nor drive. Although certain opportunities for exiting the isolating resettlement spiral are theoretically available (like ESOL classes, community events, and training programs), many refugee women are not in a position to act on them. For participation to be a genuine option, they must first navigate the logistical quagmire of finding childcare, interpretation, and transportation services. When moral agents like Ghazel and Nadra address such hurdles by problem-solving with one another and with local community organizations, they lower the barriers to participation for others through their examples and advice. Their presence at a local school meeting, for example, can greatly increase another former refugee parent’s ability to feel that he or she also belongs in that space. Moreover, Nadra’s and Ghazel’s narratives point not only to the effect of moral agency, but also to three of its constitutive qualities: hopeful risk, holistic care of self and others, and future-oriented imagination. I would argue that closer examination of these dimensions is vital for preparing refugee-receiving communities to identify, build on, and affirm the moral agency that is already at work in our midst.
Hopeful Risk: “I Found the Courage”
In light of the misinformation and prejudice that circulate in the United States, choosing to participate in local initiatives as a refugee woman often requires a willingness to risk embarrassment and rejection. Ghazel recalls that, during her first years in Clarkston, she avoided social engagements: “Even when the Iraqi people say, ‘Come, come visit with your husband,’ I don’t go. I don’t know what’s going on.”[xv] For Ghazel, an opportunity provided through a local nonprofit, CDF: A Collective Action Initiative (CDF Action), made the risk of participation manageable through Neighbors Empowering Together (NET), a goal-setting program funded by United Way. Referring to her NET group as a “nice small beginning,” Ghazel elaborates, “If somebody tells me this is a group for American women, maybe I wouldn’t go. Not because I hate them or something, but because maybe I am afraid, afraid we don’t have sharing things! So yeah, it’s nice to start with the people around you, from your same culture. You will be, like, more courageous.”[xvi] Meeting on a regular basis with refugee women who shared her interests and concerns, Ghazel used the program to accomplish her goal of learning to drive. Furthermore, as her social connections began to deepen, so too did her awareness of community issues and her confidence in her ability to act. She muses, “How to describe it? I would say, I found the courage that you can do something. If we go more, we will understand, have the opportunity, maybe have the courage, you know, to do new things, to try to build our future.”[xvii] In Ghazel’s reflections, we witness the important role that community organizations can play; by bringing women together to share information and support, these organizations facilitate conditions conducive to moral agency’s growth.
I first met Ghazel at a CDF Action community dialogue in 2014, a few years after her family was resettled. Alongside other Arabic-speaking mothers, Ghazel proposed a community-based solution to a serious challenge—the insufficient number of multi-lingual, culturally-sensitive instructors in schools and early learning centers in Clarkston. Ghazel recalls sharing the following during the dialogue series:
We tell them that we need a job for us, we don’t want to stay at home and, you know, just have a foolish time or something. We want to work, ok…so we think that the best thing that we can do is to be a teacher in a childcare center with each other…Even if we don’t have the studies certificate or something, we have the experience because we are mommies.[xviii]
Her proposed strategy inventively addressed the community’s education needs. Significantly, it also suggested a way forward that could disrupt the isolation of post-resettlement life and secure meaningful employment for numerous refugee women.
Ghazel’s willingness to embrace the risk of participation contributed to substantive change in the Clarkston community. In response to the requests of dialogue participants, CDF Action used a W.K. Kellogg Foundation grant to offer training for the Child Development Associate (CDA)—the credential required to work in early learning centers in Georgia—in both Arabic and Somali through a partnership with Georgia Piedmont Technical College. Ghazel was one of the first women to commit to the requisite 120 hours of coursework and internships, and she encouraged Iraqi mothers in her community to participate as well.
Both Ghazel and Nadra bravely chose to risk the possibility of failure in pursuit of improved opportunities for their families and communities. Drawing on Keri Day’s conceptualization of hope as a social practice, I would argue that such risk is distinctively hopeful. For “women of color around the world,” Day posits, hope “is rooted in the messiness, complexity and ambiguity of lived experience, practices, desires, and longings for alternative worlds located in the present.”[xix] For Nadra, who participated in the CDA program a year after Ghazel, the awareness that refugees and immigrants must often start from scratch in the United States fueled her willingness to take risks on behalf of the community. She explains, “We don’t have a country where we can be successful, where our language is spoken, where we understand each other, and where professors speak Somali…We don’t have that here. So we have to strive, struggle to get the best out of whatever America has to offer to our community.”[xx] Far from falling into the “cynicism, alienation, and despair” to which privileged people often succumb when faced with injustice, [xxi] Nadra continues to source the requisite energy for her community work from her hopeful awareness of the gap between the way things are and the way things could be.
Holistic Care: “You Give Them Your Hand”
As can already be seen above, care—both for self and for others—is also intimately related to moral agency. Nadra and Ghazel not only work for long-term change; they also seek to make life more livable in the immediate future for other families who originally came to the United States as refugees and asylum-seekers. In 2017, when I first interviewed Nadra and Ghazel, Nadra was committed to extending her network of obligation beyond her nuclear family in her work at the READY School, a multi-lingual early learning program designed by CDF Action. There, Nadra enjoyed teaching preschool-aged children and informally offering culturally-appropriate advice and translation assistance to other refugee mothers. Speaking of her work as a cultural liaison between her US-born co-teacher and the parents of her students, she shared:
This is how I see it: it’s like, you know, when you’re lending a hand to somebody who is sitting on the floor who needs to get up. And you give them your hand and help them; you pull them up and you help them to get up…Because when they come to this country, they don’t speak the language, they feel lost. So, when they come to school, we talk with them, we laugh with them, we joke with them, and we tell them what letter we did today…And then they start laughing! They feel so comfortable.[xxii]
Ghazel, like Nadra, obtained employment in an early learning center after receiving her CDA credential. Soon after starting her new position in the spring of 2017, Ghazel proudly told me of her work as an assistant teacher at the Global Montessori School. She shared, “I go and work, and not only that—I help the people who speak Arabic. When they bring their children, they feel safe because I’m there. We share the same values. Even if we’re not from the same country, our values are the same.”[xxiii] Ghazel’s comforting, familiar presence helped newly arrived refugee parents feel more comfortable leaving their children with non-relatives. As she recalled the degree to which her fears about American childcare initially prevented her from leaving the house, she meaningfully addressed parents’ concerns so that this did not become a barrier to their own integration processes.
Nadra and Ghazel continue to strive to extend this deep level of care to themselves as well. They honor the truth captured in Ada María Isasi-Díaz’s claim that the “values of responsibility and care” are “the response of a moral consciousness which has at its very heart loving and caring for oneself.”[xxiv] First introduced to CDF Action when she was already a mother of four, Nadra found that the CDA class provided much-needed relief from the relentless pace at home. She explained, “Going to CDA class is really just ‘me’ time, that time when I go there. [It’s] some time to clear my head, focus, enjoy those hours, right.”[xxv] Nadra’s and Ghazel’s decision to prioritize time to build on their skills through the CDA course is a subtle, yet powerful, act of moral agency in the form of self-care.
Both women also practice self-care through friendships and the creation of “women only” spaces. For example, in contrast to the loneliness she initially experienced in Georgia, Nadra found that the CDA class provided an opportunity to build rapport with refugee women from around the world. A few weeks into the CDA semester, Nadra started inviting classmates over to her home—the first time she had the opportunity to engage in hospitality the “Somali way” since moving to the United States. Describing her conviction about the importance of this practice, Nadra shared, “It’s a fun thing that I have, that I carried from my country, from back home. It’s a thing that I’m doing now, and it’s such a good thing—it’s helping. I see that it’s helping a lot of people, so I’m going to keep on doing it because I need it worse than them! When I go out, when they [invite me to] their houses and I leave the kids with my husband and I go out,I come back happy. I come back fresh.”[xxvi] This mutual practice of hospitality helped Nadra return home feeling “fresh” and resilient, ready to face the day-to-day challenges of life as a hijabi Muslim woman in frequently homogenous, Judeo-Christian spaces. Writing to an African American audience, Christina Sharpe points to the importance of “practices of an ethics of care (as in repair, maintenance, attention)” for countering experiences of marginalization.[xxvii] I would argue that, in their own, post-resettlement contexts, Nadra and Ghazel engage in a similar form of life-affirming and holistic practice.
Future-Oriented Imagination: “I Want to Be Proud of Myself”
Finally, in both Ghazel and Nadra’s stories, we see a commitment to responding to the particulars of their evolving circumstances with creative intentionality. Salient to this dimension of moral agency is Martha Nussbaum’s assertion that “people of practical wisdom must meet the new with responsiveness and imagination, cultivating the sort of flexibility and perceptiveness” that enable improvisation.[xxviii] At the time of our initial interviews, Ghazel and Nadra exemplified this imagination and responsiveness to “the new” in their work as informal mentors to the families of children in their classrooms. When I reconnected with them two years later, in the fall of 2019, I found that they were continuing to act as moral agents, albeit in new, adaptive ways.
Neither were working at the time, in large part because both women had given birth in the past two years. Ghazel was staying busy advocating for her children in the public school system through frequent meetings with their teachers and principal. While her attention was naturally focused on her home and her infant at the time, she nonetheless continued to envision and plan for her professional future. Ghazel once told me, “I want my children to be proud of me, in the future, yes. But the most important thing is I want to be proud of myself.”[xxix] In alignment with this fiercely-held commitment, she is currently considering a career as a medical assistant or interpreter once her youngest son is in school, as she believes that either profession would enable her to have an even greater impact in her community. Nadra, whose fifth child is now almost two years-old, dreams of returning to school sometime in the next few years. In the past, she had shared hopes of becoming an elementary school teacher, of starting a daycare in her home, or of one day creating a larger version of the Clarkston READY School so that children of all ages could benefit. Thus, her aspiration to pursue higher education when the chance presents itself comes as no surprise.
Having built on their skills through hopeful risk and expanded their community through holistic care, Ghazel and Nadra now find joy in imagining a future in which resettlement is less arduous for others and in which they can continue to develop and grow. This imaginative work prepares them to contribute to just such a future and to respond to each new challenge or opportunity with the vision and consideration that is required. Sharon Welch notes that “maturity is the acceptance, not that life is unfair, but that the creation of fairness is the task of generations, that work for justice is not incidental to one’s life but is an essential aspect of affirming the delight and wonder of being alive.”[xxx] Nadra and Ghazel model this kind of maturity as they invest in and prepare for future generations.
Seedlings of Moral Agency
In sum, in their work to create nourishing spaces for themselves and their families, Nadra and Ghazel reveal a promising truth about moral agency: just as constraints converge and compound in the resettlement spiral, so too, in a way, does moral agency. As Nadra and Ghazel take steps to participate in the community, they simultaneously remove some of the barriers they faced previously and render those barriers a little more navigable for others. While I had initially considered this process through the analytical lens of the “resettlement spiral,” the metaphor of the seedling speaks to the organic, proliferating character of moral agency. As one act of moral agency after another takes root and grows, they generate a protective canopy to support the cultivation of new, seedling acts. This raises the possibility that an ecosystem of moral agency might one day develop—an ecosystem that is so healthy and verdant that it starves the “weed” of the resettlement spiral of the “nutrients” (i.e., constraints) that it needs to grow. When women like Nadra and Ghazel creatively act as moral agents in their communities with hopeful risk, holistic care, and future-oriented imagination, it seems possible that they might one day uproot for good some of the constraints that threaten the resettlement landscape. In the meantime, Ghazel and Nadra continue to journey out of isolation and towards the horizon of flourishing; as they do so, they gently draw others along with them.
Original research from 2017 was conducted through a W.K. Kellogg Foundation grant awarded to CDF Action Inc. Many thanks to Roberta Malavenda, CDF Action’s executive director, who initially conceived of this community research initiative and gave permission for me to revisit this data. I also thank Ellen Ott Marshall, who first introduced me to the theme of moral agency under constraint through her thought-provoking work with Katie Cannon’s scholarship. Finally, I give thanks to Nadra and Ghazel, both for allowing me to share their stories and for the joyful, compelling witness they bear to the power of moral agency under constraint.
[i] Ghazel’s name has been changed for the protection of her privacy. She requested that the name “Ghazel” be used instead, as it is the name of a loved one and is common in Iraq.
[ii] SIVs are reserved exclusively for individuals and families whose lives have been endangered as a result of their work with the US military in Afghanistan and Iraq.
[iii] Ghazel, Interview by Janelle Moore, Clarkston, GA on March 3, 2017.
[iv] Karin Wachter et al., “Unsettled Integration: Pre- and Post-Migration Factors in Congolese Refugee Women’s Resettlement Experiences in the United States,” International Social Work 59, no. 6 (November 2016): 878, https://doi.org/10.1177/0020872815580049.
[v] Located just 20 miles east of downtown Atlanta, Georgia, Clarkston has been a hub for refugee resettlement since the early 1990s.
[vi] Nadra’s name has been changed for the protection of her privacy. She requested the name “Nadra” as her pseudonym, which means “the light that comes from the eyes” in Somali. Interview by Janelle Moore, Stone Mountain, GA on March 29, 2017.
[vii] Michaela Hynie, Ashley Korn, and Dan Tao, “Social Context and Integration for Government Assisted Refugees in Ontario, Canada,” in After the Flight: The Dynamics of Refugee Settlement and Integration, ed. Morgan Poteet and Shiva Nourpanah (Newcastle upon Tyne, England: Cambridge Scholars Publishing, 2016), 183–223; see also A. Ager and A. Strang, “Understanding Integration: A Conceptual Framework,” Journal of Refugee Studies 21, no. 2 (April 18, 2008): 166–91, https://doi.org/10.1093/jrs/fen016.
[viii] Nadra, Feb. 28, 2017.
[ix] Nadra, March 15, 2017.
[x] Badiah Haffejee and Jean F. East, “African Women Refugee Resettlement: A Womanist Analysis,” Affilia 31, no. 2 (May 2016): 235, https://doi.org/10.1177/0886109915595840.
[xi] Office of the Special Representative of the Secretary-General on Sexual Violence in Conflict, “10th Report of the UN Secretary-General on Conflict-Related Sexual Violence,” UNHCR, https://www.un.org/sexualviolenceinconflict/wp-content/uploads/2019/05/2018-SG-Annual-Report-Factsheet.pdf.
[xii] Morgan Poteet and Shiva Nourpanah, “Introduction,” in After the Flight: The Dynamics of Refugee Settlement and Integration (Newcastle upon Tyne, England: Cambridge Scholars Publishing, 2016), xv.
[xiii] Linda L. Halcón, Cheryl L. Robertson, and Karen A. Monsen, “Evaluating Health Realization for Coping Among Refugee Women,” Journal of Loss and Trauma 15, no. 5 (September 14, 2010): 409, https://doi.org/10.1080/15325024.2010.507645.
[xiv] Susan Starr Sered and Rushika J. Fernandopulle, Uninsured in America: Life and Death in the Land of Opportunity (Berkeley, Calif.: University of California Press, 2005), 6.
[xv] Ghazel, May 24, 2017.
[xvi] Ghazel, May 24, 2017.
[xvii] Ghazel, May 24, 2017.
[xviii] Ghazel, March 2, 2017.
[xix] Keri Day, Religious Resistance to Neoliberalism: Womanist and Black Feminist Perspectives (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2016), 132.
[xx] Nadra, March 29, 2017.
[xxi] Sharon D. Welch, A Feminist Ethic of Risk, Revised edition (Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 2000), 33.
[xxii] Nadra, March 22, 2017.
[xxiii] Ghazel, May 24, 2017.
[xxiv] Ada María Isasi-Díaz, En La Lucha In the Struggle: Elaborating a Mujerista Theology, 10th anniversary edition. (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2004), 164.
[xxv] Nadra, March 15, 2017.
[xxvi] Nadra, Feb. 28, 2017.
[xxvii] Christina Elizabeth Sharpe, In the Wake: On Blackness and Being (Durham: Duke University Press, 2016), 130–31.
[xxviii] Martha Nussbaum, “The Discernment of Perception: An Aristotelian Conception of Private and Public Relationality,” in Love’s Knowledge Essays on Philosophy and Literature (New York: Oxford University Press, 1990), 71.
[xxix] Ghazel, May 24, 2017.
[xxx] Welch, A Feminist Ethic of Risk, 70.