Between Dejection and Awe: Reflections on Research with African Refugees

by Rose Jaji                                        Banner photo by Andrew McConnell/IRC/Panos Pictures

The gulf between “me” and “them” represented in the researcher and researched dichotomy narrows as one realizes that refugees are not different from oneself except that their lives have been disrupted by human-made calamities. In this piece, I address the discrepancy between media images and the realities I have encountered in my research with refugees in Kenya and Zimbabwe. I draw from the reflexive turn in anthropology to communicate my research experiences in Nairobi and Harare. Intent on neither romanticizing nor denying the resilience among the refugees who participated in the research, I convey the oscillation between dejection and awe, as I have found myself confronted with evidence of humanity’s capacity for evil and the marvelous stories of human resilience and hope. I write about refugees’ pain and my own sense of helplessness and conclude on a positive note by presenting refugees’ stories as being as much about recovery as they are about loss.

Dominant Images and my Encounter with Refugees

My first research trip to Nairobi was in the last quarter of 2006 (more trips have followed since then). I did not know what to expect but I had media images of refugees, particularly those from Africa, in my mind. The media has created and perpetuated distressing images of African refugees that portray them as the quintessence of loss and helplessness. Malkki has discussed the archetypal depiction of African refugees as, in her words, speechless emissaries. Unsure of what to expect because of the media images, I included payment for a translator in my research budget. My first surprise on my first encounter with refugees in Nairobi was that I did not need a translator as most of the refugees could speak English and were also multilingual.

Photo by author

When I needed a translator during focus group discussions with refugee men from the Great Lakes region who spoke French, I hired a refugee woman from Rwanda who spoke both English and French fluently, in addition to Kinyarwanda and Kiswahili. These were not rural, illiterate people who had fled conflicts they could hardly explain. On the contrary, I was about to conduct research with professionals and university students who had abandoned their jobs and studies because of violence.

The Humanity of Refugees

As I continue researching with refugees, I am struck by how their worries about food and other basic necessities when they fled coexisted with worries about getting shot. Life took a completely different trajectory than they had dreamed of and anticipated prior to flight. Young refugee men from the Great Lakes region who had worked in their countries of origin as journalists and entrepreneurs or were university students with bright prospects told me about living like street children in Nairobi. The men who were in their twenties told me about the frustration of spending the best years of their lives unemployed and incapable of making long-term decisions and starting families. Their dreams were abruptly terminated by violence, flight and lack of opportunities to rebuild their lives in the host country.

Picture from Flickr: “Somali refugee, Iftin Ahmed Farah, 24, in Nairobi, Kenya”, by Andrew McConnell/IRC/Panos Pictures.

I look at fathers hang their heads in shame because they can no longer provide for their children; gender roles have been reversed as their wives engage in informal activities and feed the family. I discuss this in my paper on young refugee men and masculinity. I also listen to refugee women relate experiences that are intricately linked to their gender. Refugee women’s stories are intertwined with sexual and gender-based violence, giving birth in dangerous circumstances en route to safety, losing husbands to violence and raising children without reliable sources of income. Married refugee women’s experiences are intertwined with the troubled state of married refugee men’s masculinity which forces women into the breadwinner role. This feeds into domestic violence and agitation among married refugee women. While these experiences may not be unique to refugees, they are exacerbated by the fact that they are interlinked with material loss against the backdrop of widespread violence.

Sense of Helplessness

Researchers cannot escape their human qualities, such as empathy and desire to help. Many researchers have found solace in action research, which involves an agenda to change the circumstances of research participants in a positive way. The impact of action research on refugees remains unclear. Kenya hosts hundreds of thousands of refugees and humanitarian organizations are stretched. They focus on camps where the majority of refugees reside. Very little if any assistance is available for urban refugees.

Collaboration between academics and practitioners has the potential to foster mutual understanding not only between them but also between them and refugees who wonder why their plight remains unchanged in spite of all the data they have provided

Based on the gloomy stories I have listened to, I have reflected on what it means to access refugees’ stories when one lacks the means to improve their circumstances. On my first visit to Kenya, some young refugee women and men wanted to resume their university studies and I was a student myself without the additional funds to help. And who would I help in a sea of deprivation and need? This is a difficult subject for most researchers. Refugees told me about researchers who had made promises to them, for example, on assistance with third country resettlement, but did not fulfill these promises. Indeed, some refugees had become wary of researchers and they openly communicated this to me. Feeling guilty researching people in need when one is unable to improve their situation is understandable but making false promises as a way to salve one’s conscience is at variance with research ethics. I wonder whether it would not be more ethical and feasible to share research output with and engage those who tirelessly work daily to assist refugees. Collaboration between academics and practitioners has the potential to foster mutual understanding not only between them but also between them and refugees who wonder why their plight remains unchanged in spite of all the data they have provided.

Beyond the Refugee Tag

As weeks turned into months during my first research trip, the refugee label receded to the background as I became more conscious of refugees as neighbors in the low-income neighborhood where I lived with them. Although the sense of loss lingered even after decades of living outside their countries, refugees endeavored to rebuild their lives in the same way that people who are not refugees seek to make the best out of their circumstances. I acknowledge the need to keep refugees’ circumstances in the limelight and ensure that humanitarian assistance continues to be channeled to refugees. However, it is important to note that the stereotypical image of refugees as helpless and passive victims may result in asylum seekers who do not fit into this stereotype having their applications dismissed for, in the language of refugee status determination, lacking credibility.

Refugees’ stories are not solely about loss, they are also about survival, resilience, hope, and triumph even without material comfort

Online comments on stories on refugees posted on the CNN website, Yahoo! And YouTube to mention a few reflect the quintessential image of refugees represented by African women holding starving babies and toddlers “gender-balanced” with idle, able-bodied men and sick old men who cannot access the medical attention their conditions require. Refugees who deviate from these images of want and helplessness are accused of being economic migrants or terrorists. How does anyone get the time to dress so well, pack items into a backpack, and remember to carry their smartphone when they flee? Most of the anonymous writers of these comments seem puzzled by this possibility. But countries that descend into violent conflict have a middle class like any other country. Among refugees are professionals with bank accounts containing savings; they have the resources to arrive in the host country with the presumable trappings of “non-refugeeness”. It should thus come as no surprise that they flee with expensive jewelry, smart phones, and are not dressed in rags with malnourished babies and toddlers in tow. Yet, the dominant discourse silences their individual stories by inscribing the text of helplessness and victimhood on them. In this scheme of things, many host countries think of what the refugees will take instead of what they will give. For instance, African countries lament the “brain drain” without noticing the “brain gain” imbedded in refugee influxes. Refugees want to be economically independent and turning them into recipients of charity leads to frustration which feeds into the refugees-are-demanding-and-ungrateful narrative that dominates public debates in many host countries.

This pathologization of refugees also involves the assumption that refugees are incapable of articulating the complex conflicts that they fled. Refugees have shared with me well-informed and insightful perspectives on armed conflicts, ethnic politics, genocide, gender, and international relations in Africa. My informants and I would have intense moments as we discussed the horrors of violent conflicts and express outrage at and frustration with the corruption and poverty. We would also bemoan rigged elections. All this would eventually morph into cathartic humor as we joked at the expense of bad African leaders. Refugees’ stories are not solely about loss, they are also about survival, resilience, hope, and triumph even without material comfort. And, indeed, they are also stories of enduring love for the countries that denied them basic human rights including the right to life. I realize that imbedded in the unfamiliar is the familiar; refugees’ stories of loss and recovery resonate with the human experience in general.

About the author

Rose Jaji is a senior lecturer in the Department of Sociology at the University of Zimbabwe. Her research areas of interest are migration/refugees, gender, and peacebuilding. Her current research is on migration from the Global North to Zimbabwe.

Recent publications

‘Reflexive ethnography and refugee research’. SAGE Research Methods Cases. 2018.

‘Under the shadow of genocide: Rwandans, ethnicity and refugee status’. Ethnicities , Vol. 17 (1), 47–65, 2017.

‘Normative, agitated, and rebellious femininities among East and Central African refugees’. Gender, Place, and Culture 22, 494509, 2015.


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