The subject of refugee experience poses compelling problematics for the study of community literacy. Yet, community literacy projects that support language acquisition, cultural orientation, and cross-cultural communication are some of the most important resources available to newly resettled refugees. Refugee students and adult learners arrive in the U.S. and are forced to learn English as quickly as possible while also having to figure out the new and complicated bureaucratic trappings of finding a job, making doctors’ appointments, and enrolling in school. Refugees, however, cannot be considered one homogeneous group, and the issues surrounding refugee resettlement and community literacy play out in a myriad of ways. Community literacy research, particularly of the ethnographic variety, teaches us that very little can be generalized or concluded about literacy practice or literacy acquisition from one community to another. This observation cannot be overstated when it comes to the literacy issues faced by refugee communities in the U.S. In this keywords essay, I outline several aspects of refugee experience that carry important implications for understanding literacy in the contexts of refugee resettlement. While this essay is not meant to describe how refugees gain literacy or what their literacy practices look like—such work requires ethnographic study—instead, I offer a range of ways for talking about literacy in relation to refugee experience, particularly through the lenses of the interdisciplinary field of refugee studies and rhetoric and composition. Despite the implications refugee experience might have for understanding literacy in global contexts, the perspectives of refugees have been given only cursory attention. A synthesis of contemporary scholarship, however, affords us sufficient grounds to enact a more reflective, ethical, and responsible approach to understanding literacy-learning in refugee communities.
Refugee studies is a distinctly interdisciplinary field that emerged as a “whole new” object of study after World War II (Malkki 497), and many scholars have described the twentieth century as the “age of the refugee” (Lewellen 171). Given the amount of forced displacement so far in the twenty-first century, we are not any closer to amending that reality. Refugee studies includes a wide range of approaches to the study of refugee experience, including the theorization of refugee identity in contradistinction to citizenship (Nyers), the particular experiences of refugee children (Watters), the implications gender has on displacement and resettlement (Grewal), the study of the interview process crucial to the granting of asylum (Bohmer and Schuman), and the study of how refugees are perceived by the international community and general public (Malkki). As Charles Watters explains, merely the topic of migration is a “wide-ranging, multifaceted and highly complex phenomenon” that is only made more complicated when the transnational movement of people is forced (9).
Refugee identity is vexed by several competing logics. In practical terms, the word “refugee” denotes a legal status that marks one eligible to receive humanitarian aid, particularly in the form of asylum, though much of the research on refugees agrees that refugee status is difficult to apply evenly across different experiences and [End Page 95] contexts. The practice is fraught with inconsistency. The United Nations provides a conventional definition: an individual who seeks asylum in another nation-state due to a “well-founded fear of being persecuted” (UNHCR 16). Implementations of this definition, however, vary from one governing body to another and, according to refugee studies scholar Peter Nyers, operate according to processes “deeply rooted in political and ideological calculations,” making legal refugee status a form of aid that is unevenly distributed (13).
On the policy level, Nyers observes that the category of refugee operates according to a “state logic,” or what “can be understood as a power of capture” wherein “subjects of the classification regime of ‘refugeeness’ are caged within a depoliticized humanitarian space” (xiii). The state logic, in other words, regards refugees as one homogeneous mass of people, and the “depoliticized space” in which they are “caged” constrains both their physical and rhetorical mobility. According to state logic, refugees are measured against that which they are not: “adult,” “historical actor,” “sovereign citizen” (xiv). Individual refugee identity is only acknowledged during the process of determining who is eligible to receive asylum, a process heavily burdened...