Resettling the unsettled: the refugee journey of Arab Muslims to New Zealand

Joudi Kadri, Rose
Devere, Heather
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Doctor of Philosophy
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Auckland University of Technology
Since the 1980s, nearly 5000 Arab and Muslim refugees have been resettled in New Zealand (RefNZ, 2007) as a result of political instability and wars that have riddled the Arabic-speaking region. Upon arrival in a resettlement country, refugees face many challenges in adjusting to their new environment (Simich et al., 2006; Valtonen, 1998). Arab Muslim refugees have specific concerns that are different to other refugee groups due to the major role Islam plays in the way Muslim people go about their lives, and due to the controversial image of Muslims in Western countries since the September 11th (USA) and July 7th (London) bombings. To date, relatively little attention has been paid to the various ongoing resettlement issues that these refugees deal with. This research attempts to fill in some of these gaps by addressing the resettlement experiences of Arab Muslim refugees in New Zealand. It is expected that this research will assist the policy making and migrant services sector (a) to understand the refugees' lived realities; (b) to confront the stereotypes associated with refugees in general, and the stereotypes associated with Arab Muslim refugees in particular; and (c) to address the issues and challenges faced by Arab Muslim refugees. The significance of this research is located in its potential to influence policy and practice in the fields of refugee resettlement, immigration, and counselling. In addition, this study will contribute to knowledge about Arab Muslim refugees, especially those living in New Zealand. Recently, studies in the fields of sociology, anthropology, and psychology on refugees and refugee resettlement have found that non-Western refugees experience a variety of resettlement and adjustment challenges when settling in Western societies. However, intensive research is needed on refugees' perspectives on their refugee journey, their resilience during resettlement, and the experiences that accompany the refugee journey. A deepened understanding of the phenomenon of the refugee journey may contribute to the development of appropriate support for refugees and foster welcoming host societies. It is therefore anticipated that this study of the refugee experiences of Arab Muslims will add to existing research on refugee resettlement and in particular Arab Muslim refugees in Western societies. Semi-structured, face to face interviews were conducted with 31 male and female Arabic-speaking Muslim refugees from Iraq, Sudan, Somalia, Kuwait, and Tunisia. The participants had been "resettled" in New Zealand for at least six months and up to eleven years. Most of the interviews were conducted in Arabic and then translated to English. The interviews were analysed using an eclectic approach including thematic analysis with elements of life story narratives. The findings that emerged from this research suggest that whatever the national and ethnic background of the refugee, there are common key issues and themes relating to the refugee journey and the challenges experienced by refugees during their resettlement. The interviews revealed participants' experiences of their lives as refugees, which were described in three separate stages that I have termed the "three legs of the refugee journey." The first leg of the refugee journey included the refugees' pre-migration experience: reasons for fleeing their homelands, becoming a refugee, and the impact of the refugee label on their lives in their resettlement country. The second leg of the refugee journey involved their experiences in adjusting to their 'new' lives after leaving Mangere Refugee Resettlement Centre (MRRC): their experiences with several resettlement agencies in NZ, their unforeseen resettlement challenges such as language barriers, unemployment, and their concern over raising their children in a non-Muslim society. The third leg uncovered the experiences participants went through after one year of their initial resettlement, and also explored methods of coping and resilience that participants used to overcome their ongoing resettlement challenges and mental health concerns, and their perspective on New Zealand as a resettlement country. This leg also included the participants' future aspirations and their long-term resettlement plans. Overall, participants were unprepared for the situation that faced them when they arrived in New Zealand. Their experience in the six weeks at the resettlement centre was disappointing for all of them and traumatic for some. Participants did not feel that they were equipped with "survival skills" for dealing with life outside the centre. All participants expressed that they had difficulties adjusting to their new life in New Zealand. In general, women found adjustment more difficult than men. Some participants expressed gratitude to New Zealand for accepting them as refugees. A minority were happy to remain in New Zealand, the majority were reluctant about staying, and a small number intended to return to their homeland or other Arab Muslim countries as soon as they could. It is significant that for the participants in this study, their identity as a refugee had an overwhelming impact on the way they talked about their lives. Participants had the perception that being labelled as refugees was a factor that alienated them from New Zealand society. Also, being Arab and Muslim as well as a refugee was seen as an additional disadvantage for resettlement opportunities in New Zealand and other Western countries. While Arab Muslim refugees share many of the concerns of other refugees, there are particular issues, including the challenge of maintaining their religious and cultural traditions, which they experienced as being in conflict with resettling in a Western country. Despite the fact that New Zealand has a long history in assisting in the resettlement of refugees, this research reinforces previous research in New Zealand which points to the inadequacies of the resettlement experience for refugees during all three legs of the refugee journey. The thesis therefore concludes with recommendations for improving refugee policies and services.
Arab , Muslim , Refugee , Resettlement Services , New Zealand
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