Local data doesn’t really exist to answer these questions, says Paul Van Auken, associate professor of sociology and environmental studies at the University of Wisconsin-Oshkosh.
The university is working to fix that. Van Auken is leading a group of faculty and students to survey and interview local residents with a refugee background. He received a $50,000 grantthis year to fund the research.
Oshkosh is home to a refugee resettlement agency, World Relief Fox Valley. According to a UW-Oshkosh news release, the agency has resettled 760 people in the Fox Valley area since 2012. Of that number, 545 settled in Oshkosh.
Refugees are defined in international law as people fleeing conflict or persecution. Van Auken said many refugees now living locally fled to the United States from places such as Burma, Sudan and Iraq.
The survey questions cover a lot of ground, asking residents about the kind of work they’re doing, their economic standing in the U.S. compared to their economic standing in their country of origin, and their experiences with schooling and health, among other topics.
“How did they adjust and are they able to latch onto good jobs and contribute to Wisconsin communities and feel like they’re a part of those communities?” Van Auken said.
Van Auken’s students also ask participants for a more in-depth, open-ended interview. How do they feel about their experiences? What did they go through to leave their country? How did they end up in Wisconsin?
Because many refugees went through traumatic experiences leaving war-torn countries, his students are encouraging participants to use photographs to tell their stories.
“In a way that makes it a bit easier to talk about traumatic experiences, and it tends to lead to deep interviews because people have something concrete to focus on while they’re talking to you,” he said.
In addition to a traumatic past, many refugees can have difficulty adjusting to the U.S. because of drastic cultural differences, Van Auken said.
For example, American culture is extremely individualistic.
“It’s a compounding trauma, I think, for them to come here and then experience isolation because we operate so differently here in the United States, and that’s something that’s come up again and again in our research so far,” he said. “It’s a hard adjustment to make when a person’s used to going from neighbor to neighbor’s house, used to seeing people on the streets all the time, to seeing empty streets and realizing that people don’t socialize in the same way.”
However, Van Auken is also confident he and his students will continue to hear success stories, tales of how local residents with a refugee background were able to find people to connect with and develop their own sense of community.
Some find that through religion. The area is home to two African congregations, he said.