How does it Feel to Be an Iraqi Refugee? Precarity, Uncertainty, and Resistance

Jared Keyel


Individuals who arrive in the United States seeking refuge must navigate social and political contexts that are rife with tensions and contradictions. Refugee status confers legal rights to residence and a path to American citizenship. However, possession of legal residence or citizenship does not necessarily simultaneously open substantive possibilities to engage in American society or politics (Brubaker 2010:64–65).

Those from Arab and/or Muslim backgrounds may find themselves situated between the “grand narrative” of the U.S. as an exemplar of immigrant incorporation and opportunity (Alba and Foner 2015:12), widespread and persistent negative attitudes toward these groups among significant segments of American society (Zogby Analytics 2017), and government suspicion and scrutiny. Discriminatory policies targeting newcomers—particularly those of Arab and Muslim backgrounds—and pervasive distrust of these populations is both long-standing and acute in the period since the 2016 election of Donald Trump. These contradictions and tensions can put such newcomers in precarious social, political and legal positions.

The 2017 Travel Ban that sought to prevent refugees from seven countries from entering the U.S., including Iraq initially, is an illustrative example. The ban primarily targeted those from Muslim majority countries, perpetuating discourses of Islam as intrinsically dangerous. Resettled refugees already in the U.S. faced the uncertainty that the government could revoke their legal right to live in the country. Many individuals who had been granted refugee status and were awaiting resettlement suddenly found themselves barred from entering the country, at least temporarily. In some cases, scheduled resettlement flights were canceled or families were stopped at points of entry.

Between September 2017 and February 2018, I interviewed 15 Iraqis who came to the U.S. after the 2003 American-led invasion of their country as refugees, asylum seekers, and Special Immigrant Visa holders. Each of these statuses confers a similar set of legal rights and protections. And yet, as my interviews confirmed, it is important to distinguish analytically between citizenship and belonging. The former denotes a legal construct conferring formal membership to a state. The latter can be understood as the informal possibilities for individuals to substantively exercise their rights and obtain acceptance as full members of the society (Brubaker 2010:65), should they choose to seek it.

Taking a critical and normative approach to exploring these contradictions (Agger 1998), I have sought to understand what possibilities currently exist—and which can be opened—for resettled refugees to contest the social and political exclusions they may face and how American-born citizens can push their society to be more open to newcomers. I have also sought to foreground resettled individuals’ knowledge of these issues and recommendations for solutions (Horst 2006). All quotes cited below refer pseudonymously to interviewees.

As will become apparent, the two primary possibilities that interviewees described were: social, cultural, and interpersonal exchange with neighbors, friends, and coworkers; and activism organized to defend the rights of immigrants and refugees, particularly as it related to the 2017 Trump Travel Ban. While both were important, I focus here on the latter.

Legal Membership, Lived Precarity and Uncertainty

Sociologists have long explored the disjunction between formal and informal membership. The title of this essay paraphrases W. E. B. Du Bois’ (1903) famous formulation interrogating this question as it related to African Americans at the turn of the 20th century: “How does it feel to be a problem?” Du Bois describes the “strange experience” of living in a society in which the dominant culture treats a significant segment of the population with contempt and pity and for whom formal enfranchisement had not, and has not, led to substantive exercise of rights and membership. The historical and contemporary experiences of African Americans and Iraqi refugees are not perfectly analogous. However, that same question of strangeness and contempt for those with legal membership, including citizenship in some cases, and their daily experiences of exclusion, suspicion and precarious exercise of rights was salient for a number of those I interviewed.

One individual, Tariq, directly made this historical analogy: “We are a second level. … Now, it’s our era, unfortunately. It used to be black Americans before and now it’s Muslims. … Everybody is against you: the news, the government. … So you’re weak … because you’re not trusted.” Another individual, Zaid, said “I am not an American citizen, I am a naturalized citizen. … Not an American-born citizen.” He said that this distinction persistently marked him as other than native-born Americans. These quotes point to the disjunction between legal membership status and constrained lived experiences of belonging.

Illustrating perceived limits on the substantive exercise of rights, Nada, a Green Card holder, knew that she had a legal right to travel within the U.S. and abroad. Nevertheless, she was afraid to do so:

I want to visit Canada. … But, I am afraid because I have a Green Card, just a Green Card. I know I can do it. The rules allow me to do that. But, I am scared because sometimes, for example, Trump decided the rules, I can’t come back again because I have just the Green Card. This is my fear.

Finally, Abdullah, one of two individuals who had a legal residence status but not permanent residence or citizenship at the time of interview, told me he had been “living on the edge” since the 2016 election. Before the 2017 Travel Ban, Abdullah said:

I felt I’m protected. … I have rights. This country believes in human rights and I’m staying here. Finally, something good, you know? And then, he came up with that order and I felt that my rights got stripped away from me.

These individuals’ experiences highlight the importance of disentangling formal rights—which are contingent and revocable—from the opportunities that may or may not exist to exercise them. 

Contesting Uncertainty and Exclusions

Some interviewees described activities that they had engaged in that sought to build bonds of belonging and contest exclusions. First were the daily interactions between neighbors, friends, and coworkers—American-born and members of other immigrant communities—to build interpersonal bonds, share cultural and social traditions, and engage in reciprocal learning. In some cases, these processes unfolded through community organizations that sought intentionally to create such exchange. Walid, for example, attended inter-faith meetings in the Buffalo, NY area. As he explained:

They meet monthly, invite the community. And they discuss different topics. For example, one of the people said: ‘I grew up in Lackawanna,’ which is 45 minutes from here. He said ‘all my friends are Yemenis, they are Muslims.’ The other person, he’s Jewish, they started to share their experiences. He said ‘I grew up in Amherst, I never have met a Muslim, but please go and try and do something to teach us. We don’t know how to find you.’ So, you need to raise awareness. … Try these kinds of activities. There’s a lot of education, interfaith organizations try to invite people to discuss different topics. What are their concerns, what are the most important things? 

Second, in addition to exchange, interviewees found and created individual and collective opportunities to confront the government that is carrying out exclusions. Activities included participating in and organizing know your rights workshops and public election debates in their communities. Some of the individuals I interviewed participated in activism organized in response to the Travel Ban. For example, they attended protests, provided translation services at airports, and worked with local organizations.

Ahmed said “you get accustomed, especially after all the events in the last 20 years that happened, you get a certain stereotyped image about the Middle East. So, when you see someone go and block three major airports in the nation … protesting against the ultimate power in the country. … I have never seen such support.” Similarly, Ali said of the reaction against the ban, that the first people he saw who went to protest “Were Americans and they were born here. And they work in, some of them, in government. The first response, they went.” The fact that so many native-born Americans went out to protest was significant for Ali:

I cried when I saw this scene in front of me. The Arab people now have this courage, come, like we Americans are protecting you. Just come, go out, let’s be hand in hand. I went to the airport at that time to give translation service, whatever. And, it was a huge thing for me.

Nora too described her participation in the protests. “I was there,” she said, “and was very emotional.” Several of her friends also attended and one, the leader of a local activist group, spoke to the crowd. As she explained:

People had come from all different nationalities just to say that we’re welcome and then we started running around the court square and having all these signs with us. Then, there was another parade and there was a community session from the refugee office. … So, there was plenty of stuff happening just to make people feel welcome.

The Travel Ban increased volunteer interest at the resettlement office where Nora worked. The new volunteers asked how they could “support families so they don’t feel they are alone because of the Ban” she said. Nora interpreted the protests and outreach as Americans saying “[Trump] doesn’t represent me, I welcome you in here. … We’re here for you. We support you. We’re completely with you.”

Ahmed, Ali and Nora’s interpretations of the activism organized to confront the Travel Ban demonstrate that political engagement by native-born Americans with, and on behalf of, newcomers can reinforce and potentially expand opportunities for resettled refugees to build a sense of belonging alongside their legal rights to residence and citizenship.


The experiences of those I interviewed illuminate the continued importance of searching for possibilities to ameliorate the tensions and disjunctions between formal citizenship and informal belonging and membership. The unease and fear felt by those individuals referenced above is a result of this tension and of the government’s efforts to increase it. Reciprocal and intentional interactions between newcomers and the native-born population—whether interpersonal or collective and political—may present opportunities to renegotiate the boundaries of belonging and contest attempts to limit both the formal and informal rights of resettled refugees. Finally, the quotes above about the resistance to the Travel Ban show the importance of members of the native-born population engaging in political struggles with newcomers. American-born citizens committed to advocating with and on the behalf of protecting and expanding the rights of immigrants and refugees can use our relatively more secure positions to reject and resist government efforts to exclude and to actively demonstrate to newcomers our commitment to creating a welcoming and diverse society.

Jared Keyel is a postdoctoral research associate at Virginia Tech. Jared holds a Ph.D. in Planning, Governance and Globalization from the Virginia Tech School of Public and International Affairs. His research and teaching interests include critical migration and refugee studies, democratic theory and global ethics. Combining scholarship and practice, Jared also serves as a board member and treasurer for the Blacksburg Refugee Partnership, a community resettlement initiative that has supported eight households since 2016.


Agger, Ben. 1998. Critical Social Theories: An Introduction. Boulder, Colo: Westview Press.

Alba, Richard and Nancy Foner. 2015. Strangers No More: Immigration and the Challenges of Integration in North America and Western Europe. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

Du Bois, W. E. B. 1903. The Souls of Black Folk. Chicago: A.C. McClurg & Co.

Brubaker, Rogers. 2010. “Migration, Membership, and the Modern Nation-State: Internal and External Dimensions of the Politics of Belonging.” Journal of Interdisciplinary History 41(1):61–78.

Horst, Cindy. 2006. Transnational Nomads: How Somalis Cope with Refugee Life in the Dadaab Camps of Kenya. New York and Oxford: Berghahn Books.

Zogby Analytics. 2017. American Attitudes: Immigration, Civil Rights, Surveillance, Profiling, and Hate Crimes. Arab American Institute.

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