Heba Gowayed, Refuge: How the State Shapes Human Potential (Princeton University Press, 2022).

Jadaliyya (J): What made you write this book? 

Heba Gowayed (HG): I did not set out to write Refuge. My path to this book began in the summer of 2015, when I was unceremoniously kicked out of my field site in Cairo, Egypt which was becoming exceedingly hostile to researchers. I returned to New Haven, Connecticut where my husband was living at the time, as a dissertating PhD student with no dissertation project. From our couch I watched, along with the rest of the world, as a million Syrians (who like us Egyptians had protested authoritarian rulers in 2012) made perilous journeys into Europe after their country descended into a harrowing war. I had visited Syria in 2009 and as I watched the footage on my TV screen, I wondered about the fate of people who had shown me tremendous kindness and generosity—colleagues at the conference I was attending in Aleppo, the family that drove me up Mount Qasioun in Damascus, the Hakawati who playfully wrote me into his story at Nawfara Café. I was infuriated by media coverage that flattened those pursuing refuge into a “refugee crisis,” or worse, as terrorists invading Europe. When I learned, also from news coverage, that Syrians had been resettled by the United States government in New Haven, I recognized that this was an opportunity to tell a different, human-centered story of what the pursuit of refuge looked like. A few months later I began the dissertation project that eventually culminated into this book.

J: What particular topics, issues, and literatures does the book address?

HG: Refuge is written a moment in which one in every ninety-five people globally are displaced—the most in modern history. It follows Syrians as they attempt to rebuild in the United States and Canada, countries that offered them resettlement, and in Germany, which offered asylum. Their experiences reveal that these destination countries are not saviors—they can deny newcomers’ potential by failing to recognize their abilities and invest in the tools they need to prosper.

To write Refuge, I spent three years documenting the strikingly divergent journeys of Syrian families from similar economic and social backgrounds during their crucial first years of resettlement in the United States and Canada and asylum in Germany. All three countries offer a legal solution to displacement, while simultaneously minoritizing newcomers through policies that fail to recognize their histories, aspirations, and personhood. The United States, I found, stood out for its emphasis on “self-sufficiency” that integrates refugees into American poverty, which, by design, is populated by people of color and marked by stagnation. I argue that refugee human capital is less an attribute of newcomers than a product of the same racist welfare systems that have long shaped the contours of national belonging.

This book joins a turn in the sociology of immigration, which I call a human-centric turn, away from questions of whether immigrants fit into notions of a national whole, to instead ask how immigrants experience life in destination contexts. This point of departure informed a series of choices. For instance, I do not use the word “refugee” in the book as a noun, except when referring to a legal status, because participants told me that they hated how it flattened them into victims. I instead use the transitive verb to center that it is humans seeking refuge. 

J: How does this book connect to and/or depart from your previous work?

HG: In a sense Refuge is a departure from my previous work, which focused on the experiences of low-income people in Cairo. But it is also a continuation of similar themes. Though the field site changed, the stories that I tell are of how low-income people manage state institutions designed to their exclusion, while grappling with other inequalities. In the case of low-income mothers in Cairo, the inequality of gender featured most prominently. In the case of people seeking refuge in countries in the Global North, the inequality of race and of the global border regime matters too. 

J: Who do you hope will read this book, and what sort of impact would you like it to have?

HG: I care deeply about the people in this book, who have entrusted me with their stories. As an Arab, and a person of color, one impact that is important to me is what this book represents to others like me and those in this book, who are minoritized. I took to heart Viet Thanh Nguyen’s entreaty to “write like you are the majority”—without apology, defensiveness, or over-explanation. For instance, I have purposefully left some Arabic terms untranslated as an intimacy with those readers.

I hope that Refuge in its authenticity, will also appeal to a broader audience, not only of academics, but also anyone interested in the experiences of people seeking refuge. Right now, we are in a moment where so many people are displaced—Sudanese, Eritreans, Palestinians, Afghanis, and lately Ukrainians. What does refuge look like for them?  We have an opportunity to reframe how we think about forced migration, and human beings on the move. I hope this book contributes to that reframing.

J: What other projects are you working on now?

HG: When I was doing research for Refuge, people I spoke to, particularly in Germany, told me about their harrowing journeys into Europe. They described going into debt to pay smugglers to move across borders—movement which was not only physically taxing but also subjected travelers to threats and realities of violence. This prompted my current research project which observes borders from the perspective of those on the move.

The humanitarian crisis of displacement, already devastating, is worsening due to violence and persecution rooted in colonial pasts and presents of foreign economic and military intervention, as well as the climate crisis which is projected to displace twenty million people each year. While the vast majority of the world’s displaced people remain in their own countries, or in countries nearby, millions, including those in Refuge, attempt the journey to wealthy countries, which are both the source of their injuries and coveted destinations.

Increasingly, however, wealthy countries, and particularly those that are at the frontier with the Global South, are expending exorbitant monetary and human resources on brutal tactics of border policing, weaponization, and fortification to keep displaced people out. Though the pursuit of asylum is a right sanctioned by international law, those attempting these journeys are cast as “irregular” and “undocumented” rule-breakers. Against this violence and border impermeability, those pursuing refuge are forced to make incredible sacrifices—emotionally, physically, and also financially—which differ at the intersections of inequalities of race, gender, and physical ability. Centering this tension, my new study asks what are the costs of borders?

This ethnographic project which I’m entitling the “Cost of Borders” centers frontiers between Global North and South—including the Greek Aegean Islands and along the US-Mexico border—where, as Gloria Anzaldua put it, “the third world grates against the first and bleeds.” Observing dynamics of state expenditures on borders and immigrant expenditures of resources to cross them—which differ if you are a young Black man or a middle-aged Syrian mother—I theorize borders as a transaction that is always costly and often deadly. This project contributes to our understanding of the global determinants of mobility, the nature of borders, and the nation-states defined by them.


Excerpt from the book (from the introductory chapter of Refuge, called “Finding Refuge” pp. 1-4) 

The vacuum kept shocking Amjad as he pushed it across the factory floor. He tried to explain to his supervisor what was happening, using hand gestures to relay that static buildup was raising the hair on his arms and making his janitorial work unnecessarily uncomfortable. But she couldn’t understand what he was saying. Amjad had only been in the United States for five months and only had a grasp of the most rudimentary English phrases. The translation app on his phone was not much help because, semi-literate in his native Arabic, he wasn’t sure what to type into the program. Amjad smiled and walked away from his supervisor. Despite their failure to communicate with each other, Amjad did not want his supervisor to think that he was someone who complained. He couldn’t afford to lose this job. “I felt sorry for myself,” Amjad told me.

Six years earlier, in his native Homs, Syria, Amjad was a tile contractor. He had his own workshop and owned a company van. He employed workers. On a visit to the Yale University Art Gallery, Amjad waved me over. On the wall before us was a fragment of a mosaic floor from 540 CE, a part of an exhibit of ancient art excavated from Gerasa, Jordan. “I used to make things like this,” he told me, as we admired the small square tiles, some the color of natural stone and others dyed olive green and pink that formed an abstract flower pattern. Most of Amjad’s work, he clarified, was tiling businesses, but every now and then he worked on more complicated projects. He was doing so well that in 2011, after seven years of saving, he had enough money to buy land on which he planned to build a bigger workshop and a home for his wife Rima and their two children.

As Amjad spent his life savings investing in the foundations for their new home, three thousand miles away a street vendor named Mohamed Bouazizi was slapped across the face by a police officer who confiscated his wares. He set himself on fire in protest, an act which was the catalyst for civil disobedience across Tunisia. Inspired by these protests, dissidents in Egypt and then Qatar and Bahrain took to the streets, protesting their own despotic rulers.

As Syrians too demanded isqat el nizam, the “downfall of the regime,” those with knowledge of the country’s history and politics held their collective breath. Hafez al-Assad, former president of Syria, had massacred his people in response to their calls for change decades prior. Bashar al-Assad, who took over after his father’s death, is a British-educated optometrist whose wife, Asma, was once profiled in a spread in Vogue. Early in his presidency there was hope that he would be a political and economic reformer. The world watched, however, as Bashar followed in his father’s footsteps, responding to civilian uprisings with live ammunition and plunging his country into one of the bloodiest civil wars the modern world has ever seen.

Homs, deemed the “Capital of the Revolution,” was an early and exceptionally deadly site of regime violence. Rima, Amjad, and their two toddler sons, escaped to Damascus after the fatal shootings of Amjad’s father and his eleven-year-old sister two weeks apart. They thought that their departure was temporary and that they would soon return to enjoy the home that they had just begun to build. Instead, following a car bomb explosion during a funeral procession that propelled Amjad’s infant son from his arms and claimed the lives of sixty people walking alongside him, the family knew they had to move further away. They left Syria for Jordan. There, in July 2012, uncertain if they’d ever see home again, they registered as refugees.

Their story is not unique. The United Nations reports that in 2021, there were over twenty-six million refugees registered globally, the most since World War II. Syria is the country that has contributed the most, with over six million who have fled. The vast majority remain in nearby countries of immediate refuge including Jordan, Turkey, and Lebanon—which despite having a population of six million people hosted one million Syrians. Life in these countries can be precarious—refugees lack documentation and a right to work, their children attend overcrowded schools, and millions are relegated to indefinite stays in camps where their mobility is restricted.

For those in these situations of protracted displacement, there are two legal options that promise a reprieve from a life of precarity, and a chance at a new beginning as legal residents of a new country—resettlement and asylum. Resettlement refers to a third country selecting registered refugees with humanitarian needs from United Nations rosters and offering them an opportunity to travel as recognized refugees. Asylum is when someone travels to a new country, often making difficult journeys over land or sea, and applies for legal recognition as a refugee.

After two years in Jordan, Rima and Amjad received a call from the United Nations Higher Council for Refugees—they had been selected for resettlement to the United States provided they passed the vetting requirements. They were overjoyed, and they dreamed of a future in “America” that was even brighter than their Syrian past. But as they underwent the extensive security process over the following two years—five interviews, fingerprinting, health screenings, and behind-the-scenes review by thirteen security agencies—their anxiety built. They were wracked with worry about what this move would mean for them. Amjad and Rima, who carried the traumas of war and displacement, had little to their name and knew that their language, religion, and ethnicity marked them as stigmatized minorities in the “West.” What lives would they be able to build?

This book follows the journeys of Rima and Amjad and other Syrians who sought refuge in the United States and Canada, world leaders in resettlement, and Germany, which, in response to the men, women, and children who boarded rafts across the Mediterranean, offered asylum to more than half a million Syrians. Arriving in all three countries are people who come from similar backgrounds as Amjad and Rima, members of a broadly construed middle class who had stable lives in Syria, but who lacked formal education, credentials, and proficiency in English and German. Through resettlement and asylum, they come face-to-face with national systems shaped by inequalities foreign to them that determine their access to resources as they rebuild their lives and imagine their futures. Their experiences reveal that these destination countries, while offering legal solutions to displacement, do not guarantee bright futures—they can deny newcomers’ potential by failing to recognize their abilities and invest in the tools they need to prosper.

Rima and Amjad were selected for resettlement in the United States because of their humanitarian need as displaced parents of young children. As they crossed the Atlantic, however, they transitioned in the eyes of the United States government from humanitarian cases to workers—people who were expected to quickly become self-reliant. As refugees, they were held responsible for the cost of their flight, and so they arrived USD 4,000 in debt. They received limited federal resettlement assistance—only ninety days of funding that barely covered rent and basic expenses. The only other assistance available to them was Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF), or welfare, which for a family of four provided USD 701 a month, while their rent was USD 1,000.

Rima and Amjad were ensnared, like other low-income Americans, in the United States’ threadbare social safety net. At the core of the 1980 Refugee Act is the goal of self-sufficiency or non-reliance on government assistance, which is also the goal of TANF. This is not a coincidence, as both the resettlement program and TANF are products of the limited social welfare system in the United States, a feature of the country’s neoliberal economy. This system treats poverty as an individual failure, an approach inextricably linked to the disenfranchisement of Black Americans who are disproportionately impoverished by it.

The new arrivals, facing this dearth of support, needed to earn an income now. “How?” Amjad asked the caseworker when she told him that he and Rima needed to find work immediately. He did not know anyone, and though he had been attending English classes, three months was too short a time to learn a new language. Amjad asked a question that I would hear repeated by almost everyone resettled in the United States: “Why did they bring us here if they were not going to help us?”