The Society for Social Work and Research

2013 Annual Conference

January 16-20, 2013 I Sheraton San Diego Hotel and Marina I San Diego, CA

Participatory Action Research: Refugee Girls and Citizenship Narratives

Saturday, January 19, 2013: 3:00 PM
Executive Center 2A (Sheraton San Diego Hotel & Marina)
* noted as presenting author
Laura Boutwell, PhD, Assistant Professor, Bridgewater State University, Bridgewater, MA
Background and Purpose:

Within the field of social work, refugee youth are typically cast as war-affected victimswith significant resettlement needs. Social work research and practice related to refugee youth often focuses on particular aspects of the resettlement process: educational challenges, psychological trauma, acculturation interventions (Pupavac 2002). This needs-based approach disadvantages refugee youth by creating the perception of victimization or dependency and obscuring strength and resiliency (Watters 2008).  These approaches reflect broader racialized discourses about who belongs in the nation-state and particular constructions of refugees as the essentialized “other” (Daenzer 2008).  Utilizing feminist and poststructuralist theory, this study investigated how refugee girls’ varied experiences of acculturation and resettlement shape their understanding and experience of belonging, refugee status, and citizenship.  The study focused on the largely undertheorized population of predominantly Muslim refugee girls living in the Southern United States. 


The Imani Nailah Project (“Faith in One Who Succeeds”) was a participatory action research collective of fifteen refugee girls from Liberia, Sudan, Somalia, and Burundi. Two data sets were employed: in-depth interviews and a youth-led focus group. The research collective collaborated on a series of interview questions related to the identity markers of gender, race, faith, age, and nationality. The semi-structured, in-depth interviews lasted between 90-120 minutes and were completed after two years of engagement with study participants. Drawing from the data collected in the interviews, the focus group discussed themes of belonging, refugee status, and citizenship. Study data was analyzed by NVivo9 (QSR International Pty Ltd, 2010) and through life space analysis, which zooms-in on micro-contexts of local spaces, individual lives, and relational moments and pans-out to broader structural components and power relations (Hoskins and Mathieson 2004).


Analysis of the interviews and focus group shed light on the ways in which study participants demonstrate nuanced, multifaceted understandings of belonging, refugeeness, and citizenship. Central findings include a diminished sense of belonging, a rejection/renaming of refugee status, and an expansion of conventional definitions of citizenship. While some participants highlighted legal privileges and increased access, most contextualized citizenship within broader insider/outsider narratives of belonging. Most participants distanced themselves from what they considered a reconfiguring US-mandated citizenship, instead constructing their own citizenship narratives, including fluid citizenship, global citizenship, half-citizenship, dual-citizenship, and country-of-origin citizenship.  

Conclusions and Implications:

Citizenship is often deployed as a mechanism to distinguish between “us” and “them,” a primary way to extend or revoke belonging within the nation-state (Croucher 2004). The study advances current theorizations regarding acculturation and the salience of citizenship in the lives of refugees. The methodological framework can inform strengths-based, culturally competent social work practice with refugees, with a focus on insights and expertise of refugee youth. Study findings can help shape interventions that allow social workers to support and equip refugee youth as they explore the complexities and contradictions of their lives in the United States. The results indicate that social work practice can support refugee youth by focusing on youth agency; cultural expertise; and counter-narratives of belonging, citizenship, and the immigrant story.