Overcoming barriers, building lives

Blair Sackett and Annette Lareau, We Thought It Would Be Heaven: Refugees in an unequal America, University of California Press / A Naomi Schneider Book, Oakland CA, 2023, pp 289.

Reviewed by Mike Makin-Waite

This is a beautifully written and clear book about the sometimes-ugly issues and often confusing situations which many refugees experience as they arrive in the United States and seek to make their lives there.

It is also an inspiring book, vividly relaying the views and feelings of members of families from the Democratic Republic of the Congo during their initial years in the US, showing how some ‘street level bureaucrats’ (workers with government agencies), police officers, teachers, clergy, volunteers and ordinary members of the public help and assist the refugees: the authors highlight many instances of small steps and relatively modest actions which have made important and positive differences to peoples’ lives.

Throughout We Thought It Would Be Heaven, Blair Sackett and Annette Lareau interleave thoughtful critique of public policy, and (in helpful appendices) provide evidence of their methodology, discuss ‘the scholarly debates’ on the issues covered, and detail theories and concepts which will be helpful to other ‘activists, workers, and policymakers’ who want to ‘help refugee families thrive’, whether in the US or elsewhere.

The stories of remarkable people like Honoria Kimenyerwa, and of Malu Malu and Mariamu Mahamba, show how refugees’ hopes and prospects for ‘incorporation’ into American society can be blocked and stalled: those of Joseph and Georgette Ngoma and of Alain and Vana Msafiri show the possibility of ‘successful, albeit precarious, upward mobility journeys’, in spite of the socially structured and racial barriers which they faced, together with others. All of these case studies are about ‘persistence and survival’, as people navigate multiple bureaucracies and develop skills in overcoming barriers and arguing their case to increasing effect.

Sackett and Lareau identity and categorise the institutional obstacles that refugees need to overcome: ‘hurdles’, such as requirements for long-lost paperwork; ‘knots’, for example when one small error such as a name being misspelled on a form halts someone’s path to receiving crucial social services and ‘food stamps’, with knock-on effects which take time to unravel and are dizzyingly complex to resolve; and negative ‘reverberations’, where small problems ‘metastasise’ (such as a misunderstanding about whether a modest bill has been paid turning into a negative ‘credit score’ which blocks someone from taking on a mortgage years later). The authors note how such problems are compounded when, sometimes, unfortunately, petty and discriminatory actions by some people working in frontline services ‘can capriciously … thwart clients’.

Thankfully, there are also multiple examples of ‘what helps’: hard and creative work by resettlement agency workers; the efforts of ‘cultural brokers’ who help refugees navigate frustrating complexities, including by ‘speaking bureaucracy’ on their behalf, showing how to pay a bill or open a bank account, explaining cultural dynamics and helping with children’s homework. Such people are often volunteers, perhaps neighbours or church members: there are also the ‘institutional insiders’ who are in paid roles but who, rather than adding to the obstacles which refugees face, go over and beyond their official duties, taking time to clarify how a process works, problem-solving, and providing practical assistance which is not about offering ‘special favours’ but is about enabling people to access services and necessary resources to which they are properly entitled. Such ‘help’ includes sorting out ‘mishaps’ with Supplemental Security Income payments; accompanying refugees as they deal with uncoordinated public agencies whose culture is defined by ‘byzantine processes and a blizzard of paperwork’; and advocacy work on issues in multiple areas including health, housing, work, and education.

The authors conclude by pointing out positive directions for policy makers. In spite of the many frustrations faced by the refugee families they have come to know through their research, and the undeniable fact that the US is a ‘land of inequality’, deeply scarred by systemic racism and poverty, Sackett and Lareau affirm that the US is also a ‘land of freedom and opportunity’. As they state, for the country to ‘honour our core values and make good on our nation’s humanitarian promises’, there’s a need to ‘reconsider [] how we can better offer pathways to opportunities for refugees, as well as other immigrants’. Summarising the bureaucratic nightmares which people like Honoria, Mariamu, Joseph, and Georgette have faced, they argue that ‘a better approach is to streamline policies and to make it easier for those who need support to access it’.

Review published November 2023.