More Than Babel: Opening the Door to Iraqi Women’s Narratives on Migration, Assimilation and Hopes for the Future

by Gretchen Klingler and Dr. Jeffrey Cohen
Summer Research Update


Gretchen Klingler at mosque during her research

My summer research has been very fruitful. Attending the Expeditions “Off the Beaten Track” ethnographic field school, Gozo, Malta, in June 2017, I was able to further refine my research skills. The field school taught me several lessons about being an ethnographic researcher that were critical in my summer research project. The Global Mobility Undergraduate Research Grant provided me with my first experience as a researcher, and practicing ethnographic methods at a field school was fantastic preparation.

To date, I have conducted several interviews with a diverse group of Iraqi women. These women arrived in the United States between 1988 and 2013, and range in age between 30 and 62. My sample includes women who are married and divorced as well as with and without children. The women I interviewed speak excellent English. These women learned English in Iraq rather than the US; they studied in universities, watched movies and television, and listened to music in order to expand their vocabulary and become comfortable with the language. Each woman has completed or is working to complete a higher education program.

In my project, I wanted to learn if Iraqi women faced new challenges as Islamophobia increases in the US.  Preliminary findings show that programs and educational opportunities provided by local communities and friendly neighbors are essential to the process of adaptation for Iraqi women. The opportunity to learn American culture and customs among friendly, helpful, American born (native born) community members, and peers who are also learning (including immigrants from other countries) gives Iraqi women opportunities to feel comfortable.  My findings suggest that Islamophobia may not be a challenge when native born North Americans have the opportunity to meet and become friends with Iraqi immigrants.  While none of my current informants wear the head scarf (hijab), I anticipate that future participants will. They may also struggle with English, and lack degrees in formal, higher education.

Women’s experiences vary drastically when they discuss their migration. One woman walked several days in the desert to arrive at a location where her life was no longer under direct threat.  Another gathered her things and drove to Jordan, while a third flew to Jordan. Nevertheless, most women had transit time for 6-12 months between the time they left Iraq to the time they came to the United States. There are some exceptions: one woman waited 5 years in Iraq before she was able to leave due to life events that caused changes in her legal status and affected her paperwork. Another woman had a very different experience: she packed her belongings and fled Iraq in a week’s time. In 3 out of 4 cases my informants were threatened with death and chose to leave to preserve their life.

My informants are looking forward to stability in their lives and for their families and children. They all hope that their children will find jobs and promotions, educational opportunities live healthy lives in the future. When I asked my informants to comment on their futures, the current political climate was not an immediate factor.  However, the continuous edits to the Trump administration’s “travel ban” remain a cause of serious concern, particularly for women who planned to return to Iraq to see family.  Although the Supreme Court ruling in late June exempted Iraq from the list of countries in which individuals without ties to the United States are barred from entry, the looming threat of once having been included in this list remains an ever present reminder of their “otherness” even as legal residents and citizens.  One woman, who is an American citizen, is concerned for her upcoming trip to Iraq – her first in over 10 years. She is concerned about her return and she is taking precautions to remain safe in Iraq. Another woman would like to visit her family in Iraq but feels she cannot risk it. She is not an American citizen, and she worries about the uncertainty surrounding the administration and the possibility that she may be denied reentry, separating her from her son who would remain in the US.

Becoming an American citizen or being an American citizen is critical for these women. Their interest is not necessarily due to patriotism – although every woman celebrates her appreciation and gratefulness to the United States – but its foundation stems from the fear that she may not be able to return to the United States if she is not a citizen. Aspirations of citizenship for those who are not currently U.S. citizens has taken on new meaning as the ideas of security and stability shift.

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