Research Update: “Navigating Chicagoland: Social Dynamics, Religion, & Mental Well-Being among Central Asian Muslim Immigrants”

by Natalia Zotova, PhD Candidate, Department of Anthropology, The Ohio State University

Natalia Zotova visiting a mosque at the American Islamic College

Migration the US creates a lot of opportunities, but also bring challenges. Navigating the new social and cultural environment is not easy. Migrants need to adjust and address different problems in their daily lives, which causes stress and has implications for health. What does it mean to be Muslim immigrant in the US? How does Islamic religious identity and observance shape life trajectories of new countries’ residents? What are the health implications of Muslim immigrants, and specifically of Central Asian natives?  The Global Mobility Graduate Research Grant gave me opportunity to address these questions by supporting my research in Chicago Metropolitan Area in September-November 2017.

Scholarship on religion and health indicate that stress among Muslim immigrants is intensified by experiences of discrimination, which negatively affects mental health. While studies on migration and health investigate stress, less attention is paid to the cultural context in which stress and coping occur. My research addressed the meaning and role of religion as a mediator of stress and mental well-being among Central Asian Muslim immigrants in Chicago Metropolitan Area. My work explored religious practices of Central Asian natives and culturally embedded stress responses through an ethnographic analysis of respondents’ narratives, completed with biological indicators of well-being (blood pressure, weight and height as secondary biomarkers of stress response), as well as self-administered mental health. That allowed to capture lived experiences of new immigrants to understand whether practicing Central Asian migrants have a stronger sense of mental well-being in the new social environment. During my time in Chicago, I conducted 5 informal expert interviews, 31 semi-structured interviews, as well as observations at mosques, Central Asian community gatherings and other social activities. The experts interviewed for this project included Central Asian community leaders and activists, academics at different universities of Chicago, as well as members of Muslim community centers.

Natalia Zotova with the head of Uzbek American Association of Chicago

While data analysis is in progress, some preliminary findings emerge. The influence of Islam differed between Central Asian immigrants due to the history of the region, development of Islamic communities and the secular pressures exerted by the Soviet Union and post-Soviet independence. While navigating new social environment, many informants became more religious during their stay in the US. Central Asians benefited from resources of Muslim communities, and settled in Chicago neighborhoods around other established Muslim groups. Connections with Turkish communities were of major importance. Central Asians were mainly not perceived as Muslims in their daily lives due to phenotype and lack of visual markers of religiosity (head scarf or beard). Practicing Muslims did not experience more discrimination than secular immigrants, unless they have visual markers of religious affiliation (head scarf or a beard). Major stressors producing adverse mental health outcomes were not religion-based. These stressors included migration-related factors such as insecurity, documentary status and work-related concerns. Recent immigrants (less than 3 years) had highest level of distress, which was likely to level up with the longer period of stay in the US.

A view of Chicago from Lakefront.

This study pointed at a negative association between religiosity and mental health disorders. Religion buffered stress, and moderated negative health implications among Central Asian immigrants by providing meaning and hope. At the same time, Islamic religious identity did not help Central Asian immigrants to bridge their way to mainstream American society. Visual markers of Muslim religious identity informed stress around experiences of marginalization and discrimination. Providing comfort as well as resources, Muslim identity informed segmented assimilation (Portes and Zhou, 1993) trajectories for Central Asian immigrants in Chicago Metropolitan Area. Culturally embedded and gendered stress responses, stigma around mental health disorders, as well as structural barriers to accessing health care services left mental health problems among Central Asian immigrants unaddressed. Chronic stress linked to migration and marginalization in the new country might severe immigrants’ health and lead to development of chronic diseases in the future.

Natalia Zotova gives a talk at the University of Chicago.

I was invited to share this projects’ preliminary findings and give a talk at the University of Chicago. The talk was sponsored by the Committee on Central Eurasian Studies, and brought together faculty, graduate and undergraduate students, as well as guests from Central Asian communities. Aiming to give back to Central Asian communities that I studied, I made a presentation on my experiences and findings at the Uzbek American Association of Chicago. I gratefully acknowledge support from the Global Mobility Project, which allowed me to conduct fruitful research.

Natalia Zotova’s talk poster. The background theme is a photo of a Kyrgyz scarf, which she got as a gift at a Kyrgyz-Thai wedding

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