In brief

15th October 2004 at 01:00
Cultures of Exile and the Experience of Refugeeness. By Stephen Dobson. Peter Lang Publishers. pound;38. Order on www.peterlang.net

What comes to mind when you hear the word "refugee"? Does it conjure images of people who have been imprisoned, terrorised, persecuted or tortured, often risking great hardship and danger to find a safe haven where they can begin to rebuild their shattered lives? Or does the word throw up associations informed unconsciously or otherwise by the popular press and the negative political debate on asylum seekers?

Do the words "bogus", "opportunists", "liars", "scroungers" attach themselves, as if magnetically, to the words "refugee" and "asylum seeker"? Stephen Dobson has set himself the task of exploring the concept of "refugeeness". He starts by looking at different discourses, including race, class and the law, in an attempt to disentangle how we perceive refugees and how policies have been developed based on these constructions.

This is not an easy read, but it is worth trawling through the academic jargon to get to the political, social and emotional truths that he illuminates on what it means to be transplanted under duress - whether internally driven or by external forces - into another country: he calls the experience the "decentred self".

His book comprises both a conceptual journey and stories of refugees who have come to Norway. In a memorable passage, he talks about the Norwegian local authorities' attempts to "integrate" newly arrived Vietnamese and Iranian refugees by sending them to mountain cabins to learn how to ski.

The thought of spending a few days in these quiet, cold, remote cabins, usually without plumbing and electricity, is nirvana to the nature-mad Norwegians and sheer purgatory for the refugees. What they want is to be acclimatising to the new country through others who speak their language, in the cities where they will be living.

He also dispels the myth of the passive recipient of services by showing how refugees create communities in exile, setting up organisations to provide help and to keep their language and culture alive. Case studies Dobson documented during his time as a community worker in Norway illustrate how professionals working with refugees can, even with the best intentions, get it very wrong; and how, for refugees, the process of resettlement can be an emotional, cognitive and social obstacle course.

REVA KLEIN

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