3 Stages of Refugee Identity

There are three major stages of identity that a refugee experiences: destruction, confinement, and resettlement. Every refugee one might meet in North America is navigating through the last of these three stages. Destruction

This stage marks the beginning of an individual’s journey and identity as a refugee. In this stage, life as he or she has known it is turned upside down. Civil war breaks out and some people find themselves on the wrong side of the conflict, or persecution for one’s religion, race, or political opinion crosses a line into violence. The individual is forced to flee the village or city of his birth and eventually crosses a state border into another country. There appears to be little hope of ever returning home again.


In a UN sponsored refugee camp, individuals and their families can stop running from their aggressors, but now there are new challenges to face. Food in the camps is scarce. Many will starve if they do not leave to find work and a means to provide for their children. If the camp is on a state border, rebels from the other side can still harass their victims. The UN usually only provides peace keepers and workers during the day.

The waiting process in the camps is long. Each individual and family is processed by the UN workers in order to determine who will be resettled in Europe, North America, or Australia. For 99% of refugees, their dream of a better life in the West will never come true. 1% will hear their names called and will go through background checks, medical exams, and mountains of paperwork before getting on an airplane for the very first time to travel to their new home. The 99% left behind will return to their own country when it is safe, or they will die waiting in the refugee camp.


After two or three days of traveling a new refugee will arrive in a new city exhausted, excited, a bit hesitant, and usually unable to speak the new language of communication. A resettlement case worker will meet him at the airport to escort him to his new home, usually a small apartment in a low-income urban setting. For a short period of time, the government will assist the refugee financially while he learns language and adjusts to culture, but soon he will be on his own once again and it will be his responsibility to find a job and provide for himself and his family. Though resettlement agencies offer as much help as they can, they are overwhelmed with work and often severely understaffed.

The refugees one might meet in the US may have been here for 18 months or 18 years. They may have a consistent, though humble job, or they may have started their own business. They may speak fluent English with a slight accent, or they may still know very little. Regardless of the external differences between individual refugees, they are all still navigating this third stage. They are learning where they fit into the fabric of American society and culture. Though they may have been here many years and may even have become US citizens, their experiences shape who they are and they will never forget them.