Community is the best place for us – migration, gender & COVID-19

17th March 2021

Author: Dr Lara-Zuzan Golesorkhi (University of Portland, Portland, Oregon, USA)

‘Community is the best place for us. For all of us refugees.’ These words by a refugee woman pointedly summarise our findings from research on refugee women’s livelihoods during the COVID-19 pandemic in Portland, Oregon (US).

Between May and July 2020, we conducted interviews with fifteen refugee women and representatives of organisations working in the context of migration. We complemented these interviews with online observations of community efforts that provide resources to refugees. Through this immersive practice, we learned that centering community is key in sustaining refugee women’s livelihoods during the pandemic and beyond.

Refugee women have been impacted by the pandemic in various specific ways: from losing jobs and healthcare to becoming essential workers and assuming additional caretaker roles, to finding oneself again in unprecedented situations of limited mobility and social isolation. These impacts have been informed by restricted access to resources and services, lack of information about resources and services, and paramount fear due to ever-changing policy. In many ways, community efforts have - at the very least - complemented government COVID-19 responses.

We hold that the importance of community in COVID-19 responses as it pertains to refugee women’s livelihoods points to the urgency of gender-responsive migration discourse and politics. More often than not, gendered experiences are sidelined in these contexts. This is particularly the case with regards to refugee women. The importance of focusing on migration-gender relations during the pandemic and beyond is evidenced in our reflections from the field:

Dr. Lara-Zuzan Golesorkhi - Project Director: As a scholar of migration-gender relations and as the Founder and Executive Director of the Center for Migration, Gender, and Justice (CMGJ), conducting community-based/engaged research is critical to challenge dominant methodological and epistemological approaches in how and where knowledge is produced. This is especially relevant during this global pandemic as it has laid bare the systematic inequalities that existing structures reinforce and perpetuate. By curating knowledge with refugee women, these inequalities were exposed and recommendations for gender-responsive migration discourse and politics were developed.

Grace Fortson - Project Researcher: The importance of gender in migration discourse and politics became particularly evident to me during the interviews we conducted. The interviews showcased community efforts responding to the needs and challenges of refugee women, while at the same time highlighting the resilience of refugee women. In an interview with a Rohingya refugee woman, for instance, we learned about increased levels in employment amongst some women as they took on jobs to support their families during the pandemic. The woman explained that she now has two jobs, but had not worked previously. These dynamics would have remained absent in migration discourse and politics had it not been for the gendered lens applied in our research.

Katherine Harder - Project Researcher: To me, the importance of gendered analysis in migration discourse and politics was highlighted throughout the entire research process. In one of our interviews with a coalition manager at an immigrant rights and social justice organisation, access to health resources and services was stressed as a particularly pressing issue for refugee women. We learned that sexual and reproductive health resources and services were interrupted for some women, posing additional challenges during the pandemic. These unique gendered needs often remain unaccounted for, but are critical to the well-being of refugee women and must be considered in migration discourse and politics.

Trevor Riedmann - Project Researcher: Conducting interviews with refugee women and organisations working in the context of migration allowed me to localise my research on small-business ownership by refugee women across the world. In an interview with a legal professional in the immigration field, for example, we explored challenges faced by refugee women in regards to financial literacy. Financial literacy is critical in sustaining refugee women’s livelihoods during this pandemic as women take charge of their economic independence. In the interview, I learned that there is an expected rise in entrepreneurial ventures by refugees. This predicted development and challenges associated with it were only uncovered by applying a gendered lens in our research.

Article: Centering community in COVID-19 responses: refugee women’s livelihoods in a global pandemic
Journal: International Journal of Sociology and Social Policy
Author: Dr Lara-Zuzan Golesorkhi (University of Portland, Portland, Oregon, USA)
Co-authors: Grace Fortson, Katherine Harder and Trevor Riedmann