Ask A Researcher

September 2016

Social Isolation: Experiential Narratives of African Refugee Women in the Fargo-Moorhead Community

Jonix Owino recently graduated from North Dakota State University with a Masters in Sociology after successfully completing her thesis on the Integration of African refugee women into the Fargo - Moorhead area. Her research study was published by North Dakota Humanities Council in their annual magazine and her work was recently featured in the Area Women magazine. Jonix participates in applied research and is dedicated to studying subaltern populations. Her research interests include: refugee integration, ethnic relations, ethnographic methods and International migration. In this article, she illuminates individual experiences of African refugee women in the Fargo – Moorhead community who participated in a thesis research study on the integration of African Refugee Women. Jonix hopes her research can help address the issue of social isolation and aid in fostering relationships between cultural communities.


A recently concluded North Dakota State University thesis study on “Integration of African Refugee Women into the Fargo – Moorhead Community” aimed at understanding the background experiences of African Refugee Women, how the women perceive and understand the Fargo – Moorhead community, and their integration challenges. This article is a condensed version of the full thesis research.

With the increase in civil unrest, political tensions, and fights in various parts of Africa, the number of refugees continue to increase steadily. The term “refugee” conveys numerous connotations and is largely understood and described differently by various individuals. A concise and generally accepted definition of a refugee was provided by United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) in 1967, to mean a person who is outside his or her home country, or if he or she has no home country, then outside of the country in which he or she last habitually resided and who is unable or unwilling to return to his or her country of nationality because of persecution or well-founded fear of persecution based on the person’s race, religion, nationality, membership in a particular social group, or political opinion. In exploring the background experiences of the refugees, African refugee women flee from their home countries due to civil unrest, war, forced migration, and/or fear of being persecuted. In search of a safe haven, refugees first migrate to neighboring/bordering countries within Africa, where they reside in refugee camps. Life in the camps is not easy, as one of the women explained in the narrative below. The refugees flee from their homelands with very little or no clothing or other resources. They become severely limited in their options for survival, particularly in the camps where they have little or no access to work, agricultural or grazing land, or other means of self-sufficiency. With no choice, they become totally dependent on humanitarian and international aid from organizations such as the Red Cross and the World Food Program who provide shelter in the form of tents, clothing, food and water, and some medications. Unable to go back to their home countries, many refugees remain in exile for several years, and even decades, until the UNHCR intervenes for relocation to western countries, such as the United States. Within the United States, North Dakota is one location where refugees are resettled and now call home.

Specifically looking at the Fargo-Moorhead community, this research study was based on extensive face-to-face interviews with 10 African refugee women who were ages 40 years and older living in Fargo, ND or Moorhead, MN. The women in the study were diverse in terms of country of origin (i.e., Congo, Liberia, Rwanda, Somalia, South Sudan, and Sudan), religious affiliations, cultural practices and beliefs, marital status, number of children, and length of stay in the United States.

One of the women narrated that,

“My village was attacked on the day war started in my country. My husband was killed. I had to take the kids very quickly and start running away. For many days we’re running and hiding. People were fighting and fighting and you know I had many kids so it was very difficult for escape. I thank God because I don’t know how we made it to the refugee camp in [African country]. We used to travel at night and hide in the forest during the day. The war was targeting the people from my tribe, [tribe name]. When we arrived at the refugee camp, it was very crowded. There was no clean water to drink and so many people were dying from diarrhea and many children had malaria. The environment was too small for the people. The food was being measured in small amount to make sure everybody gets little something to eat. One of my kids died in the camp. I lived in the refugee camp for eight years before coming here.”

While conducting analysis of the face-to-face interviews, social isolation emerged as a key integration challenge among the African refugee women in the Fargo-Moorhead community.

Social Isolation

During the course of the study, it became apparent that the majority of the women in the sample lived in social isolation detached from the non-refugee population. They are socially isolated in the sense that they have poor or limited contact with others (mostly non-refugee population) and perceived the inadequate contact as having adverse personal effects on them. In comparing the Fargo-Moorhead community to the communities back in Africa, the women noted the strong sense of community lacking in American society. They spoke of their countries as placing value on the community rather than on the individual. People worked together in the fields, and this enabled them to develop strong cultural and communal ties. The women considered the Fargo-Moorhead area a place where everyone lives for themselves and by themselves. African refugee women who experienced close family ties in their own culture found the lack of a strong, local community to be alienating and depressing. The women feel detached and separated from the community for the reason that their contact with members of the community is very minimal, with almost no one to talk to. The shift in coming from communities that highly value community ties to one that has greater focus on individuality is challenging.

One of the women revealed that,

“Back at home we were very close with family, neighbors and everybody....I miss that….Before fighting started in my country, we would go to the garden together and dig and plant. It was good. Here, it is different, you not [don’t] see anybody. People go to work, come back home and stay there. Sometimes I don’t know if my neighbor is in or out….. I live byself [alone] because my children are big. It is difficult to find somebody to talk to. I miss my family and relatives. I think about them all the time and hope they are doing fine. It makes me very, very sad to not have them near me.”

Another woman mentioned that,

“It is a shock, big shock…I was to think I was going to have many friends no, no, no, People here do not have time for you and don’t try to be friend to you when your English is bad. Everybody go inside their house and close the door. At home yes we suffer in the camp but I have many, many friends. We suffer to together. Here you suffer alone. Sometimes I don’t know what to do because it is difficult for person like me who like to have many friends”

It became clear in the study that low English proficiency limits establishing substantial networks and strong communal bonds, thus furthering the isolated experiences of the African refugee women. Insufficient English proficiency is a barrier to social interaction, economic integration, and full participation in the community for African refugee women. Inability to communicate comprehensively made the women feel isolated.

One woman noted,

“Sometimes when the[re] is activity in community I don’t go. Surely, what will I speak? My bad English? [laughs] It is embarrassing . . . maybe if I know good English it will be different. Getting job is difficult for me because my English accent is very bad. Sometimes I get job then when I go for interview and they hear my English, they just say “I will call you,” and they don’t call me. I cannot speak like American because I am from Africa. I am hoping I will speak good one day because I go to school now to study English.”

Some of the women, however, wondered what would be considered English fluency. It was disheartening for the women that after being in the community for a long time and perceiving themselves as being better in English, that this improvement was not noticed or even recognized, thus reinforcing isolation.

Another women said,

“I don’t know how good my English is supposed to get. When I came here I speak very, very bad English. But now I think it good. The problem is the people for employment think it is still not good. I don’t know, maybe they want to hear American accent. [laughs] I just don’t know.”

In connection to the low English proficiency challenge, limited transportation was also a problem. One woman explained that,

“I have tried to take the test for driving to get permit many times, but I fail. I spend many hours in the room, but I still fail. It is difficult if you know not English (don’t know English). I will know my English is good when I passed (pass) the test and my son teach me to drive.”

Lack of or limited transportation restricts the African refugee women movements throughout the community, thereby contributing to social isolation. In elaborating this, one woman stated that,

“You know in Africa, you can walk to go to school and job. But here, if you don’t have a car, you cannot do anything. You just stay at home. It is even hard visit your friend and just talk.”

It is evident from the above statement that the women’s desire to interact with others becomes restricted as well due to limited transportation (e.g., not having a car). Another woman also asserted,

“I take the bus to go to some place, but not everywhere. There are places the bus don’t go. So I can only go where the bus go[es]. I wish they could go in all places.”

The transportation problem is significant in deterring community involvement and participation for African refugee women thereby enhancing to social isolation.

In addition, it is important to attest that social isolation makes it hard for the women to recover from their past traumatic ordeals.

“Some of my brothers are still at the camp and I sometimes get worried about them because I don’t know what will happen to them. It gives me sleepless night and sometimes I cry. Sometimes it is also hard for me to eat when I don’t know whether my other families and friends had something to eat in the camps…I don’t have many people to talk to here because it is hard for me to get friends. Sometimes I just want somebody to talk to about this memory, but I don’t know who…I think a lot and get headache sometimes, maybe it is because I stay home a lot.”

By illuminating the individual experiences of African refugee women, the study hopes to draw attention to refugees’ diverse and unique situations. This is essential in addressing the issue of social isolation and building bridges that would foster relationships between the two communities.

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