Constructing “Worthiness” and Resistance to Resettlement of Syrian Refugees

By Stephanie J. Nawyn

Anti-Islamic rhetoric in the U.S. has been a continuing and growing problem since September 11, 2001. The marked rise in anti-Islamic rhetoric that followed the ISIS/Daesh attacks in Paris in November 2015 coincided with an increase in the resettlement of refugees fleeing the war in Syria. Following the violence in Paris, resistance developed in resettlement countries to receiving Syrian refugees. In the U.S. that resistance ranged from concerned questioning of the security checks used to screen refugees all the way to hateful, vitriolic claims that most of the refugees were terrorists, with demands to bar any Muslim refugee from entering the U.S.

Those of us familiar with the refugee resettlement system in the U.S., especially people with an interest in using resettlement as a source of protection for Syrian refugees, are now grappling with the best ways to respond to anti-Syrian refugee discourse. This is a common debate among social movements; what frame will best relay our message to a given audience, so that our movement can achieve its goals? Among immigrant advocate movements, this debate has been a struggle because the frames that work for citizens do not always translate well to the immigrant. As Irene Bloemraad noted in her essay on this same blog, Americans are not as favorable to a rights framework for immigrants as they are to the rights of the native-born. So arguing that Syrian refugees have a right to be resettled in the U.S. is not likely to gain much traction with the American public (and technically it is a false claim, as refugees have a right to protection but not necessarily protection in the form of resettlement).

Given the emphasis in the U.S. on being economically self-sufficient and independent from government assistance, a common frame used for refugees has been the productivity that refugees potentially bring to the U.S. Well-regarded individuals who came to the U.S. as refugees or as exiles (such as Madeline Albright and Albert Einstein, and more recently Steve Jobs, whose biological father was a Syrian immigrant who fled violence in Lebanon) are cited as a reason for welcoming present-day refugees.

However, this framing has drawbacks, as it makes human rights and international treaty obligations dependent on whether or not a refugee might contribute economically or socially to the resettlement society. The granting of rights based upon one’s value in the labor market is called “market citizenship” (Brodie 1997), and it is a common method that resettlement NGOs use to argue in favor of providing social welfare support to refugees (Nawyn 2011). Market citizenship arguments can be useful when resistance to resettlement is based on the cost to tax payers, which is a consistent discourse in the anti-refugee rhetoric. However, such discourse has been usurped by the blatant anti-Islamic flavor of current resistance to Syrian refugee resettlement. Therefore I doubt that challenging the “resettlement costs too much money” argument will provide a strong counter to current nativist sentiments.

The image of the destitute refugee is another commonly used method to drum up sympathy for refugees. It is a familiar enough trope, used in advertisements for charitable organizations seeking funding to assist refugees. It is also common as an internal justification for NGO activities, framing their work in moral terms, and for faith-based NGOS, a religious calling to help those in need (Clevenger, Derr, Cadge, and Curran 2014; Nawyn 2007). But it is not particularly useful for addressing resistance to receiving refugees into our country. First, the destitute refugee trope necessitates that the refugee is a person who is needy, thus stoking concerns that resettlement will be costly and lead to an increase in government dependency. Second, it treats refugees as if they are timeless, unchanging entities, forever trapped in the conditions that caused they to seek refuge in the first place (Kisiara 2015).

It is true that refugees often (although not always) arrive in the resettlement country with few material resources. But over time their situations almost always improve, and some do indeed go on to be quite successful. To frame refugees as destitute and thus worthy of compassion threatens to frame them as always and forever pitiable; this is one reason why many people who enter the U.S. with refugee visas eschew the label of “refugee” (Kumsa 2006; Ludwig 2013).

The anti-refugee discourse we see now is difficult to counter in part because it is multi-faceted and dispersed among constituencies with disparate motivations. Some resistance is relatively soft, and can be countered effectively with information, while other resistance is more intractable.

Shortly following the Paris attacks, many state governors made statements that they would bar resettling any Syrian refugees in their states. The first of these governors was Rick Snyder, the Republican governor of Michigan. Snyder’s statement was actually milder than the governors that followed him; he stated that he desired a “pause” in resettlement and assurances from the federal government that the screening process currently in place was secure.

Snyder’s statement, which he clarified later in even gentler tones in a statement published in Time Magazine on November 17, was hardly vitriolic, but it provided momentum for the gubernatorial resistance that followed and it ignored the fact that the refugee resettlement system had already been audited following 9/11. After those terrorist attacks, which like Paris involved no refugees, refugee resettlement to the U.S. was halted completely and the entire screening process revamped. The current system involves security checks using data from the Department of State, the FBI, the Department of Homeland Security, and the Bureau of Counterterrorism. It involves collecting biometric data, and DNA data to verify family relations (which, when required, are done at the refugee’s expense).

The entire process takes on average 18-24 months, and is already more rigorous than what was called for in the SAFE Act, a bill that passed the House of Representatives last fall (and which I critiqued elsewhere). If Governor Snyder had been aware of what is involved in the screening process, he may not have felt the need to call for reassurance at all.

But not all resistance to Syrian refugees is soft; much of it is based on emotion rather than logic, grounded in deep-seated insecurities and hostility, and thus facts do not sway those holding such positions. To those people refugees are viewed as “Others”, inherently untrustworthy because they are not “Us”. Ironically, telling the stories of refugees’ suffering can exacerbate Othering, as it is hard for most people to imagine having to experience similar circumstances in their own lives. To have bombs dropped on your home, to be threatened by gunpoint, to enter another country with nothing but the clothes on your back; it is beyond the imagination of most of us to see ourselves in such circumstances. Thus, such stories can make refugees seem even more exotic, even more unlike the rest of us, that it is impossible to see them as one of us, as belonging to us. They should seek protection in Muslim countries; why should we take them in?

To counter this othering, some advocates have taken to telling refugee stories in different ways, using approaches that make the lives of refugees seem less catastrophic and more normal. Groups like Exodus World Service work with Christian congregations to develop sustained relationships between newly arrived refugees and U.S.-born volunteers. These relationships provide support to the refugee, but also are intended to increase the volunteer’s understanding of refugees as real people, not charity cases. Brandon Stanton, the creator of the blog “Humans of New York,” using a combination of photography and storytelling has raised awareness of his followers to the conditions of Syrian refugees waiting to be resettled, raising $750,000 to assist newly resettled Syrian families and gathering one million signatures on a petition supporting the appeal of a Syrian family who were denied resettlement to the U.S.

These techniques share the quality of depicting refugees as whole people, complex and multifaceted, with everyday concerns and joys that make them more relatable than horror stories or statistics ever could. They have not been rigorous empirical testing of how useful these strategies are in affecting attitude change towards refugees and thus possible tools in pro-refugee mobilization, but given the pitfalls of other strategies, they are methods worth examining further.


Brodie, Janine. 1997. “Meso‐discourses, state forms and the gendering of liberal‐democratic citizenship.” Citizenship Studies 1(2): 223-242.

Clevenger, C., Derr, A. S., Cadge, W., & Curran, S. 2014. How Do Social Service Providers View Recent Immigrants? Perspectives from Portland, Maine, and Olympia, Washington. Journal of Immigrant & Refugee Studies, 12(1), 67-86.

Kisiara, O. 2015. Marginalized at the center: How public narratives of suffering perpetuate perceptions of refugees’ helplessness and dependency. Migration Letters, 12(2), 162-171.

Kumsa, M. K. 2006. ‘No! I’m not a refugee!’ The poetics of be-longing among young Oromos in Toronto. Journal of Refugee Studies, 19(2), 230-255.

Ludwig, B. 2013. “Wiping the refugee dust from my feet”: Advantages and burdens of refugee status and the refugee label. International Migration.

Nawyn, Stephanie J. 2011. “I have so many successful stories”: Framing social citizenship for refugees. Citizenship Studies, 15(6-7), 679-693.

Nawyn, Stephanie J. 2007. “Welcoming the stranger: Constructing an interfaith ethic of refuge.” In P. Hondagneu-Sotelo (ed.) Religion and Social Justice for Immigrants. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press.


Filed under Essay Dialogues, Immigrants and Refugees

2 responses to “Constructing “Worthiness” and Resistance to Resettlement of Syrian Refugees

  1. Pingback: Reblog: Constructing “Worthiness” and Resistance to Resettlement of Syrian Refugees | A Place to Call Home

  2. Reblogged this on A Place to Call Home and commented:
    I was asked last November to write an essay on immigrants and social movements for the blog “Mobilizing Ideas“, which is run by the Center for the Study of Social Movements at Notre Dame University. It is a great center, and among their faculty affiliates includes Rory McVeigh, who edits (along with Omar Lizardo and Sarah Mustillo) the American Sociological Review, my discipline’s flagship journal.

    I haven’t had much time to write anything else for this blog, but I’m happy to reblog what I wrote for Mobilizing Ideas.


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