Marcia C. Inhorn, America's Arab Refugees: Vulnerability and Health on the Margins (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2018).
Jadaliyya (J): What made you write this book?
Marcia C. Inhorn (MCI): The world is in the midst of the worst refugee crisis since World War Two. The majority of those refugees are from three Middle Eastern countries—Afghanistan, Iraq, and Syria. The United States started the wars in Afghanistan (in 2001) and in Iraq (in both 1991 and 2003). Yet, few Americans seem to tie the current refugee crisis in any way to US military interventions.
This book attempts to do just that. It shows how US wars in the Middle East have been devastating to the health and well-being of Middle Eastern populations. Furthermore, it shows how ongoing US military interventions have contributed to death, destruction, and heightened political instability. But the main goal of this book is to tie these wars to the flight of Arab refugees. It asks the fundamental question: What does America owe to Arab refugees, whose lives and homes have been shattered?
This is a question I came to ask myself while conducting a five-year anthropological study in so-called “Arab Detroit,” Michigan, the capital of Arab America. There, I spent hundreds of hours in a reproductive health clinic that served an impoverished community of Arab immigrants and refugees. Through my study, I came to know nearly one hundred men and women, including many Iraqi refugees, who were struggling with reproductive health problems amidst profound economic uncertainties. This book tells their stories—both their sorrows and their aspirations. Although these Arab refugees struggled to build new lives and new families in America, the US government, I argue, had largely “forgotten” this refugee population, providing inadequate support while resettling refugees in cities such as Detroit, where poverty affects the lives of most urban residents. Ultimately, this book attempts to make clear how America has fundamentally reneged on its moral commitment to Arab refugees. This is especially salient under the new presidential regime of Donald Trump, whose rhetoric and policies are marked by profound anti-Muslim, anti-immigrant sentiment.
J: What particular topics, issues, and literatures does the book address?
MCI: Through ethnographic chapters filled with both poignant stories and “hard” data, this book attempts to link together four major topics: the human costs of Middle Eastern wars, misdirected Arab refugee resettlement, health disparities amidst concentrated poverty, and what I call “reproductive exile,” or the experience of being forced out of America’s costly reproductive healthcare system, while also being unable to return to home countries for care. Amidst these sobering realities, a single thread of hope also winds through the pages of this book—hope for a happy ending, away from the violence of war, in a peaceful place, where refugees are accepted and supported, able to create new lives and new families. As I argue, such hopes have inspired millions of Arab refugees to flee from places of danger, and it is what sustains them as they search for better lives in safe havens such as Arab Detroit. As anthropologist Henrietta Moore has incisively argued, hopes and aspirations are an “animating life force”—reorienting human beings toward what might still be possible and demonstrating that human beings have a capacity for resilience after atrocity.
On a theoretical level, this book draws its own inspiration from intersectionality theory, a framework defined by black feminist scholars. Intersectionality theory elucidates the relationships among multiple forms of oppression based on gender, race, and class but also sexual orientation, age, ability, religion, and national origin. Rather than acting independently, systematic forms of oppression are interrelated and multiplicative in their effects, leading in many cases to poor health outcomes and premature mortality. Intersectionality theory has been applied primarily to the lives of black and Latinx communities in the United States. However, this framework has great utility in understanding intersecting oppressions facing other minority populations. In the case of Arab Muslim refugees, intersecting oppressions include, but are not limited to, discrimination based on ethnicity, religion, social class, race, gender, and appearance (for example, veiling). This book thus applies intersectionality theory to the study of Arab Muslims’ lives in America, showing the utility of this theoretical approach in interrogating axes of oppression beyond the theoretical triumvirate of gender, race, and class.
J: How does this book connect to and/or depart from your previous work?
MCI: I have written five books on the lives of people living within the Middle East. This is my first book to focus on the lives of those who have fled from the region. Because these Arab refugees have ended up in America, I feel significant moral outrage that my home country has not welcomed them with open arms. This is my most critical and political book.
J: Who do you hope will read this book, and what sort of impact would you like it to have?
MCI: This is not just an “academic” book, intended for students and scholars. My goal is to reach the American reading public, and for the book to also be easily accessible to audiences in Europe, the Middle East, and beyond. I hope to convince readers that wars are devastating to human health, and that we must agitate for peace in the Middle East. The main message of this book, however, is that the lives of Arab refugees matter, and that America must care.
J: What other projects are you working on now?
MCI: I continue my commitment to both Arab refugee and Arab masculinities scholarship. In 2017, my colleagues and I convened a conference at the University of Oxford on “Arab Masculinities: Anthropological Reconceptions." A special issue of Men and Masculinities has already been published, and an edited volume on this topic is currently under consideration.
At the upcoming American Anthropological Association annual meeting in November 2018, my colleagues and I have organized a panel on “(Un)Settling Middle Eastern Refugees: Regimes of Inclusion and Exclusion in the Middle East, Europe, and the United States,” which is being sponsored by the AAA’s Middle East Section. In 2019, I will be organizing a small conference on Middle Eastern refugees through Yale’s Council on Middle East Studies. In 2020, I hope to organize another small conference at Yale on Middle Eastern Masculinities. Ultimately, my goal is to humanize the overwhelmingly negative, vilifying discourses about Middle Eastern (Muslim) men and Middle Eastern refugee populations.
J: Are there any other books on Arab refugees that you recommend?
MCI: With the exception of one study of Iraqi interpreters who have been resettled in the United States, this is the first book in my discipline of anthropology to focus on the Arab refugee crisis. It is also unique in its focus on war and health, including how the toxic legacies of war in the Middle East have been very deleterious to human health and social reproduction.
Excerpt from the Book:
Introduction: When Arabs Fled
A Legacy of Conflict
The story of Fatima and Sadiq, introduced in the Prologue, began back in 1991, when the United States invaded Iraq in the First Gulf War. In the quarter-century since then, the Middle East has seen unprecedented levels of violence, not only in Iraq but across the region as a whole. Of the fifty violent conflicts occurring around the world in the years 2014 and 2015, three of the most deadly—with annual casualties exceeding 10,000—were in the Middle Eastern countries of Afghanistan, Iraq, and Syria. Saudi Arabia was also at war with Yemen. The Libyan civil war was destabilizing North Africa. More than sixty years of protracted conflict between Israel and Palestine had led in 2014 to a devastating summer war in Gaza. And, by that point, the rise of the so-called Islamic State (also known as ISIS, ISIL, Daesh) in Iraq and Syria was threatening the region—and the world—as a whole.
These incidents of political violence in the Middle East were varied and ghastly in their effects. On-the-ground combat and aerial bombing campaigns involved the use of chemical weapons, barrel bombs, cluster bombs, suicide bombs, improvised explosive devices (IEDs), and drone strikes. Millions of civilians were killed, injured, maimed, and displaced. Thousands of others were imprisoned, tortured, beheaded, raped, and sold as sex slaves. Middle Eastern civilians caught in war zones were facing food insecurity, particularly in Syria, where government-imposed food blockades were causing massive starvation in some villages. Those who were able to escape the region flocked to Europe, leading to the worst humanitarian crisis on the continent since World War II.
This book traces these wars in the Middle East to the Arab refugee crisis in the West—a crisis that began well before the world took notice in 2015. Fatima and Sadiq were among the first wave of Arab refugees to leave the Middle East in the wake of the First Gulf War. The Second Gulf War—also known as Operation Iraqi Freedom—led to a second wave of Iraqis fleeing their country between 2003 and 2011. Since then, the chaos caused by ISIS, which formed in 2013 and which declared itself a “caliphate,” or “Islamic State” by June 2014, has fueled the flight of even more Arab refugees—a flight that began in earnest in 2011 with the outbreak of the Syrian civil war. By 2015 , more than 4.8 million Syrians had fled their country, primarily to the neighboring Middle Eastern states of Turkey, Lebanon, and Jordan. But not until the summer of 2015—when nightly newscasts began showing the faces of haggard and hapless Syrian refugees, flooding into Europe on foot or in overpacked rubber dinghies—did Western countries begin to respond. German Chancellor Angela Merkel called on her fellow citizens and European allies to “welcome” hundreds of thousands of fleeing Syrian refugees. American President Barack Obama, too, promised to allow 10,000 Syrian refugees into the United States in fiscal year 2016.
However, in the wake of these humanitarian pronouncements, ISIS-inspired terrorist attacks—in Paris, San Bernadino, Brussels, Orlando, Nice, Berlin, and many non-Western countries as well—prompted a new wave of Islamophobia. In his campaign for president, Donald Trump called for a ban on Muslims entering the country, even though no Muslim refugee had ever committed a terrorist attack on US soil. In the midst of growing anti-Muslim, anti-refugee public sentiment, more than thirty US governors took measures to prevent Syrian refugees from entering their home states. One of those was Republican Governor Rick Snyder of Michigan—the state with the largest number of first- and second-generation Arab refugees, including Fatima, Sadiq, and their families.
Given US responsibility for at least some of the violence that has unfolded in the Middle East at the turn of this century, a number of important questions need to be asked. First, does the United States have a moral obligation to offer asylum to fleeing Arab refugees? Second, what are the responsibilities of states such as Michigan to provide refugee resettlement services? Third, has the United States done a good job of resettling Arab refugees who have already arrived, providing them with adequate employment, education, housing, and access to safe and affordable health care?
These are the questions to be taken up in this book, a book that explores why Arabs have fled from war zones, where they have resettled in the United States, and how poverty and discrimination continue to affect their lives as naturalized, although marginalized, American citizens. The fate of Arab refugees in the United States has been Janus faced: on the one hand, most Arab refugees such as Fatima and Sadiq feel grateful to the United States for taking them in and allowing them to aspire for a better life in America, whereas on the other hand, many Arab refugees who began arriving in the United States after the First Gulf War still live lives of utter poverty and hardship. For example, Sadiq worked two jobs before being laid off from his employment in the Michigan auto industry. Fatima almost graduated from a local college before her tuition money ran out. Yet, together, Fatima and Sadiq accrued just enough money to marry, buy a small house, and undertake an expensive IVF cycle. Despite mounting debts and a medical emergency, Fatima and Sadiq achieved their American dream of conceiving a miracle baby together.
To write a book about refugees like Fatima and Sadiq, it is important to begin back in their home countries. Most of the people whose stories are traced in this book fled to Michigan from two Middle Eastern war zones, primarily in Iraq and Lebanon but also from Palestine. Many of the Yemenis in this book, who came to Michigan as poor economic migrants, are no longer able to return home because of a devastating war unleashed in their country by Saudi Arabia and its Gulf allies. In this book, then, we will see how war in the Middle East has destroyed lives, damaged infrastructures, inflamed sectarian tensions, and engendered heinous acts of brutality. War in the Middle East is a tragedy in two parts, with 2011 serving as a critical dividing line. Before 2011, fifteen of the twenty-two nations of the Middle East and North Africa—encompassing 85 percent of the region’s total population—had already suffered from protracted conflicts. Then, in 2011, the so-called Arab Spring happened, bringing with it high hopes for democratic transition, peace, and prosperity in the region. Soon, however, those hopes turned into nightmares in several Middle Eastern countries.Three bloody wars emerged in Libya, Syria, and Yemen. The birth of ISIS in Iraq and Syria wreaked havoc on the region as a whole. The US war in Iraq officially ended in 2011, but the violence did not, leading to an ongoing Iraqi refugee crisis. And in Syria, the worst refugee crisis in a single generation transpired in the midst of a brutal civil war, which turned into a regional cataclysm and international humanitarian crisis.
In the next section, I provide a brief history of these pre- and post-2011 Middle Eastern wars. Such a recounting casts a grim light on the causes and consequences of political violence in the Middle East. Unfortunately, in the pre-2011 period, the United States bears considerable responsibility for both war and displacement. This is especially true of the 2003 US invasion of Iraq, which set in motion much of the violence that has followed.