Walking the Line: Southern Sudanese Narratives and Responding to Trauma

Author:

Marlowe, Jay Meredith, 2010 Walking the Line: Southern Sudanese Narratives and Responding to Trauma, Flinders University, School of Social and Policy Studies

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Abstract

This study reports an ethnographic engagement with a relatively small group of Southern Sudanese men and their communities living in Adelaide, South Australia. It develops a grounded substantive theory about how Southern Sudanese men both conceptualise and respond to trauma in forced migration and Australian resettlement contexts. Using a constructivist grounded theory design allowed the study to be informed by two sets of experiences. Data were gathered from seventy in-depth interviews with twenty-four Southern Sudanese male participants, all of whom speak English and are often leaders within the Adelaide Sudanese community. The study is also informed through the researcher's broader engagement with this community in the form of attending celebrations, mourning ceremonies and special events. These interactions provide important understandings for deconstructing powerful discourses on trauma, resettlement and healing. A key argument behind the study is that through media-based representations, political commentary and a significant part of the academic literature, the dominant understanding of the Sudanese community is often generated through a trauma focused lens. The associated stories of the 'refugee experience' and isolated accounts of violence in resettlement contexts can construct the community as traumatised and their actions as the outcomes of war trauma. Whilst there is little argument that refugees often experience very difficult and traumatic events, it does not necessarily follow that they are indelibly damaged people. Critical engagement with participants' stories and the broader Sudanese community provides a justification for using a framework that not only documents the impact of trauma in people's lives but also how they respond to such experiences. The word 'trauma' is highly familiar to the study participants. It is something they identify as having helped them to gain entry into refugee camps, acquire refugee status and access services in Australia. In many respects, trauma represents a powerful currency that helps refugees lay their claims for recognition as just that - refugees. However, this recognition, while granting some benefits and resources, also limits opportunities to participate as peers in civil society due to 'othering' dynamics. The extended engagement with these Sudanese men highlights that they have many tools and knowledges with which to respond to profound difficulties and locate appropriate social, spiritual and agential pathways to healing. It is argued, however, that the exclusionary experiences of poverty, unemployment and racism can limit their ability to access such resources. The frequently used participant expression of 'walking the line' provides a metaphor for theorising how Sudanese participants negotiate a workable synthesis between their past and present in resettlement contexts where they must adapt to a new social reality. 'Walking the line' highlights the complexity of navigating between two different social worlds and the associated challenges of transnational movement and social transformation. This study concludes that practitioners, researchers and policy makers also need to 'walk the line' through rethinking familiar perspectives on refugees, resettlement and trauma. The value of trauma focused inquiry is not questioned, but its primacy must be engaged critically and reflectively. This means validating and dignifying the impact of trauma in people's lives while considering their pathways to healing and agency. Such a focus requires considering both past and present realities, and thinking about the associated role of social work from interpersonal to broader systemic levels. This study reinforces how professionals working with resettling communities need to conceptualise practice beyond dichotomous perspectives and embrace complexity at the 'pointy' end of 'the line'.

Keywords: trauma, refugee, Sudan, Sudanese, men, social work, resettlement, integration, identity
Subject: Social Work thesis, Policy and Administration thesis

Thesis type: Doctor of Philosophy
Completed: 2010
School: School of Social and Policy Studies
Supervisor: Unknown