‘I want her to experience life’: What CNY refugee women keep and what they lose in America


Jan-Juba Arway of South Sudan. (Dennis Nett | Syracuse NY)

Jan-Juba Arway’s young life was marked by periods of flight.

When she was a baby, her family fled from South Sudan to Sudan. There, Arway fled to a nunnery to avoid ending up like her peers: married and pregnant. Her family came to collect her.

When she was 14 years old, they fled again to Egypt. There, a man followed Arway home and asked her family to marry her. They said yes; she was soon pregnant.

In the U.S., she ran again, this time from her house and husband in Arizona. She packed her four children in the back of a car and drove 2,300 miles to a women’s shelter in Syracuse, far from her husband and far from those she loved: her mother and sister.

For all refugees, the culture they carry from their home countries can be both comforting and constraining. Women, especially, experience those two realities in their extremes.

When they land in the U.S., many women refugees have to figure out how their lives might be reshaped by the cultural expectations and legal protections for women in America. They face cultural or situational obstacles in access to work, education and autonomy.

There is no single code to understanding the female refugee experience, and that label doesn’t encompass the unknown number of gender non-binary and/or LGBTQ+ refugees. But researchers and refugees say the impact of gender is real, and critical to understanding the refugee experience.

For all refugees, carving out a safe and comfortable place in the U.S. is a long project. For women, finding that space within the bounds of two different cultures and in a period of upheaval can be especially complicated.

‘Culture still dominates’

At 35, Arway is confident. She has three degrees and at least as many business and community service ventures. She laughs easily and talks proudly about her four kids. She recently dropped off her oldest daughter in Texas for her first year of college.

None of this came easily.

“I can’t speak for all women,” said Arway, talking softly in the quiet lobby of the Central Library downtown.

“If they came with husbands, they have a lot more restrictions. If they come with no husbands, then there is the cultural, overall expectation of (how) a woman should behave, what a woman should be like, what’s a woman’s job.”

Refugees arrive in the U.S. in cohorts by virtue of the country’s quota system. Some join family members or friends in the U.S. Many find communities of people from their home countries once they arrive.

In fiscal year 2021, Central New York accepted 298 refugees from Afghanistan, 223 from the Democratic Republic of the Congo, 107 from Syria, 71 from Burma, 50 from Ukraine, 39 from Sudan and 31 from Iraq. Syracuse has one of the highest per capita refugee populations in the U.S.

Refugee communities in this country provide a vital well of support at a time of massive change. It is also, for some, a yoke of inflexible cultural expectations.

When Arway left Arizona, she knew she was breaking not just from her husband, but from her mom and friends as well. She was shunned by the South Sudanese community in Syracuse, too, when she officially filed for divorce. It took a long time for her mom to accept her divorce from her husband, she said.

What people don’t understand about some refugee communities, said Arway, is that “culture still dominates.”

“There are few that are rebels, like myself, who say, ‘You know what? I respect the culture, but I’ll take what I found is useful and what I agree with, and I will disagree with what I don’t like. I will remove myself from the toxic environment.”


Syracuse refugees stand on the steps of city hall with flags to commemorate World Refugee Day, June 20, 2018. (Michael Greenlar | Syracuse)

Where the U.S. stands

The U.S. lags somewhat on gender equality rankings, coming in 27th on the World Economic Forum’s 2022 Global Gender Gap Index, which measures women’s economic participation and opportunity, educational attainment, health and survival, and political empowerment.

But refugees by definition are often fleeing countries mired in violence, where women’s rights are unprotected or routinely violated.

Syracuse’s newest arrivals come from Afghanistan, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Syria, Myanmar, Ukraine and Iraq, all of which rank extremely low on the index (except Ukraine, which receives a middling-low score).

When refugee women step off the plane from these countries into the U.S., their guaranteed rights shift.

Where divorce, education, equal employment opportunities, gender-specific healthcare and the ability to seek legal redress may have been inaccessible or non-existent to women in their countries of origin, these protections do exist in the U.S. in varying measures.

That can be a jarring and uncomfortable transition, explained Angela Douglas, former executive director of Vera House in Syracuse, in a July interview. Vera House provides services to survivors of domestic violence from any background, including refugees. They recently appointed a new interim director.

Use Afghanistan as a frame of reference, said Douglas. The U.S. withdrawal and quick Taliban takeover last year led immediately to a complete dismantling of Afghan women’s and girls’ freedoms.

Those freedoms were taken away “in the blink of an eye,” said Douglas. “Those experiences in some ways operate in reverse here when (refugees, migrants or New Americans are) coming to this country.”

“It’s: we never understood it that way. Husbands never understood it that way.”

Whatever power structures were maintained in their relationships before arrival are tested by a different legal system and cultural norms.

In her work with victims of sexual assault and domestic violence, Douglas often sees the most painful results of gender inequality and power dynamics, though she cautions that assault and harassment are not at all unique to the refugee community.

“The roots of violence are self-preservation,” she said. “The tactics of that are control and the use of power.”


Afghan refugees women and a service member walk inside Liberty Village on Joint Base McGuire-Dix- Lakehurst in Trenton, N.J., Thursday, Dec. 2, 2021. (Barbara Davidson/Pool via AP)

Degrees of education

When refugees arrive in the U.S., a top objective of the resettlement agency they are assigned to is to find them a job as quickly as possible. The agency is only funded for 60 to 90 days to steer any one family, and refugees lose their small allowance once they’re on their own. They have to start paying back their plane tickets in six months.

Because of language barriers, lack of transference of professional licenses and time crunch, refugees usually find themselves in jobs outside of what they were trained in.

Higher education is not often a priority in survival mode, especially with children to provide for. But Arway was undeterrable.

Not that it was easy.

“What you see on graduation day, that’s nothing,” she said. “It was tears, sweat.”

Sometimes her mom pokes fun at her, telling her she’s “gathering degrees,” she said, laughing. But usually she’s quite serious about it.

“Without education, I would not be where I am at today,” she said. “Without education I would not be able to afford, or even to care for my children or even to care for myself,” she said.

She’s vocal about advocating education to other women in the refugee community, although some balk at her forthrightness. Still, Arway’s independence is sometimes seen as a sharp object near the threads that bind the South Sudanese community in Syracuse together.

It’s true, where community in the face of displacement is a saving grace, Arway’s words carry an uncomfortable warning.

“You forget about yourself,” she says. “You forget you as a person and having your own goals as an individual.”


Tumaini Marierose, a refugee from Congo at her home in Syracuse, N.Y. Tuesday November 22, 2022. (Scott Schild | Syracuse)

Home life

Sometimes, in between sending her children to school, caring for them at home and watching Jojo, her littlest one, Tumaini Marierose wishes she had an online school, a community class, something to move her closer to her goals.

This is like her. Employment and education have always made up a part of her identity.

Marierose was a second grade teacher in the Democratic Republic of Congo, where nation-wide only 36% of girls graduate secondary school compared to 56% of men, according to data from the World Bank. When she moved to a refugee camp in Kenya in 2009, she again taught general subjects to children.

When she and her husband arrived in the U.S., Marierose found a job at Marshall’s to quickly make a paycheck.

Within a year she worked jobs closer to her field — at a daycare and then as a teacher at Catholic Charities, an organization that resettles refugees.

But her husband is a nurse by trade, and they decided that he should enroll in nursing school in the U.S. to get his license. His school is two and a half hours away, so he returns home on the weekend. Marierose deals with the kids during the week.

Some 54 percent of refugee women worked in the 2009 to 2011 period, according to a study from Migration Policy Institute, compared to 67 percent of refugee men. Those percentages are pretty much the same for U.S. born workers. The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics doesn’t gather data for refugees specifically, but its recent employment statistics for foreign born workers (which includes other types of migrants) reflect a similar gender gap.

“I don’t like to stay as a mom in the house without working,” Marierose said. “Especially in Syracuse, people help us a lot. I should help.”

But there are six children, and only two parents. In the usual pattern in America and almost everywhere else, it fell to her to stay home.

It’s exhausting, she said. She has no time, though she desperately wants to work again. There’s so much opportunity for her here, she believes. If only she had more hours in the day. She could improve her language skills. She, too, could go to school for nursing in obstetrics.

She said she is hoping her sister will join her soon from the refugee camp in Kenya where she has been for 8 years. Marierose would have help with the children then, and time.


Congolese parishioners at All Saints Church Sunday service in Syracuse Sunday, May 29, 2022. (Scott Trimble | Syracuse)

Community and support

For women, community can be a space for freedom of identity, communication, language and support. Marierose wants her sister to join her. That’s not an uncommon ask.

Refugee women often explicitly ask for connection to their communities, even for physical space to gather, said Sandra Bargainnier, SUNY Oswego professor in the health promotion and wellness department.

Among the Congolese community in Syracuse that Bargainnier works with, “The number one thing they wanted was their own church, their own space, because the church was a communal center,” she said.

Often Bargainnier will join at church on Saturday or Sunday nights or at family gatherings or funerals.

The women do all the cooking, said Bargainnier. They address each other as “sister.” They celebrate together, dance, and talk comfortably.

These women understand each other’s language, frame of thinking and histories of displacement. They rely on each other to share humor and celebration, pass information and deal with grief.

This is especially true for women who do not have access to mental health counseling, or for whom that practice has never existed in her culture, said Najah Zaaeed, SUNY Oswego professor of health promotion and wellness and formerly the mental health specialist at InterFaith Works resettlement agency in Syracuse.

“It’s important that they find other women and then be friends,” said Zaaeed. Women provide practical as well as emotional support to each other, said Zaaeed, for example, in discussing healthcare, choosing roommates or just sharing each other’s company.

Cultural representations involve much more than the things we like to share, like food, dancing, music and language, said Zaaeed.

It includes things we don’t understand, and sometimes mark as hostile: notions of modesty, courtship practices, facial expressions, definitions of sin, ordering of time, more.

These things don’t always translate, said Bargainnier.

“We tend to put work and education ahead of everything else” in America, she said. That’s not everyone’s yardstick.

In the Central Library, Arway let a phone call from her mom go to voicemail. She’d call her back later.

It took a long time for her mom to accept her divorce from her husband, she said.

“She’s cool about it now, but before it was a problem,” said Arway.

But this is her mom. Of course Arway will continue to care for her and love her, she said, even though it’s complicated and they can disagree about something so huge. In a few weeks Arway will go to see her in Sudan, where her mom moved back when it became safe enough.

Arway was forced out of her home country because of war, then tore away from her community for her own safety and her children’s. The wounds are old and some have healed, but she has lived through several exiles.

It wasn’t easy to dig out this space for herself and for her kids in the U.S., said Arway. But they do well in school. She has a nice house in Near Northeast. Her daughter is off to college.

“I want her to experience life,” said Arway.

“I didn’t get to enjoy my teenage years.”


Jan-Juba Arway (left) waves a South Sudanese flag on the steps of Syracuse City Hall to commemorate World Refugee Day in Syracuse, June 20, 2018. (Michael Greenlar | Syracuse)


by Jules Struck

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