The geography of belonging: Resettling in America

“And even after we ‘arrived’ our identities would forever become a product of three places — where we came from, where we came to, and what we went through in-between.”

Nikita Nelin

The prospect of losing the power and sacredness of self-definition is the reality of most who have left behind one existence and moved towards a new, uncertain future. By definition, when someone flees their homeland they become stateless, a refugee. Today, much of society’s current, collective, political view of who does and does not merit basic human rights is not based upon simply being human but rather where they came from and where they “belong.” This state of “not belonging” becomes the psychological burden and lived reality of the displaced as they watch the world narrowly define their individuality and discriminately decide their future.

Since 2000, over 15,000 refugees have been resettled to Syracuse, New York. Over half are women and girls and all, by definition, have fled extreme poverty, environmental disasters, political turmoil or conflict and have since begun life anew, many arriving without a penny or a word of English. They are mothers, sisters, entrepreneurs and small business owners. They are primary breadwinners, educators and community leaders.

“The Geography of Belonging” aims to share the complexity and expanse of experiences that women who are resettled to the United States encounter as they navigate honoring their cultural heritage and adapting to American norms and expectations as they work to recreate home and build a new life for themselves and their families.

Nya is the youngest of six children in her family. She, her five siblings and parents were resettled in Syracuse in 2017. When asked about her favorite part of living in Syracuse was, she said, “I like going to school. In the camp in Kenya, I was not able to go to school. Here I can learn things and make new friends.” (Photo by Maranie R. Staab/GroundTruth)
“On any given day (even during the coldest winter months) dozens of children play on Lilac Street in the Northside neighborhood of Syracuse,” said Sha Lashgari, Hopeprint’s “Her Village” Refugee Program Director. “These children come from all across the world or have lived just one block over their entire lives. One of the many perks of living on this street is the opportunity to witness these children being children.” (Photo by Maranie R. Staab/GroundTruth)
Tumaini and her children are originally from the Democratic Republic of Congo but spent 10 years living in a Kenyan refugee camp before moving to Syracuse in 2014. Tumaini adopted the name “Marierose” after being relocated to the United States with her husband and five children.

 For Marierose, the living area is a shared space, somewhere for her children to play and for her to invite friends to visit and share a cup of tea. (Photo by Maranie R. Staab/GroundTruth)
“In Africa they did not allow girls to have power, only the men. They didn’t let me go to school. Only the boys could study. My mom was thirteen when she was married. She has 14 children. Here you don’t have to get married if you don’t want to. You don’t even have to have children,” said Faye, 14, one of four sisters in her family and part of a growing Somali community in Utica. (Photo by Maranie R. Staab/GroundTruth)
“I am just like the girls here in New York. Sometimes it is difficult for me at school because of my hijab, but I have some friends and I always study hard. Someday I will be a teacher. Or maybe a doctor,” said Tula. April 14, 2019. (Photo by Maranie R. Staab/GroundTruth)
Alisha, 3, uses an iPad to study the English alphabet while eating a traditional Nepalese rice dish. New Americans are increasingly using technology to learn English at an accelerated pace, allowing for quicker integration and a wider array of employment opportunities. October 3, 2018. (Photo by Maranie R. Staab/GroundTruth)
Alisha and her family resettled in Syracuse shortly after her birth. Though she cannot remember Nepal, Alisha is part of a generation who will grow up in American society and still retain traditional customs and practices at home. (Photo by Maranie R. Staab/GroundTruth)
Eid al-Fitr, also known as the “Festival of Breaking the Fast,” is a holiday that marks the end of Ramadan, the Islamic holy month of fasting.
A feast is prepared, children receive gifts and those celebrating wear their best dress for the daylong community celebration. These children are part of Syracuse’s sizable refugee community. June 4, 2019. (Photo by Maranie R. Staab/GroundTruth)
A June 4, 2019 Eid al-Fitr celebration at a mosque. (Photo by Maranie R. Staab/GroundTruth)
Chandra, 27, is a mother of two and left Nepal in 2014. “I wanted a better life for my children,” she said. “When asked if she was happy in Syracuse, Chandra smiled and looked around her modest home. “My children are getting a good education and this space is my palace. We never had electricity or running water before coming to America.” Though she studied at university in Nepal, Chandra has struggled to find well-paying work. October 5, 2018. (Photo by Maranie R. Staab/GroundTruth)
For refugees, education is often the surest road to recovering a sense of purpose and dignity. Upon arrival, learning English is the first challenge for many new Americans. Most cite the English language as critical to their ability to thrive; pragmatism and a deep desire to be understood drives quick study of the often unfamiliar language. (Photo by Maranie R. Staab/GroundTruth)
Jouliana came to Syracuse with her family in 2005. Born in South Sudan, she has little recollection of life in Africa and had just dropped out of Syracuse University when I met her in September 2018. Once an excellent student Jouliana began to experiment with drugs and alcohol, both of which exacerbated existing mental health issues. (Photo by Maranie R. Staab/GroundTruth)
At the end of March 2019 Jouliana was evicted from her apartment and then moved into the Rescue Mission, a local homeless shelter for young women. She refused to return home and as of August 2019 she is staying with friends, continuing to struggle with addiction and unaddressed mental health challenges. (Photo by Maranie R. Staab/GroundTruth)
Hawa, 27, is from Somalia and was initially resettled to Erie, Pennsylvania, but after three months she and her family stopped receiving government assistance to learn English and find employment. Her husband decided to move their family of seven to Utica, where he heard from Somali friends that rent was more affordable and that better paying manufacturing jobs were available. (Photo by Maranie R. Staab/GroundTruth)
“In Somalia men abuse young girls, very young girls. This happened to my sister and now we have lost her. We waited for her but I never saw her again.” said Imran, 14. “I think in America these things won’t happen to us.” Imran, in pink, and her family were resettled in the United States and have joined a growing Somali community in Utica, New York. “I like to study science. I want to be a doctor so I go back and help my people.” (Photo by Maranie R. Staab/GroundTruth)
In a nondescript house in the Northside neighborhood of Syracuse, a group of women from the city’s refugee community gather for an evening of food, lessons covering an aspect of American culture or history and several hours of community with others who have and continue to experience a similar journey.
(Photo by Maranie R. Staab/GroundTruth)
A group of Somali women shop at a Walmart in East Syracuse, New York. “Initially unaccustomed to large stores and numerous options for goods, the women I’ve gotten to know quickly adapt to American excess,” said the photographer.
(Photo by Maranie R. Staab/GroundTruth)
Nemam, 7, helps clean following a community Iftar meal held at the Masjid Mosque on the Northside of Syracuse, New York. The community feast is held following sunset each evening during the month of Ramadan and used to break the daylong fast.
(Photo by Maranie R. Staab/GroundTruth)
A group of Muslim young women gossip as they waited for the last of the day’s light to disappear on May 30, 2019. Once a Catholic Church, the Masjid Mosque on the Northside of Syracuse was converted to a mosque in 2015 and now serves a growing Muslim population.
(Photo By Maranie R. Staab/GroundTruth)

Photographer’s Note

I moved to Syracuse during the summer of 2018 after spending the previous several years photographing in refugee and internally displaced persons (IDP) camps throughout the Middle East and Africa. In doing so, I had the opportunity to get to know some of those I photographed, saw their living conditions and listened to the stories of why they fled and their hopes for the future. Knowing that less than 1% of the world’s refugees are resettled each year, I was excited to learn that Syracuse had one of the highest rates of resettlement in the nation — well over 15,000 individuals had been resettled to the city since the beginning of the century. 

Already invested in issues surrounding human migration, I immediately wanted to learn more about what it was like to move to the United States and have to start over, to recreate home in an unfamiliar place. What did that look like? What was daily life and what challenges were faced? The scope narrowed to a focus on the experiences of women and girls and, rather than a limited story of one person or family, this became an exploration of trust and friendship with numerous individuals and communities.

The work is ongoing; because I’m not a refugee, I often ask myself if it is possible to do these women and their experiences justice. I am not convinced I have nor that I will ever fully be able, but I believe in the importance of showing up with an authentic desire to learn, a willingness to spend time and listen and with an open mind, eyes and an open heart