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Feeling at home: Producing and consuming things in Karenni refugee camps on the Thai-Burma border

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journal contribution
posted on 24.10.2012, 09:10 by Sandra H. Dudley
This article concentrates on production and consumption, particularly of food and textiles, and the contribution of such processes and bodily action to feeling at home, for the highly heterogeneous population of Karenni refugees from Burma living in camps on the Thai border. Looking at eating, weaving and wearing, I examine the implications and associations of the production and consumption processes and their similarities and differences with pre-exile life. I argue that an investigation into sensory aspects of such issues can illuminate how it feels to be a refugee, in a physical sense: to be out of one's familiar place and ecology, seeking actively to bring about a sense of being ‘at home’ in the exiled context of a border camp. Being displaced inevitably alters forced migrants' connections with the physical world of places, objects and other people of which they are a part. To focus on this aspect of forced migration, rather than following the more usual emphases on causes, protection and assistance, or psychosocial impacts, facilitates exploration of the fundamentally cultural processes through which refugees make meaning out of the rupture they have experienced. It is an approach that demonstrates local agency and makes it clear that refugees are not passive victims, but active agents working hard to make the best of their circumstances. For the Karenni as for other displaced and non-displaced peoples alike, an important part of feeling ‘at home’ is the cultivation of a sense of spatiotemporal continuity of place and of emplacement. Yet real, physical continuity of place is impossible for refugees: the camp is not and never will be the place whence they have come. I demonstrate that refugees make considerable efforts to create a sense of purpose and home in displacement, and that embodied knowledge and the opportunity for its repeated enactment, and especially, sensory experience, are central components in this. While the camp is in some ways perpetually becoming more like home, it will never quite be it. Nonetheless, repeated and active engagement in the present with the objects and actions of the past, are in a refugee setting particularly powerful and dynamic in forming and re-forming connections with the pre-exile past.



Population, Space and Place, 2011, 17 (6), pp. 742-755


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