Landscape: Posts

Refugees and Landscapes

In the wake of Europe's refugee crisis, Susan Dieterlen, author of Immigrant Pastoral, discusses how refugees differ from emigrants and how they shape the built environment. 


When you author a book about immigrant landscapes, people expect you to have something to say about the refugee crisis in Europe. I’d first say what anyone would say: that the human suffering is terrible. The push factors, as immigration scholars call the events and other forces that drive migrants to leave their places of origin, are apparent in the horrendous carnage and upheaval going on in Syria, Iraq, and Afghanistan. A consequence we don’t immediately see is this: a swelling tide - really, a tsunami - of immigrants on Europe’s shore.

Refugees differ from people who emigrate by choice, and these differences can affect how they adapt to the places where they arrive and how those places change in response. People who choose to emigrate, like the Mexican immigrants in the places I wrote about in Immigrant Pastoral, tend to be ambitious, hard workers in the prime of their working lives. At least at first, they are largely men unaccompanied by women or children or older parents, because they’ve come ahead of the rest of the family to earn money to send home (remittances) or to establish a foothold in the new country. These mostly younger men (sometimes women) tend to work constantly, often at multiple jobs, and spend as little as possible on housing and other personal expenses, because they are sending everything home or saving it for the future. As a result, these initial arrivals make little impact on the built environment, and the impact they do have, in transforming inexpensive apartments into bunkhouses where men sleep in shifts, or parking cars in clusters around one of these apartments, or forming lines of day-laborers at Home Depot, is very easy for other residents to overlook. So new immigrants-by-choice can be more or less invisible to the larger community, which seemed during my research to lessen backlash from more established residents.

Refugees, on the other hand, are more visible in a number of ways. Refugees are news, in part because the crises that push them are news. Refugees may arrive in their new destinations (or receiving communities) via official government or charitable programs, which are on the radar in a deliberate way, in contrast to the surreptitious arrival of many new Mexican immigrants, whether legal or undocumented. In the US, refugees often settle in the same neighborhoods as other refugees, perhaps due involvement by local organizations with the federal government’s refugee resettlement program. This can produce incredibly diverse yet economically challenged neighborhoods like Syracuse’s North Side, aka Little Italy, near where I live in upstate New York. The name “Little Italy” hints that this has been a place of first arrival - in my research, I’d call it an Old Immigrant Gateway - for a long time, at least since my great, great, great grandfather arrived there as a German political refugee in 1848.

Refugees make Old Immigrant Gateway neighborhoods extra-diverse, because all the refugees, from all the countries, arrive in the same neighborhood, and at least some of them stay for a long time, often until their grown children acculturate, become middle class and move to the suburbs (or at least that’s the script, although some say that ladder is missing too many rungs to work in the US anymore, but that’s another post). So it can take an entire generation for the refugee groups of earlier conflicts to move on, and when they do, they still leave traces in the built environment, especially ethnic businesses and property ownership. Over time an ethnic group can increase in visibility and in their shaping of the built environment as they become more affluent and more connected socially in their new home. It takes time to build up that kind of influence, and refugees obviously have a much slower start than immigrants by choice, because refugees are intensely traumatized people. Someone who has spent years in a refugee camp after seeing her entire village slaughtered is not poised to get a running start in an utterly foreign environment, where she does not speak the language or know anyone.

Refugees, in general, didn’t want to leave home, or at least didn’t want to leave home before “home” became intolerable. They may want very much to re-create a piece of home or at least some aspects of home in their new location, and that can easily translate into personalization of their environment, especially gardens. Food grown in community gardens, as well as practices related to gardening and preparation of ethnic foods, is a good example of this. Religious practices can show up as these “landscapes of memory,” whether through physical elements like shrines or uses of space like processions or festivals. While first-generation immigrants by choice may feel adamantly that they are now Americans who have worked very hard to leave the old country’s ways behind, refugees may very much value landscapes of memory. There’s a healing role that such landscapes can play, which is without question reason enough to fully support and honor them, even when (especially when?) they are informal and vernacular.

Decisions made now about how to incorporate new refugees into the physical environment of European cities and towns will matter for a very long time. In my work, temporary workers’ camps where new immigrant arrivals were isolated and marginalized are still visible nearly 100 years later, as evolved camp neighborhoods. They are still relatively isolated and characterized by lower standards of housing and infrastructure. In Established Communities, where immigrants from Mexico settled in camps in the first part of the 20th century, residential concentration remains, and so, it seems, does greater social inequality. In marked contrast, the New Communities I studied, where meatpacking plants and light manufacturing have drawn large numbers of Mexican immigrants in recent decades, we see greater spatial integration of different ethnic groups, more economic equality, and perhaps more social equality. Despite some current anti-immigrant backlash, these New Communities appear to have a blueprint for long-term integration and more harmony between ethnic groups, in part because of their ample supply of affordable housing and equitable income for new immigrants (when the meatpacker is the largest employer, many people work there and make comparable, if not equal, wages). The New Communities are, of course, newer than the Established Communities I identified, so time will tell how these differences play out. At this point, nearly a century has passed since sugar beet cultivation first drew Mexican-American workers to the rural Midwest. New Communities’ meatpacking plants and their wave of new immigrant workers have only been in place for around 20 years, so it’s not yet known how these different landscape types will evolve and what their legacy will be for all residents, whether Mexican-American or other American. Time will likewise tell what the legacy will be of decisions made today about the incorporation or exclusion of refugees into European cities and towns, but there will be a legacy, and it will be shaped by those decisions, so they need to be deliberate and intentional, not merely accidental. 

  • Immigrant Pastoral

    Midwestern Landscapes and Mexican-American Neighborhoods, 1st Edition

    By Susan Dieterlen

    Immigrant Pastoral examines the growth of new Mexican heritage communities in the Midwest through the physical form of their cities and neighborhoods. The landscapes of these New Communities contrast with nearby small cities that are home to longstanding Mexican-American communities, where…

    Hardback – 2015-07-20
    Routledge Research in Landscape and Environmental Design