Symbolic Boundary Making Among Syrian Refugees in Belgium: Moral Deservingness, Education and Cultural Merits

Thursday, 19 July 2018: 09:00
Oral Presentation
Robin VANDEVOORDT, University of Antwerp, Belgium
Gert VERSCHRAEGEN, University of Antwerp, Belgium
Shortly after arriving, immigrants begin to redefine their social identities by positioning themselves in a different environment. We analyse how Syrian refugees in Belgium draw and enact symbolic boundaries among themselves, other immigrants and native Belgians. By using ‘comparative strategies of self’ refugees situate themselves as equal on a range of symbolic hierarchies, including those of morality, education and cultural capital.

Drawing on 26 in-depth interviews with 39 Syrian male and female refugees, as well as on-going participant observation, we discuss three boundary-making strategies refugees rely upon to construct their social identities, and to position themselves vis-à-vis other social groups.

First, these Syrian men and women often emphasise their “deservingness”, both by distinguishing themselves as refugees from economic immigrants, and portraying themselves as hard-working, in contrast to immigrants depending on social welfare.

Second, they emphasise being an “educated person”, by which they refer to different moral manners in social interactions and in public spaces (e.g. politeness, hygiene). They often use this strategy to build bridges with native Belgians, thus drawing on popular frustrations with other immigrant groups and/or refugees they claim to share.

Third, they emphasise the civilisational merits of (Middle) Eastern cultures. By drawing attention to, among others, the refinement of their culinary traditions, and cultural norms of hospitality, they distinguish themselves from native Belgians.

In sum, these three boundary-making strategies serve to legitimise their presence and strengthen their own (moral) position vis-à-vis other social groups, including their compatriots, other immigrant groups and native Belgians. Our results highlight the myriad ways in which refugees respond to their subordinate position by using comparative strategies of self and present themselves as equal or even superior on a range of symbolic hierarchies.