Coping with the effects of migration and displacement

York Professor Haideh Moghissi (right) is leading a team of researchers who have made some challenging discoveries about the experience of immigrants of Islamic cultures and how they experience changes occasioned by displacement and migration. Co-investigators in the project are Professors Saeed Rahnema and Mark Goodman. All are based in the School of Social Sciences in York’s Atkinson Faculty of Liberal & Professional Studies.

“We are particularly interested in the ways in which social class, gender and religious commitments affect an individual’s experience when he or she is forced to move,” said Moghissi. “How migrants are received by the host country, however, can also play a major role in cultural acclimation as well.”

The project focuses on four distinct groups: Iranians, Afghans, Pakistanis and Palestinians and the research team is drawn from Canada, Britain, Iran, Jordan, the West Bank and Gaza. In each area, research partners work actively with community members, building a basis of trust.

Already, they have found that communities are extremely diverse in their political and religious views. This supports the central hypothesis that it is not possible to identify a single type of “Islamic” migrant, as the differences are too great.

Of special interest in the study, Moghissi notes, is how men and women cope with displacement once the reality of exile and the need to adjust has been identified. Many women find that migration presents a positive experience, where they have an opportunity to establish something of a new identity, revising their relationship with their extended family, for instance.

Despite high levels of education, getting satisfying work is often difficult, particularly for men. An analysis of the 2001 census by the team shows that despite a high level of postsecondary education (almost double the national average), Muslims in Canada have a very high rate of unemployment (14.3 per cent), almost twice as high as the national average (7.4 per cent) and their median income is 37 per cent below the national average.

Similar results were obtained from the over 1,600 questionnaires administered by the team and its community partners in greater Toronto. Depending on the community, as many as half the males interviewed did not feel that their current job made good use of their education. Many also felt that the skill level of their Canadian job was lower than that of their work at home.

This last finding was particularly acute among Iranian males, where over 36 per cent rated the skill level of their job as “lower” or “much lower” than their work at home. As well, 22 per cent of Pakistani males reported that they did blue collar wage work in Canada, despite the fact that over half of them had, in their home country, completed a BA or higher degree. Among Afghan males, 12 per cent in the sample are unemployed and another 32 per cent are engaged in blue collar work.

While changing gender dynamics in the new country can lead eventually to a new understanding among partners, this social and cultural transformation can also lead to heightened struggle between the genders, sometimes with severely damaging effects.

“Culturally, when family understandings collapse, this process can be accompanied by an effort to find religious justification for gender inequality,” said Moghissi. “The difficulties encountered in the new country can drive migrant men to embrace a more conservative practice with respect to religion and a more vigorous attachment to the homeland in an attempt to recapture the dominance they enjoyed in their countries of origin.”

These gendered meanings, however, cannot be inferred from religious behaviour alone. So far, a measure of religious practice used by the team (which is based on attendance at mosque, the taking of Halal diet, fasting, praying and following Islamic dress code) shows fairly equal participation of women and men in each of the communities, but very sharp differences among the communities, reflecting differences in national and ethnic origins and the experience at home.

While males scoring “high” on this index of religious practice nearly always match women or are higher, the striking differences are between males from different groups. Over 76 per cent of Afghan males and 80 per cent of Pakistani males score “high” compared to only nine per cent of Iranian males. As well, 40 per cent of Pakistani males say that their “religious beliefs, faith or religious identity” is “much stronger” now than at home, compared to less than one per cent of Iranian males who report this view, and 15 per cent who find their religious feeling to be “much weaker” now. The sharply different movement in religious attitudes and practice is particularly remarkable for Iranians and Pakistanis, since both arrived in Canada as well-educated groups.

Of those interviewed in Canada, researchers found that the great majority is satisfied with life here and overwhelmingly feel that they made the right decision in coming to the country. This is despite the fact that, following the events of Sept. 11, 2001, as many as one-third felt that attitudes towards them had become much more hostile and very few felt greater sympathy or understanding from outside their communities. Many felt that changes in immigration rules make it harder for people to come to Canada and easier for people to be deported to dangerous places.

Moghissi hopes that the findings of the Diaspora, Islam and Gender research will assist both migrant communities and policy makers at all levels of government. In identifying the problems and opportunities involved in contributing to the larger community while maintaining a distinctive culture, the study may help migrants to better address the aspects of their migration and settlement which affect their readiness and ability to adapt to a new country.