Exhibit Tells Stories of Refugee Resettlement

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A reception for the free exhibit, “Finding Their Place: Resettlement Experiences in Wisconsin and Beyond”, which will run from October 8-19 in the Steinhilber Gallery (third floor of Reeve Union at UW Oshkosh) will be held on Tuesday, October 9, from 5-7pm in the gallery. The reception will feature music from one of the subjects (an area resident of Congolese origin) and discussion of the project. The exhibit stems from a research project led by a team of researchers based at UW Oshkosh.

Globally, 68.5 million people were forcibly displaced from their homes due to conflict as of 2017, setting a new record for the fifth straight year. Only a very small percentage will be resettled as refugees to another nation.

In Wisconsin, Oshkosh has since 2002 welcomed the second-largest number of refugees in the state, behind Milwaukee and just ahead of Madison.

In 2015, the Oshkosh Resettlement Task Force asked the UW Oshkosh (UWO) Department of Sociology to conduct applied research around questions such as, How did residents with refugee background (RRBs) end up in Oshkosh? What are their stories? What factors help predict their success? What can help them thrive?

The study began as a community-based research experience for students in the Applied Sociology course at UWO. Using Applied Research Grant funding from the WiSys Technology Fund, the group was able to continue the original project beyond the spring 2016 course and expand it–asking the basic questions and using the same methods–to the rest of the Fox Valley, Milwaukee, Madison, and Seattle for a comparative study. The exhibit is made possible by this grant and another from the Wisconsin Humanities Council, and project has benefited from additional funding from Oshkosh Area United Way and the Faculty Development program at UWO, as well as collaboration from various organizations and individuals.

The research team is in the process of wrapping up the data collection and conducting the formal data analysis. At this point, they have made contact with more than 155 residents with refugee background (RRBs) that expressed interest in participating, and more than 100 RRBs have been surveyed and/or interviewed. Further, they have interviewed more than 35 service providers. The result is a robust set of data about an important but understudied set of issues.

From the beginning, this project was both about generating better data about the experiences and outcomes of RRBs and gathering their stories. RRBs represent an important component of Wisconsin’s population, particularly in cities such as Milwaukee, Oshkosh, Appleton, Green Bay, and Madison.

Understanding by the general public is lacking, however, in regards to what it means to be a refugee, the cultures of the people that find themselves in this category, what their journeys have been and lives are like now, and their current and potential contributions to local life. This was true even before the political events of the last two years put RRBs into the spotlight.

The purpose of this exhibit is to share some of this preliminary data, tell some of the many interesting stories that has been have gathered, and bring them to life through images. It includes photos taken by RRBs, researchers (as directed by RRBs as part of the photo elicitation process or to show additional context), and professional photographers, including from RRB settlements abroad and new images taken by Colin Crowley for this exhibit.

The organizers hope attendees will come and learn some things about this important issue and these interesting people, and that the exhibit will generate new perspectives and conversations about what it means to be a person in Wisconsin at this time, and how all kinds of people can connect with others to make it better.

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Paul Van Auken

Paul Van Auken has been a member of the sociology and environmental studies faculty at University of Wisconsin Oshkosh since 2007, after completing a Ph.D. in sociology from UW-Madison. A native of Iowa but resident of Wisconsin since 1999, Paul conducts research on issues related to neighborhood, community, land use planning and access to public space, sustainability, and teaching and learning. He also practices public sociology, regularly writing a column called “Shortening the Distance” for Oshkosh Independent. He is currently living in the central city of Milwaukee while on sabbatical and among other things is writing about Oshkosh through the lens of his experiences there.

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