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Zubia Willmann Robleda’s PhD defense on the experiences of women seeking asylum in Norway

Updated: Feb 16, 2022

On the 11th of March 2021 I defended my PhD thesis called Everyday negotiations. Agency and structure in the everyday life of women seeking asylum in Norway. Due to Covid-19, the defense was held digitally, from the comfort of my office, yet with colleagues, friends, and family as digital audience. I was very grateful to have an evaluation committee composed of Professor Marko Valenta, Norwegian University of Science and Technology (NTNU), Professor Anne Sigfrid Grønseth, Inland Norway University of Applied Sciences and Assistant Professor Stian Sørlie Eriksen, VID Specialized University.

The doctoral defense started with my trial lecture called: What is it about ‘everyday life’ that allows us to capture refugees' resilience, aspirations and religious beliefs? The topic was provided by the evaluation committee. In this lecture, I provided an overview of the concept of ‘everyday life’ and explained its usefulness when looking into refugees’ resilience, aspirations and religious beliefs. In short, I argued that overall, the concept of ‘everyday life’ makes it possible to lead us past stereotypical portraits of refugees as passive victims of their circumstances. That is because it helps us acknowledge the existential agency and creativity in the mundane, ordinary practices, emotions, and interactions. This in turn allows us to recognize refugees’ efforts to adjust to daily life in changing circumstances and to reinvent their everyday lives in an attempt to create the life they aspire to even in circumstances with significant limitations.

After a break and the committee approving the trial lecture, I went on to give a short presentation of my thesis, which was then followed by an engaging discussion with the members of the committee. In what follows I provide a short summary of my doctoral project.

My doctoral project focused on how women seeking asylum in Norway handle everyday life at asylum reception centres and after they are resettled in a Norwegian municipality. Seeking asylum is commonly defined by long and undetermined waits and significant uncertainty, which several asylum seekers perceive as disempowering. A growing body of research highlights that asylum seekers encounter their agency significantly limited, which leads to developing dependency on the state, this may often lead to passivity as a result. In public debate and the media, and occasionally in academic literature as well, people seeking asylum and refuge tend to be portrayed as victims of their circumstances. This portrayal has turned into a stereotype of refugees and asylum seekers as almost powerless, without any agency. With the desire to reveal a more nuanced picture of the asylum-seeking process and the refugee experience, this thesis delves into the multiple ways in which women who have sought asylum in Norway negotiate the extensive structural limitations they come across in the process, and how they find avenues to enact their agency. The thesis pays particular attention to everyday, mundane practices, aspirations for the future, and the role of religious beliefs and practices in the women’s early stages of arrival to Norway. The data material is based on individual qualitative interviews, informal conversations and observations with women seeking asylum in Norway collected over the course of one a half years, during which I followed the women from the asylum centre and into their resettlement in a Norwegian municipality.

This article-based thesis is primarily a contribution to the research on agency and structure in contexts with significant limitations, such as refugee and asylum contexts. I argue that, in such contexts, agency is visible in small, everyday negotiations in relation to everyday practices, including everyday forms of religion and everyday identity struggles. Each article in the thesis illustrates a different way in which the women negotiate the structures and find ways to enact their everyday agency in various spheres of their life. In this way, the thesis highlights the importance of paying attention to everyday mundane practices, especially in situations of significant structural limitations. An emphasis is placed on the pertinence of examining the religious sphere of people’s lives, as it may not only contribute to their resilience but also to their agency in more general terms- given its central role in self-identification practices and dealing with stigmatized identities. Aside from making it possible to notice the interplay between agency and structure, it also provides understanding as to how the various contexts in which people find themselves, influence their aspirations, and how these aspirations are pursued. Finally, this thesis shows that asserting aspirations, particularly, albeit not exclusively, in asylum and refugee contexts, may be seen as a practice of self-identification used to deal with stigmatized identities.

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