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Student Focus - Katherine O’Flaherty – Fall 2010

Refugee status

In the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, another storm erupted, this one over the use of the term “refugee” to refer to those displaced by the devastation.

The outcry from Louisiana residents and others was that the word demeaned the victims, many of whom were African American and economically disadvantaged. The controversy prompted then President George W. Bush to affirm that the evacuees were not refugees but Americans. Rev. Jesse Jackson said it was racist to call American citizens refugees.

The discourse didn’t surprise historian Katherine O’Flaherty, who had been studying past United States immigration policies for her graduate degrees. But it did prompt her to focus her doctoral research on the cultural and political context of U.S. refugee policy, and look at the changing concept of the term “refugee” between World War II and the Refugee Act of 1980.

By legal definition, those displaced by Hurricane Katrina were not refugees, says O’Flaherty. But circumstances rendered them refuge seekers. That complex interaction between the legal and social dimensions of the definition intrigues O’Flaherty. It also informs her interdisciplinary exploration of just how people “fit in” and “the popular perceptions and invisible narratives everyone subscribes to.”

“I see myself helping people figure out their place,” says O’Flaherty, who completed her Ph.D. in history this past May and is now finishing an Ed.D. in higher education leadership at UMaine. “My research on refugees and the words we use also helps people think about the world and their place in it.”

Prior to World War II, the U.S. demonstrated little in the way of “refugee politics” and resettlement efforts, despite the existence of hundreds of thousands of refugees worldwide, says O’Flaherty. Refugees were generally perceived to be a temporary population — receiving aid and returning to a homeland. There was little legal, political or social distinction between the refugee and immigrant.

Refugees as a distinct immigration category remained convoluted during the Cold War. It was not until 1980 that the U.S. fully codified a definition of refugee. The reliance on ad hoc policy had a direct impact on which groups and individuals were admitted into the U.S. That legal posture also informed the nation’s cultural images of refugees, says O’Flaherty.

In her research, O’Flaherty studied four groups of refugees, starting with the European Jews fleeing Nazi advancement in Europe, who faced strict U.S. immigration policies and little public support. Their reception stood in sharp contrast to the U.S. response to Hungarian and Eastern Bloc refugees a decade later, “illustrating new conceptualizations of who a refugee was,” according to O’Flaherty.

“In the case of Hungarians, the refugee was fashioned into a triumphant symbol — that of a freedom fighter,” she says. Indeed, the Hungarian freedom fighter was TIME magazine’s 1956 Man of the Year.

Also in the 1950s came the first waves of Cuban refugees, who largely entered the U.S. freely into the 1980s. Through the years, public support for the Cuban refugees shifted with changes in the U.S. economic and social climate.

But legislation in the late 1970s mirrored the changing popular attitudes about refugees. Amid national calls for refugee aid and human rights advocacy were media reports of a backlash against refugees and “compassion fatigue.” The dichotomy set the stage for passage of the Refugee Act of 1980, which came five years after the Fall of Saigon.

O’Flaherty says this is a particularly important period in the current conceptualization of American political and social refugee consciousness. During this time, public perceptions shifted dramatically as displaced Southeast Asians came to epitomize the painful legacy of war.

“No longer was the refugee portrayed as an anticommunist in need of sanctuary from communist oppression or the victim of Castro’s politics,” according to O’Flaherty. “Instead, the refugee was portrayed as a helpless victim, the legacy of war and communist aggression, arriving in the United States with nothing.”

O’Flaherty argues that “refugee” is not simply a legal term or a synonym for immigrant. Instead, it is a complex cultural construction managed and negotiated differently at different times.

“Thinking of the meaning of words leads to a critical assessment of refugees and issues of race,” she says.

The legal and cultural realities of coming to a new place and “learning to be part of it” imbue O’Flaherty’s personal life and her research.

O’Flaherty was born in Boston but grew up in Ireland. In 1987 when she was 12, she moved with her family to New Jersey.

“I was always interested in history. I think being a kid growing up in Ireland, surrounded by history, like attending the grammar school my father and grandfather went to, you’re constantly conscious of people who came before you. Those who got you to this place. It was in my genes to be interested in history.”

As an undergraduate studying history and fine art at Felician College, O’Flaherty became interested in immigration issues. Her master’s degree in history at Fairleigh Dickinson University in 2003 focused on the Red Scare of 1919 and A. Mitchell Palmer, Woodrow Wilson’s attorney general whose anti-immigrant stance led to deportations.

As a graduate student, O’Flaherty studied the cultural context of issues related to immigration and refugees. Of particular interest was the media portrayal of those issues, including coverage of the case of Elian Gonzalez in 2000.

“Immigration images and how important they are, as well as the idea of America as refuge, led me to my research on refugees,” says O’Flaherty, who came to UMaine for graduate work in 2003. “It gets to how we know what we know, taking what everyone thinks they know and deconstructing it to understand what it really means.”

Similarly, her graduate work in higher education is influenced by how people think about history. O’Flaherty is interested in how higher education institutions support students from “various walks of life.” Whether orienting incoming first-year undergrads or newly accepted history graduate students, the key is in sharing knowledge that prompts questions and dialogue.

In higher education leadership, O’Flaherty’s research focuses on distance education teaching and learning. She draws parallels between distance education environmental history and immigration history in that people are thinking in new ways about their environment.

It comes down, she says, to how people acclimate, whether in a virtual classroom or in a new country they now call home.

Image Description: Hungarian refugees boarding a plane for America at Schwechat Airport, Austria, 1956. During the Hungarian Revolution, the United States instituted a resettlement initiative. During World War II and the Vietnam War, refugees were not met with similar support. Photo by Imagno/Getty Images

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