We Thought It Would be Heaven: Refugees in an Unequal America



Upon arrival to the United States, resettled refugees receive limited, yet valuable institutional supports: help from case workers, eligibility for government benefits, and a legal status that enables participation in American institutions. But, refugees quickly find that while the United States offers opportunities, it also is a land of inequality. As they start their new lives, they encounter crucial obstacles. Based on intensive family observations of four Congolese refugee families in Philadelphia as well as in-depth interviews with a total of 44 Congolese refugee families and 35 aid workers and volunteers, this talk highlights how the very institutions designed to help refugees (and other Americans) can derail their progress. Some refugees were able to overcome obstacles with help from cultural brokers and institutional insiders to achieve key markers of upward mobility: buying houses and sending their children to college. Others were stalled. Our findings show how routine hurdles and “knots” families encounter in institutions help to create economic inequality, as well as the policy interventions which could reduce these challenges.


Blair Sackett is a Postdoctoral Fellow at the Watson Institute for International and Public Affairs at Brown University. Her research examines the intersection of social inequality and forced migration, funded by the Fulbright-Hays Program and U.S. Department of Education Foreign Language and Area Studies Fellowships. She is co-author, with Annette Lareau, of We Thought It Would be Heaven: Refugees in an Unequal America with University of California Press.

Annette Lareau is a Professor of Sociology at the University of Pennsylvania. She is the author of the award-winning books Unequal ChildhoodsHome Advantage, and Listening to People. She is the co-author, with Blair Sackett, of We Thought It Would be Heaven: Refugees in an Unequal America from University of California Press. Funded by the National Science Foundation and the Russell Sage Foundation, she is currently doing a study of the blessings and challenges of wealth for families of high net worth.

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