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Generation, Displacement, and Deservedness among Karen Refugees in California



In this article, we draw on ethnographic interviews with sixteen Karen refugees living in San Diego, California to explore how experiences of exile, displacement, and resettlement differ along generational lines and complicate straightforward dichotomies between “involuntary refugees” and “economic migrants”. While older-generation Karen experienced political violence and displacement first-hand, younger-generation Karen were born in refugee camps in Thailand and usually experienced violence and displacement through its impacts on extended families. Across both generations, Karen exerted agency in exile, displacement, and diaspora. The older generation used stays in refugee camps strategically as a means of economically supporting family members in Burma, while the younger generation view resettlement in the US as a way of achieving educational aspirations. This research points to the importance of generation as a dimension of refugee experience and to the problem of reinforcing victimhood within refugee communities rather than acknowledging refugee agency and resilience.