Alumna Gives Voice to Refugee Crisis through Academic and Public Scholarship as an Assistant Professor

Sally Wesley Bonet (Ph.D., 2016), an Assistant Professor at Colgate University, migrated from Sudan to Egypt as a young child. Her experience growing up in Egypt inspired her line of research on the experience of Iraqi and Syrian refugees in the United States.

While at Rutgers GSE, Bonet conducted ethnographic research over the course of three years with Iraqi refugee families to better understand how refugee youth and their families were becoming particular types of citizens through their interactions with state institutions, including public schools. These families were fleeing places of violence and conflict and had lost everything—their extended family, their way of life, their possessions, their livelihoods, their home, and their country. Amidst all of this loss, the immediate family unit was the only source of stability in their lives. This inspired Bonet’s methodology of studying the entire refugee family.

Bonet followed these families across all the institutions with which they were interacting, including schools and welfare offices, in an effort to understand how they were being framed in terms of citizenship. This gave Bonet important insights into the multiple roles that youth play in the lives of the refugee family. As many of the parents did not speak English upon migrating to the United States, their children became caregivers for their families as well as interlocutors to the outside world, as they were the first to learn English.  Their parents were often able to secure low-wage employment with no health benefits. It became clear to Bonet that although these families had escaped war, they were forced to try to survive another war in United States—one that was perhaps more pernicious- namely the war on the welfare state, which includes all of the institutions that the most vulnerable among us count on, such as public assistance agencies, public schools, and free clinics. An agency employee who worked at one of Bonet’s field sites stated, “We [America] are essentially resettling people into poverty.” The matron of one refugee family echoed an equally bleak sentiment: “In Iraq if you die, you die once—here in the United States, you die a little every day.” Bonet argues that most Americans don’t understand the experience of refugee families.

Through her work Bonet hopes to advocate for these families. “In 2016, we allowed 110,000 refugees in the United States. This year that number went down to 50,000, and next year it is going to be 25,000,” said Bonet. “It is really important to fight the good fight of allowing refugees fleeing violence and conflict into the United States. But we can’t stop there. Once they do enter, we need to offer them a good quality of life through a better resettlement process. I am honored that these families trusted me with their stories, and I hope to be worthy of that trust by bringing attention to this crisis.”

Bonet is committed to making her work accessible not just to academia but also to the general public as she hopes that sharing these stories will ignite change. Bonet’s work has been recognized through the Evelyn Headley Award for Outstanding Dissertation at Rutgers GSE, the Concha Delgado Gaitan CAE Presidential Fellowship by the Council on Anthropology and Education American Anthropological Association, and the Ford Foundation Dissertation Fellowship by the Ford Foundation.

“I was the first in my family to get a Ph.D. and I could not have done it without Rutgers GSE,” stated Bonet. “I am grateful to Dr. Thea Abu El-Haj who has been an incredible advisor to me all along the way, and continues to do so, to Dr. Catherine Lugg who always pushed me to think about writing strategically, to Dr. Beth Rubin who helped me articulate my questions about research and methods, to Dr. James Giarelli who shared his wisdom with me, and to Dr. Ariana Mangual Figueroa who gave me so much of her time and enabled me to mirror some of her methods in my work.”