Grad student’s research gives insight into experience of refugee women
Published August 2016
Jonix Owino, who was born and raised in Kenya, arrived in Fargo two years ago. It was the middle of winter, and the bitter cold made her feel far from home. She immediately looked for a community of other African women to bring the warmth of friendship into her new life.
She met a refugee who had been in Fargo-Moorhead for a decade but couldn’t name a single friend outside of her close family circle. It surprised Owino, who expected the woman to have the strong community ties and friendships that are an important part of African culture.
She soon met other female African refugees with similar stories of isolation, misunderstanding and loneliness. The women inspired Owino to research the integration of refugees into the community for her master’s thesis at North Dakota State University.
Her research revealed the challenges many refugees face. Now she is sharing her findings so a conversation can start about how to create positive changes that will strengthen the community.
“As I visualize it, I want those isolated experiences to end for refugee women,” said Owino, who earned a master’s degree in sociology from NDSU in 2015. “That means people opening their doors, welcoming each other into their hearts. It means people who are living in the same community, who want many of the same things, have to come together. We need to bridge that gap.”
Knowledge changes lives
Long before she arrived in Fargo, Owino saw how knowledge can solve problems and make the world better. That’s what motivated her to pursue her master’s degree at NDSU and to create new knowledge through research.
She started forming this world view as an undergraduate student at a university in Nairobi. She was a curious student and wanted to know the reasons behind every answer to every question, but she thought of research as a means to an end, an assignment required to earn a letter grade.
The importance of research started to come into focus as Owino studied the developmental differences between children born inside prison and those born to the general African population. Those differences had the potential to negatively affect individuals and society long term.
After earning her undergraduate degree, Owino helped a non-profit women’s organization document the stories of women who suffered trauma and abuse. Through that experience she became aware that many government projects and programs in Africa started with good intentions but lacked follow through due to a lack of proper research.
“If you want something to change, you have to have the facts to back up your solution,” Owino said.
She enrolled at NDSU to enhance her professional development and learn research at a world-class research university. She selected NDSU’s sociology master’s program because of its reputation for high research activity and hands-on approach to learning.
Making a difference
Owino’s graduate research has given her the ability to make a difference in the lives of refugee women and the community by using her strengths as an applied scientist.
She found refugee women in Fargo-Moorhead looked at the community as a safe-haven, a place that took them in after they faced the horrors of war, death and poverty in their home country.
They weren’t being mistreated. The women were often overlooked and misunderstood. Many times a language barrier made it difficult to communicate.
Many people Owino talked with in the non-refugee population also didn’t know much about African refugee culture and customs.
Her research titled “The Silent Narratives” was featured in the North Dakota Humanities Council magazine’s issue on New Americans. She’s still in touch with the women she interviewed and plans to continue using her research to have a positive effect on the community.
Female African refugees can play a vital role in Fargo-Moorhead, Owino said. They contribute new talent and new perspectives.
“There is a group of people in the United States, and in our own community, that people don’t know or understand,” Owino said of the area’s refugee population. “But we are all human beings and we can do a lot together, learn a lot from each other. This study can be the start of the conversation. This can help build a better community.”