Date of Award

Spring 2018

Document Type

Master's Project

Degree Name

Master of Arts (MA)



Committee Director

Jennifer Fish

Committee Member

Erika Frydenlund

Committee Member

Elizabeth Groeneveld


The differences between refugees’ dreams before and after coming to the United States of America is often shocking. One might ask, “Isn’t America the country of the refugees?” The United States is the largest nation built by refugees and immigrants, yet recently resettled refugees or “new Americans” struggle in multiple and overlapping ways to reach successful resettlement. Some of the challenges they face are inherent to resettlement, others come from the socialization process, and the interplay of human beings as they exist together. Language and culture shock are the natural struggles that any internationally-relocated person experiences. The challenges that stem from human beings are more painful and troubling, yet they also hold promise for change. The process of refugee resettlement allows us to examine some of the deepest layers of coexistence, both negative and positive, including racism, xenophobia as well as generosity and peaceful co-existence.

This project explores these larger questions through the lens of refugees in Hampton Roads, Virginia. In this metropolitan area of Hampton Roads, around 200 refugees settle annually based on data adopted from Virginia Department of Social Services, with around 40 Iraqi refugees coming to the Hampton Roads area. Additionally, around 5 Iraqi immigrants resettle in Hampton Roads annually (Virginia Department of Social Services). The refugee label refers to those who have left their country to seek protection from threats they have experienced in their country. On the other hand, those who are labeled as immigrants are those who migrate to obtain a better life for their family. As an Iraqi international student who is an immigrant in this same area, I conducted research on the Iraqi refugees and the Iraqi international student immigrants in the area to explore the differences in these two groups’ experiences, according to their status as refugees and immigrants. From this data, I focus on employment and networking as two key central parts of the resettlement process. I demonstrate why a substantial difference in finding professional jobs can be seen between the Iraqi refugee college-degree-holders and the Iraqi international-student-immigrants, despite both being from the same country with the same race. What makes the difference? How can both groups navigate in relation to each other to resettle more easily? Which experiences directly conflict with the dreams and images they held about their new life in the U.S. before they migrated? How has their sense of community and their existing social networks impacted these groups? Furthermore, I focus on the impact of networking on finding jobs for both groups. In the United States, refugees face challenges adjusting to their new lives, including Islamophobia, racism, culture shock, understanding health and car insurance, and finding jobs. Student immigrants experience adjustment differently through, for example, their limitations in attaining work permissions during their study and their attempt at finding professional jobs. These distinctions between the two groups frame my scholar-activist project, as well as my larger inquiry into the nuances of transnational identity and adaptation following resettlement.

I became interested in refugees’ lives in exile because I am one of them. I deeply understand the challenges they face after experiencing the reality of life in the U.S. Given these barriers, I wanted to focus on support systems for refugees and immigrants. In this study, I have interviewed five Iraqi students and five Iraqi refugees resettled in the urban area of Hampton Roads, Virginia. Most of the refugees I interviewed complained about the humanitarian and immigration organizations that are supposed to help them to get settled because they feel misinformed about the struggles they will face in the U.S. This research is important to those organizations because the feedback allows them to better assist refugees and provide more realistic expectations. This research investigates the aspects that make the difference in successful resettlement between Iraqi refugees and Iraqi students in the Hampton Roads community. The purpose of my research is to explore how achieving an American university degree helps for a better resettlement and the attainment of a professional job, as well as the importance of building a strong network connection between student immigrants and the refugees of the same country (Iraq).


A Project Submitted to the Faculty of Old Dominion University in Partial Fulfillment of the Requirements for the Degree of MASTER OF ARTS.

A PDF of the MA project defense presentation is included as an additional file.

Mustafa-MAprojectdefense-2018.pdf (1124 kB)
MA Project Defense presentation