Center for Migration and Refugee Studies

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Center for Migration and Refugee Studies

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Research Article

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Working Paper Series

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The changes in diet and food consumption practices experienced after displacement can have serious implications for the physiological health of forced migrants and refugees, as noted in Part One.1 These changes can also express cultural loss and social dislocation; the exchange, sharing, preparation and consumption of foods carry important social and cultural values and significances that often reflect and reinforce the very modes of social organization and codes of conduct which become undermined and fractured during displacement (Counihan et al. 1997:3, see also Levi-Strauss 1978, Mead 1970, Appadurai 1981). Altering and reconstructing food consumption habits and feeding practices is therefore integral to people’s adjustment to and experience of displacement. Despite this fact, there is scarce research into the food selection decisions and changing food consumption practices of refugees, particularly those living in urban areas in the developing world. The following report is the second to arise from a 12-month exploratory study that aimed to document changes in the types of foods consumed by southern Sudanese refugees over place and time, as they move from South Sudan to Khartoum, and finally to Cairo, and to explore the decision-making process as participants reconstruct their diet in the context of displacement.2 During the course of the research, it became evident that this decision-making process was affected by a number of complex factors. It was therefore decided that the findings on this issue should be presented as a separate, complementary study. Qualitative anthropological fieldwork explored how the change in diet over place and time—and the decision-making processes that lead to these consumption changes—relate to participants’ experience and negotiation of the risks and changes engendered by forced displacement. We did not want simply to catalogue the problems faced by southern Sudanese in Cairo.3 Rather, we aimed to explore how and why participants’ consumption practices evolve in the context of these adverse conditions. This is, to our knowledge, the first study to explore the process of food selection and dietary reconstruction among self-settled refugees living in an urban centre in the developing world. At a practical level, better knowledge of why refugees are choosing to eat what they do will benefit local initiatives attempting to address health—and other— problems encountered by southern Sudanese refugees in Cairo. At a broader academic level, engaging with a group of people who have been uprooted and displaced from the environment in which the organization of daily life—including modes of food selection, preparation and consumption—was inculcated, can bring new perspectives on the ways in which people make decisions and respond to change. Displacement offers a setting in which to observe the reconstruction of a diet and gain insights into the complexity of the food selection process. It has been suggested that the ‘unique contribution’ of considering displaced groups is that they have ‘no ready-made cultural “script” for their experiences, they must remake their stories as they go, telling of illnesses and social breakdowns for which ordinary metaphors are profoundly unsuited […] the future, present, and even the past become the “unknown terrain” that must be relearned.’ (Coker 2004). How this terrain is ‘relearned’ infuses everyday life and activities, including the acquisition and consumption of food. In Part 1 of this Working Paper, we discussed the reasons why we chose to focus specifically on southern Sudanese refugees as a separate group existing within the urban poor of the host country: as foreigners and outsiders they face a distinct set of problems including exclusion from official support mechanisms such as food ration cards, and social and economic marginalization. As refugees our participants also used systems and services (NGOs and the UNHCR) which Egyptians cannot access. Many participants felt unable to integrate into Egyptian society and chose rather to send their children to refugee-serving schools. Many said they were wary of social interaction with Egyptians. It is, however, of paramount importance to understand dietary decisions and food intake within the context in which they occur. In this paper we will therefore discuss more closely the contextual factors affecting dietary decisions by exploring the impacts of the city environment and the shifts in social interactions and structures after displacement on food habits. Unfortunately, we were unable to gather comparable data about the consumption practices of Egyptians living in the same areas as respondents. Our questions were specific to how refugees construct risk, and the effect this has on their diet. There are, however, likely to be points of similarity between the food concerns of Egyptian urban poor, and of Sudanese refugees in Cairo. It would be an excellent undertaking for a researcher to perhaps follow the dietary intake and consumption patterns of a sample of Egyptians and Sudanese living in similar conditions in the same area, and compare findings.

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